Last week's highlighting, at Parliament's Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC), of the funding crisis facing the Students' Loan Bureau (SLB) was merely another angle of the ongoing debate on the state of education in Jamaica and how it ought to be financed, especially at the tertiary level.
But the issue in the House not only placed some pertinent issues in sharp relief, but underlined the need for the authorities to facilitate broader and deeper discourse. For instance, all relevant external studies, as well as internal analyses, must become easily accessible to the public by their tabling in Parliament and uploading on relevant websites.
This newspaper has long supported the rebalancing of the Government's financing of education in favour of the early-childhood sector by shifting resources from the tertiary level. We feel that students at state-supported tertiary institutions - the economic cost of whose courses are subsidised by as much as 85 per cent - ought to contribute more to their education.
We are nonetheless aware that transition must be accompanied by relatively easily accessible and affordable private financing for education, as well as the more creative allocation and use of what is available from the public purse. Which was a significant but insufficiently noted point in last week's discussion at the PAAC.
For instance, the growing desire by Jamaicans for tertiary education, allied with the inability of the Government to fund tertiary institutions at past levels, is placing greater demand on loans from the SLB. This year, applications for loans and grants are up by nearly a quarter, to more than 16,600.
But with J$4.2 billion of loans and grants committed, the SLB has disbursed only J$1.7 billion, 41 per cent. According to head of the SLB, Monica Brown, negotiations are taking place with lending institutions for the funds to close the gap.
But with a delinquency rate of 30 per cent and loan demand rising faster than repayment - one study apparently suggests that loan requests will reach nearly J$35 billion by 2017 and J$88 billion by 2020 - the consultants say that capital injections are necessary - as much as J$64 billion over the next eight years.
SERIOUSLY PURSUING ALTERNATIVES
In Jamaica's straitened economic circumstances, and given the competing demands on the public purse, it is unlikely that the Government will be able to find the cash, hence our call for a wider debate of the issue and the search for creative solutions.
Already, there have been proposals for education bonds to fund varying facets of the system. There are other ideas, too, worth considering.
We, for example, believe that perhaps at the point of graduation of a cohort that borrowed for its education, the SLB might auction the loan portfolio to private financial institutions, which would have the responsibility for collecting the loans. The Government could sweeten the pot with a minimal guarantee.
One upshot of this would be a faster turnover of loanable funds to the SLB and the elimination of downstream loan management and reduced costs.
At the same time, the Government must move quickly with legislation to allow the tracking and garnering of student-loan repayments from the salaries of employed borrowers.
This issue, too, is about repairing the economy. Nearly half of the borrowers remain unemployed for up to a year after graduation.
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