The threat of thousands of university students being deregistered as a result of outstanding tuition payments is ominous, to put it mildly. Even more disturbing is the fact that the current risk of wholesale deregistration is as a result of the inability of government's Student Loan Bureau (SLB) to dispense disbursements to the relevant educational institutions.
Last week, reports surfaced that the SLB was having difficulty meeting the sum of $4.2 billion required to make payments to universities and colleges on behalf of students. It was reported that the SLB head divulged that less than half of the amount needed had been identified, and that efforts were being made to seek other sources to bridge the gap.
But what is emerging appears to be much more than a temporary crisis. Fundamentally, the SLB is beset with a serious structural problem of undercapitalisation. One of the country's leading consulting firms described the SLB as an entity "faced with a crisis of its own viability". That statement is backed up by research done by the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB), which reportedly indicated that the SLB's current loan model cannot sustain the growing demand for student loans without significant annual increases in capital.
The matter is extremely serious, and is going to require a variety of willing and able partners to jump on board. Of course, the government must remain the main player and driver, and we see the minister of education scrambling to find immediate solutions. While it is crucial to avert the impending crisis, the longitudinal prospects are even more profound.
The SLB crisis brings to the fore concerns about access and affordability to higher education that seems only to find public space when there are glaring and seemingly irreconcilable problems like those present in the current dialectic.
The broad reality is that after 50 years of Independence, most Jamaicans are unable to enter the doors of the country's colleges and universities for one reason or another. However, the most fundamental is the inter-generational cycle of poverty and exclusion and the unequal system of education that has characterised the Jamaican society since slavery. The likelihood of any substantial percentage of children born in poverty ever attending an institution of higher learning is remote at best. No doubt a few slip through and make it at tremendous odds, but the majority do not. For those who do, the SLB problem is of critical importance.
It would be interesting to get a statistical breakdown from the SLB of the socio-economic status of those students who have, and are receiving tuition loans. I would imagine that it would only be a fraction of SLB's loan portfolio that represents students from the upper socio-economic strata. In fact, the pattern has been that children drawn from the upper echelons of the society tend in the main to pursue higher education outside of Jamaica. To put it bluntly, the SLB crisis is not just financial. It is also socio-economic, and those that stand to be deregistered are precisely those students who require the greatest support.
For far too long Jamaica has operated under a system of educational apartheid - good schools and "not-so-good" schools. Children born in the poorest communities are largely relegated to the poorest basic schools, then onwards to the "not-so-good" primary and secondary schools. The chances of those children getting into a college or university are slim - even slimmer now, with the prospect of uncertain financing through the SLB.
Deregistration is only one side of the coin. The other side is under-registration - the inability of those young people who have beaten the odds and scored at the highest levels of CXC and CAPE, but are unable to go any further. Given the precarious and uncertain future of the SLB, any potential for social realignment in higher education seems more dismal than ever before.
As the economic climate deteriorates, it is clear that new and creative ways must be found to ensure that Jamaican students, particularly the neediest, are able to access and sustain matriculation. Despite the prevailing negative environment, there are options that are worth examining and/or expanding, that is, grants, scholarships, work-study programmes, etc, but it is going to require willing and able partnerships with the country's private sector as well as with overseas stakeholders.
It's important that if positive change is to come, students themselves must be energised and mobilised, and prepared to make whatever sacrifices are necessary to turn the current "low" in education into a "high".