EDITORIAL - Mr Holness is on to something
It is unfortunate that two months ago, Education Minister Andrew Holness spent so much time waffling and parsing what the Government meant by a "nominal freeze of tertiary subsidies" in Jamaica's letter of intent to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
There are three reasons why the minister's, and by extension, the Government's approach, was bad strategy. First, it is best to eschew obfuscation, tell the truth and act with transparency on matters of public policy. This approach may be discomfiting to politicians who hate bad news, but clarity eliminates misunderstanding and confusion. And the absence of confusing dissonance and clutter enhances the capacity for creative thinking and effective solutions.
Further, by the time the Government was agreeing to the conditions for the US$1.3 billion loan from the IMF, it should have known that its revenue targets were shot and were will beyond recovery. That it was unaware, as Mr Holness suggests, is a grave indictment.
But most important, as this newspaper has long held, the Government is on good ground in proposing a rebalancing of its expenditure on education and, at the very least, engaging in a serious and mature debate on the matter.
Indeed, it is still not too late for this to happen, and the economic crisis, as Mr Holness says, provides an "opportunity to rethink tertiary funding and the role of the Students' Loan Bureau". Except, we believe the discourse must go further.
First, this newspaper must express its unease with the nominal four per cent cut in this year's education budget when it is beyond conventional wisdom that Jamaica spends too little on education, the outcome from which is already poor. Moreover, the budget cut was before last year's inflation of more than 12 per cent factored into the equation.
Significantly, the approximately $1 billion or eight per cent in allocation to tertiary education did not find its way to any other sector, neither at the early childhood nor primary or secondary levels. So, this Budget does not represent the sought-after rebalancing.
The Government's fudge, however, does not weaken its fundamental case of the need to free more of the country's resources to fix the crisis at the lower levels of the education system without limiting access to universities and colleges.
We believe that Jamaica should start with a serious programme of means testing and variable costs for students of government-supported tertiary institutions. It is wrong for those who can afford more to enjoy an across-the-board subsidy of, say, 80 per cent of the economic cost of their education.
Additionally, it is entirely possible for the Government to provide enhanced subsidies to those who take degrees in areas which may now be unpopular, but which may be considered crucial to the future of the economy. Serious labour market analyses are, in this regard, important.
The administration may also want to think of a new, well-organised and modern national service programme under which students get study and loan credits for participating in work-study programmes and taking jobs, for prescribed periods, in community service and similar sectors. Such a project could be developed with the private sector and non-governmental organisations.
An overhaul of the student-loans system to enhance its efficiency and its ability to deliver loans at lower costs must be seriously explored.
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