Tertiary-level students are understandably alarmed by the news that the cash-strapped Students' Loan Bureau (SLB) cannot fund the $4.2 billion required to meet tuition demands for the current academic year.
It is a matter which should be of concern not just to students, but the entire nation should consider the implications for Jamaica's future if more than 5,000 students who qualify for higher-level training are left floundering at the gates of their preferred institution.
Education Minister Ronald Thwaites agrees. "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," The Gleaner quoted him as saying in yesterday's edition.
Winston Churchill is reported to have said "... The empires of the future are the empires of the mind." Let us begin this discussion by agreeing that education is an investment, and if we fail to make this investment, the entire society will pay later - and dearly too.
A significant portion of students seeking financial assistance are presumably from the bottom tier of society, many of whom will be among the first in their family or community to attend a university.
An investment in an inner-city youth is likely to pay greater dividends in the inspiration and motivation for families and communities than if that money were spent on a middle-class student who, in all likelihood, has well-off parents whose priority include pouring resources into their children's education. In the interest of fully developing the country's human capital, families in poverty and those at the bottom of the economic ladder must get a chance to fulfil their potential.
DELINQUENCY CRIPPLING SLB
We cannot, however, forget that accompanying any loan is a range of obligations - some of which are legal, but there are also ethical commitments which a beneficiary is expected to honour. The SLB operates a revolving loan system, which means that those who borrow must repay for others to benefit.
But right now, the SLB is wrestling with a 30 per cent delinquency rate. This is shameful and should be roundly condemned. The only delinquency that should be tolerated is where the student cannot find work. Regrettably, there are a number of graduates who remain unemployed.
So what should be done to get more beneficiaries to honour their commitment? We submit a simple amendment of the SLB law to make it mandatory that employers get confirmation from the SLB whether or not the potential employee has a debt. The employer is then obliged to deduct an agreed sum from salary and remit same directly to the SLB.
However, reducing delinquency is only part of the solution. The SLB has only managed to source $1.7 billion of the $4.2 billion needed by students this academic year. That's a worryingly wide gap, and it has to be filled if we are to rekindle the hopes of the thousands of young Jamaicans who are seeking to gain tertiary education.
There is a strong and urgent need for the private sector to take these considerations into account and find creative ways to help the SLB close this gaping hole. To remain unresponsive would allow the weight of poverty to take its inexorable toll on ambitious Jamaicans.
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