Edmond Campbell, Senior Staff Reporter
Gov't seeks more time from universities to settle fee debts
IN AN intercessory move by the education ministry to prevent the possible deregistration of approximately 5,000 tertiary-level students, an urgent meeting has been convened with four of the country's leading universities.
Education Minister Ronald Thwaites told The Gleaner yesterday that the meeting has been organised today "or as soon as possible" with the University of the West Indies, Mona; the University of Technology; Northern Caribbean University and The Mico University College.
According to Thwaites, the meeting has been arranged to "ask them (the universities) if they can forbear on deregistration so that we can have a little bit more time to deal with it".
At one university, at least 3,000 students were said to be facing deregistration.
He said one of the possible solutions is to give the universities undertakings and redeem those commitments in the next financial year.
At the same time, Thwaites said his ministry and the Ministry of Finance have been working feverishly to find some money to ease the plight of more than 5,000 students who were awarded places at universities. He said this number did not include those who were approved by the Students' Loan Bureau (SLB).
"We have gone to every private-sector organisation and church foundation that we can to ask them for assistance," the education minister noted.
"I think I can tell you that the ministries of Finance and (Education) are working to try and identify some 'spare money', if any such thing exists in other ministries … things that will not be expended but are budgeted for, to be able to assist some of those (students)."
He reasoned: "The one thing that we must not do is that those who have done it right, those who have stayed in school, those who have passed the exams against all odds and now have tertiary ambition, we cannot possibly abandon them."
Students should repay
However, Thwaites warned that students who received assistance should be responsible. He stressed that those who received loans should be bonded, noting that "people can't be allowed to go away and leave their student loans unattended".
The SLB reported this week that it was currently battling a 30 per cent delinquency rate of borrowers.
On the question of the severe financial challenges now faced by the SLB, Thwaites said he had asked managing director of the National Commercial Bank, Patrick Hylton, to chair a committee which would examine private funding for the student-loan system.
"It is ironic that the State should be short of funds but the private market is, of course, flushed," Thwaites said.
"It is doubly ironic that you can borrow money, collateral-free, to buy season tickets to the parties at Negril, during Independence, but you have to provide a guarantor for a student loan. We don't have our priorities straight."
Commenting further on the SLB funding crisis, Thwaites said the lending institution had said it expected to raise funds to satisfy present demand in two tranches spanning the end of the first and second school terms.
The bureau is now struggling to fill a financial gap in order to make payments to tertiary institutions.
The SLB has managed to source $1.7 billion of the $4.2 billion needed to finance tuition costs for students over the 2012-2013 academic year. However, the institution is having talks with financial entities in an effort to close the funding gap.
Meanwhile, financial analyst Errol Gregory said the solution to the student-loan crisis would have to come from the private sector.
He suggested that the commercial banks should intervene by providing concessionary loans.