Herbert Thompson, Guest Columnist
The number of Jamaicans who live below the poverty line is unacceptable for a country of this size and with people as proud as we are. From all indications, more than one million of our people struggle daily to provide the basic amenities of food, shelter, clothing and educational opportunities to satisfy immediate family and household needs.
When that number is added to the thousands of those who live on the edge of economic uncertainty, being just able to make ends meet from one week to the next, we come face to face with the hopelessness which is our reality as a struggling Third World nation. Since very few have been born into money, the escapees from this dungeon of poverty are those who have been able to secure a sound education.
There are thousands of our people who are ambitious enough to want to move ahead after high school, but are unable to make that move because they just do not have the money to go forward.
Data obtained directly from the Students' Loan Bureau (SLB) at the end of April 2012 show that approximately $2.4 billion was loaned to tertiary students for the 2011-2012 school year, while another $114 million was disbursed as grants to needy applicants for the same period. SLB loan recipients for 2011-2012 attend 28 of the 32 approved tertiary institutions across Jamaica and CARICOM.
However, thousands of very ambitious but needy students were either turned down because they could not find guarantors to help them secure the loan, or they did not bother to start the process, knowing they did not stand a chance of qualifying.
Addressing the problem of access for those persons is one of the matters which must be tackled in this country as a poverty-alleviation strategy.
The 2011 Economic and Social Survey of Jamaica indicates that there were approximately 69,000 students enrolled in tertiary institutions across Jamaica for the 2010-2011 academic year. This was a gross enrolment rate of 33 per cent of the tertiary age cohort (20-24 years).
Of course, when one examines the mean age of the thousands of persons (especially women) who are pursuing higher education in Jamaica today, it becomes clear that a different definition has to be given to the term 'tertiary-age cohort'. For there are very many mothers, grandmothers, fathers and working persons who are discovering that any change to their economic lot will be brought about only through education. These more mature students are quite serious about the cost of education and they demand real value for their hard-earned money. That many of them have to be paying tuition and associated expenses for younger dependents makes value for money even more critical.
The Economic and Social Survey of Jamaica (2011) indicates that the number of students in the 20-24 age cohort (69,000) represented just one-third of the persons who would have liked to be in the tertiary system. The information above, which indicates that thousands of students in the tertiary system are much older than those in 20-24 age group, would therefore suggest that a good 75 per cent of persons wishing to pursue higher studies are not able to do so for one reason or the other.
I would like to suggest that we examine the local and overseas markets for our tertiary graduates. Why not allow more of the qualified and eligible students to gain access to the system by providing them with the needed funds through loans, grants, and scholarships? Partner with our tertiary institutions to take in and train more of these persons.
Higher education is supposed to make its recipients more innovative, entrepreneurial, trainable and business-savvy. Equipping our universities and colleges to make this kind of education available should be a priority for any government. Such centres of learning should be under the microscope of the state regulatory agency, for example, the newly formed Jamaica Tertiary Education Commission (JTEC), to ensure that they are all up to standard.
The educated poor reflect badly on our higher-education system, whether public or private. There are too many graduates of our colleges andsniversities who are out 'looking for work', when they should be busy creating jobs in their personal businesses.
It is far better to make funding available to these persons to qualify themselves and to start a business than to have them being a burden on the State and a nuisance to others.
Not only state's burden
The Government of the day needs to accept that the State cannot, and never could, provide all the resources necessary to meet the higher-education needs and ambitions of the Jamaican people. The SLB approves loans to students at more than 30 tertiary institutions in Jamaica. Some of these are public, while others are private.
The State needs to meet all of these institutions part way in order to help them in the delivery of high-quality education and training, as demanded by the Jamaican people and the global marketplace. Collaboration with the private institutions is a great opportunity for Government to strengthen the public-private partnership, which has been used as an engine of growth in many developed countries.
Trinidad & Tobago and Barbados pay full tuition for their nationals through to the tertiary level. While Jamaica's financial and economic realities do not allow it to provide for Jamaicans in a similar fashion, the Government needs to embrace the efforts of the tertiary institutions that are involved in the education and enlightenment of our people.
When that happens, the institutions of higher learning in the country will be able to meet the challenges by preparing thousands of persons who are better able to offer high-quality, competitive service in a marketplace that is not hung up on nationalities but rather on people's abilities.
Here is the perfect opportunity for the embrace of the public-private partnership in education at the tertiary level to give wings to our people who yearn to breathe freely. Much more credit needs to be given to the private tertiary institutions in Jamaica which have engineered several degree programmes and other study opportunities to address the working and family realities of thousands over the years, allowing them to qualify themselves against great odds.
The Government of the day needs to meet these institutions partway by providing them with the special considerations which they need to improve infrastructure, once their offerings are accredited and approved by the University Council of Jamaica. This would be one way to level the playing field in the tertiary arena. After all, the quality of a degree is independent of whether it is issued by a public or private institution.
Herbert J. Thompson, PhD, is chancellor of the University College of the Caribbean. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.