Dealing with the funding of tertiary education

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

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IT’S a recurring dilemma — this issue of funding tertiary education, and with each year it seems to get worse. The education minister, Mr Ronald Thwaites, spoke feelingly on the subject at last week’s Jamaica Observer Monday Exchange.

The Students’ Loan Bureau (SLB), he said, is yet to identify $1 billion of the $1.8 billion it needs to service the new loan applications received so far. According to Minister Thwaites, of the approximately 15,000 applications received this year, 9,000 are returning students while 6,000 are new applicants.

"It is going to cost $2.8 billion to keep the 9,000 returning students and the Students’ Loan Bureau will need $1.8 billion to satisfy the demand for new loans and they only have $800 million, so we are $1 billion short," Minister Thwaites said.

The shortfall, we are told, comes even as the SLB has reported that it has collected $1.6 billion last year, which is approximately 20 per cent more than the year before.

However, Minister Thwaites made it clear that even if the SLB collected everything that it was owed, which would be about $2.4 billion a year, the bureau could barely meet that new student need, so it requires another source of funds.

His revelation that the SLB has applied to the HEART Trust to invest some of its reserve funds into the SLB as a revolving investment suggests that the bureau is taking a pragmatic approach to the problem.

How that will play out is left to be seen, particularly because of the fact that the suggestion is for those funds to be directed to applicants who want to further qualify themselves in technical and vocational areas. However, what is clear to us — and Minister Thwaites did speak to it — is that the funds needed cannot be added to the budget.

In fact, Mr Thwaites’ exact words in relation to that were: "…in the circumstances of our arrangements with our creditors we can’t go and borrow that money or run a fiscal deficit as in the past."

Where we believe the possibility for a solution to this problem lies is in the discussions that the minister and his team intend to resume with the financial institutions.

Surely, there must be a way to format student loan products that will not expose the financial institutions to risks greater than those that now obtain for other purposes and that will not prove burdensome to borrowers. For instance, a repayment cap of, say, 10 per cent monthly could be placed on the salaries of borrowers.

In addition, the banks could examine the possibility of allowing students to refinance loans at lower interest rates.

The decisions, we accept, will not be made easily. However, we must get to the point in this country where we acknowledge that no youngster should be priced out of tertiary education.




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