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Time to explore alternative funding for tertiary education

By Lerone Laing

Tuesday, August 19, 2014    

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I am overly concerned by the revelation of the Minister of Education with respect to the state of the Students' Loan Bureau (SLB) and its capacity to support the applicants. I must say that those who applied to the SLB are qualified students who have more than likely got acceptance into universities and the only obstacle preventing them from advancing their education status is funding. The minister of finance stated following his budget presentation that: "$2 billion by the Government in addition to expected collections and funds in hand will meet the demand projected at

$4.8 billion."

This demand covers both returning students and the expected number of new applicants. The minister of education is now announcing that: "It is going to cost $2.8 billion to keep the 9,000 returning students, and they (SLB) will need $1.8 billion to satisfy the demand for new loans and they only have $800 million, so we are $1 billion short."

Based on this declaration it is seen where there must have been a shortfall in the collections or the estimates by the finance minister are not very accurate (note: collections amounted to 1.6 billion, 20 per cent better than previous years); either way it puts students in a very precarious position.

It is a failure of our society when bright young minds, with the potential of being world-renowned researchers, lawyers, doctors, engineers, are inhibited by financial costs. Tertiary education has gone back to the days where only the rich and elite can afford this luxury.

This situation does not have to be, the Government needs to be proactive in its approach and I am calling on the Government to do as has been heralded from as far back as a study in 2011 by the Caribbean Development Bank (2011) and corroborated by a second study by PricewaterhouseCoopers (2012), that there is a problem with respect to the sustainability of the current SLB model; yet no meaningful constructive reform of the Government-owned institution is evident. The Government needs to get active in its reform of the SLB and stop just talking about it; we the student leaders are ready to work with them in achieving these reform goals.

The minister stated that there would be some prioritisation of the loans offered by SLB, where those who pursue medicine, engineering, pharmacology, science, and maritime studies would be favoured. I question the minister as to his basis in making such a determination; was there a Labour Market Survey done recently to inform such a notion?

I fully support and agree with Edward Seaga who said we should put education tax into a dedicated fund and use parts of that fund to support the SLB. This concept is similar to the suggestion by Dr Dayton Campbell who suggested a National Education Trust. Currently 3.5 per cent is charged for Education Tax to employers and 2.25 per cent is charged to employees and the self-employed. We need to make better use of these funds all across the education sector and tertiary education financing is a major part of our development. With the minister's (Thwaites) recent pronouncement regarding access to funds from the Heart Trust/NTA fund, it is even more evident that a similar modus operandi needs to be adopted to ensure the viability of tertiary education through the SLB and otherwise.

The private sector, too, should take an active interest in investing in the development of human capital as most economic business models suggest that the success of their entities largely depends on having a qualified and affordable labour force, and where better to get one that here at home?

I am not saying tertiary education should be free. I am saying that at least the opportunity should be there for students to access loans to further their studies. With the current SLB situation, not even the opportunity to access a loan is there, leaving students vulnerable. The Government needs to act now!

Lerone Laing is the president of the Guild of Students, University of the West Indies, Mona.

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