Solutions at our fingertips
Marlon Morgan, Guest Columnist
Fresh on the heels of Education Minister Ronnie Thwaites' revelation that he has started a series of meetings with commercial banks, as his ministry seeks to help students find more ways of financing their tertiary studies, Finance Minister Peter Phillips opened the 2012-13 Budget Debate, highlighting the urgency of sourcing more resources to the education sector without further burdening the Consolidated Fund.
This matter has been placed on the front burner once again in light of recent protest action by indebted students at the University of the West Indies, Mona, against deregistration and being barred from sitting exams.
That there have been several prior protests such as the one staged a few Mondays ago makes it clear that, like many competitors in the 'Contender' boxing series, who sometimes find themselves against the ropes. The time has come for the bobbing and weaving to end.
Following the protest, many persons asserted that the conduct of the students underscores a wider societal problem, that is, an attitude of entitlement. That viewpoint further manifests itself in a blatant disregard for the rights of those persons to whom an injustice is meted out, for example, those students who paid their fees and were actually sitting their exams prior to being disrupted by the protesting students.
The protesting students and their sympathisers posit the view that the fees are too high, the universities inflexible, student loans inaccessible, part-time jobs hard to come by, and the recession has displaced many breadwinners.
While there are merits to both viewpoints, it must be understood at the outset that the conduct of the protesting students, who went as far as to damage university property in their bid to register their dissatisfaction, was downright regrettable, if not inexcusable.
Although there are louder and more ubiquitous calls for high-school graduates and current tertiary students to plan responsibly and secure financing early, I contend that the ensuing discourse should be a bit more sophisticated than that.
For starters, the flat economy and saturation in the job market make it increasingly difficult for tertiary students to find part-time jobs and pay their way through university.
With university graduates now having to settle for modest forms of employment (e.g., at call centres) where poor salaries, high-school graduates are not likely to secure jobs that will help them to save enough money to finance tertiary education.
And then there are those students, who, at the time of application and university enrolment, had their source of funding pretty much worked out - be it contributions from parents, relatives or others, whose circumstances became adversely altered by unforeseen events such as reduced working hours or redundancy exercises.
All things considered, a practical and sustainable solution to the challenge of funding tertiary education may be found in a 'credit-based' financing framework, as opposed to one that relies very heavily on government subsidies, which is the case at present.
Before I go on to unpack the concept of credit-based financing, allow me to throw out but a few strategies and initiatives that may go a far way in relieving the individual and national burden associated with financing tertiary education.
These strategies are to be appreciated against the backdrop of social advancement and the public good that accrue from tertiary education. For in addition to having a highly skilled population, tertiary education positively impacts research and development as we have seen in the case of: Dr Henry Lowe's breakthroughs in herbal medicine, the UWI's work in sickle-cell research, NCU's ICT innovations and UTech's contribution to MSME development under the aegis of Professor Rosalea Hamilton.
First and foremost, a serious look must be taken at this business of bonding students to government through public-sector employment in repaying tuition debt is long overdue. Bonding arrangements should target those vocations and skill sets that are crucial to national development but are in short supply on the job market.
With the short supply of pharmacists, nurses, agronomists, engineers and forensic scientists in the public sector, a bonding mechanism with appropriate checks and balances would be quite useful, serving to reduce the number of work permits issued to foreigners.
Not enough is being done either to promote or facilitate earn-and-study possibilities by the universities themselves. In light of the limited employment opportunities available to students while pursuing studies, a greater emphasis needs to be placed on earn-and-study initiatives, especially in those areas that do not require highly specialised skills. Data entry, customer service and records management readily come to mind.
Earn-and-study programmes are mutually beneficial, as they help students offset their tuition obligations while assisting universities in containing their wage bill. This is primarily because student workers are engaged on a part-time/temporary basis and are not privy to the more costly entitlements that attend permanent employment such as vacation leave with pay, health insurance, pension and severance entitlements.
In addition, we should pay more attention to incentivising those vocations that are aligned with our development interests but are in short supply.
When one considers Jamaica's geo-strategic location and overall advantages as a major trans-shipment hub, the endless possibilities in the maritime industry stare us in the face.
It leaves one to wonder why programmes at the Caribbean Maritime Institute (CMI) are not more heavily subsidised by Government, as a means of stimulating enrolment and encouraging more persons to pursue careers in those vocations and take advantage of the many attendant opportunities.
It is neither tenable nor prudent to have virtually all programmes at the tertiary level subsidised to a similar extent. It's also neither tenable nor prudent for students, ostensibly seeking to make an investment in their future, to pursue areas of study with very little attendant employment opportunities.
Inasmuch as Government has an obligation to plan for national development and make smart decisions on our behalf, it behoves tertiary students to make an investment in lucrative careers.
Beyond the strategies enumerated above, however, a credit-based model of financing tertiary education holds vistas for national development, workforce competitiveness and social advancement.
The credit-based framework is one where qualifying students (that is, students passing five or more CSEC subjects) are guaranteed access to the means of financing their tertiary education (a student loan). Access to tertiary education, in this instance, would turn on academic qualification rather than financial endowment. It would herald a heavier reliance on credit, notwithstanding the fact that some amount of government subsidy would still be provided.
In the main, the credit-based model envisaged by the previous administration is predicated on:
i) A reform of the Students' Loan Bureau (SLB) in a bid to increase its loan pool and expand its resource base.
ii) Lower interest rate on loans.
iii) The treatment of student loans as a mortgage, where there is a longer payback period (e.g. a 15- to 20-year amortisation period).
iv) An income-contingent debt-servicing arrangement which triggers a repayment obligation when the beneficiary has got a job.
v) Making debt servicing more manageable, since the repayment would take place over a longer period of time at lower interest rates; and
vi) A link between the SLB to the proposed credit bureaux which would enable local authorities to track credit beneficiaries, even in the event of migration.
Whereas the early childhood, primary and secondary sectors require a greater share of the education budget, the tertiary sector has little room to manoeuvre. It has no choice but to explore and devise appropriate means of funding, in continued response to the challenges we face.
And with tertiary students being closer to market, that is, closer to earning an income than their counterparts in the other subsectors, a greater balance in the allocation of the shrinking education budget is required. In short, tertiary students have to take greater responsibility in financing the investment they are making in themselves and will have to share a greater burden in funding tertiary education over the next 50 years to come.