BY CONRAD HAMILTON Sunday Observer senior reporter firstname.lastname@example.org
REPORTS that the Students' Loan Bureau (SLB) might not be able to provide loan assistance to more than 50 per cent of prospective applicants, dashing the dreams of hundreds of prospective university students, has led to renewed calls for the Government to fix the problem as a matter of urgency.
The issue, which has been a thorny one for successive administrations, took a turn for the worse last week when the leadership of the state-run agency disclosed that it was being hobbled in its mandate by a severe shortage of funds, with hundreds of tertiary students' futures hanging in the balance for the 2013/2014 academic year.
"I can also mention that the minister of education and the minister of finance have engaged the private sector to see to what extent they can play a more active role in financing students' loans for tertiary education. But the truth is that we are talking big bucks, and at $6.9 billion, I am not sure that the private sector, with the best will in the world, will be able to provide that. So we are in a predicament," SLB Chairman Tony Lewars told a meeting of Parliament's Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC) last week.
Although Education Minister Ronald Thwaites has been imploring parents to start saving early for their childrens' college education, some key observers are convinced that the Government must not forego its role in facilitating the tertiary education of the country's youth, and the implications for the country's development.
Trade unionist and head of the Hugh Lawson Shearer Trade Union Education Institute Danny Roberts is gravely concerned about the problems at the SLB and the impact this will have on the country's efforts to increase the number of Jamaicans with tertiary level education.
"The situation facing the SLB represents a crisis for Jamaica's long-term development and requires a radical and holistic look at the funding of tertiary education in Jamaica. Studies have been done by scholars at UWI on the importance of higher education to economic development, and recently the UK felt compelled to evaluate the cost and benefits of higher education and concluded that it is important, even if it means running up a deficit. In fact, the study showed that, in the UK, the rate of return on investment in higher education would be around 11 per cent," said Roberts.
The trade unionist and educator believes the Government should provide more funding for tertiary education through local and international support. He is also proposing a move to an income-contingency repayment plan, which would base monthly loan repayments on the salaries of borrowers.
Roberts is also calling on the Government to find ways to prevent the country's university graduates from migrating after benefiting from state-funded studies.
"The country loses four out of every five university graduates through migration to the UK, US and Canada, and so that depletes our human capital potential. That means we have to fix the problem of wage uncertainty and restore confidence in the Jamaican labour market to offer competitive salaries," he argued.
Meanwhile, Generation 2000 (G2K), the young professional affiliate of the Jamaica Labour Party, has also added its voice to the discussion that followed the SLB's disclosure.
"How we finance tertiary education continues to be an issue that attracts a knee-jerk reaction from our leaders without fundamental changes being implemented to cauterise the problem. The importance of tertiary education in the creation of a truly knowledge-based society should not be underestimated, and measures must be put in place to ensure that our students, especially those from humble backgrounds, are able to truly access a tertiary education," said G2K President Floyd Green.
Among other things, the group is recommending the creation of an education fund, which would be financed by contributions to the education tax, which the G2K says should be removed from the remit of the Consolidated Fund.
The group is also proposing a further lowering of interest rates on loans disbursed by the SLB and an extension of the loan repayment period.
The young Labourites are also convinced that a reduction in expenditure in other areas of Government would make more funds available to the struggling SLB; namely, a 50 per cent reduction in the annual spend on consultants for this year which G2K feels could have provided the SLB with at least an additional $120 million.
G2K also believes that loan conditionalities should be aligned with national strategic goals to encourage students to pursue professions that result in job security, and which also contribute to the country's economic and social viability.
The SLB provides assistance to roughly 30 per cent of students pursuing tertiary level studies in Jamaica. Last year the entity received close to 17,000 applications representing a 23 per cent increase over the 13,500 applications submitted in 2011.