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Panic at UWI!

Students unable to finance education at start of school year

BY ANIKA RICHARDS Sunday Observer staff reporter richardsai@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, August 24, 2014    

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WITH the start of the 2014-2015 academic year a few days away, some tertiary level students are in panic mode.

Several of them are clueless as to how they are going to fund their studies. In fact, according to University of the West Indies, Mona Guild President Lerone Laing, some are "literally dropping out".

Minister of Education Ronald Thwaites recently disclosed that the Students' Loan Bureau, the scheme on which thousands of students depend to finance their education, is yet to identify $1 billion of the amount needed to service loan applications. This year, the SLB received approximately 15,000 applications -- 6,000 of which are new students, while the others are returning students.

"The atmosphere is one of concern among the student population, especially those who really can't afford it, which surprisingly, is more than we think," Laing told the Jamaica Observer in a recent interview. "So SLB was their only opportunity of going to school, so they are literally dropping out, they are panicking.

"I am getting emails, I am getting calls to say what can the guild do for us and I am really looking to the government department to say what can we do for this person," Laing said.

He explained that while there are students who can afford to pay their way, there are also those who cannot pay their tuition out of their pockets or out of their parents' pockets.

Laing told the Sunday Observer that he sought dialogue with the Jamaica Tertiary Education Commission, headed by former education minister Maxine Henry-Wilson, who suggested that students participate in the Jamaica Values and Attitudes programme to help offset their tuition costs. However, according to Laing, these students need more than the JAMVAT programme.

"Those are not really enough when you think about the number of students that are going to be affected by this $1-billion shortfall," Laing stressed. "Dozens of students have contacted me already that they have been denied loans... so it's really bad, it's really, really bad."

In the meantime, Laing said that UWI is encouraging students to have dialogue with the organisation to set up payment plans, which must be done by September 30.

Admitting that financing tertiary education has for some time been a challenge, Laing said that more long-term changes must be made so as to avoid a "catastrophe" in the next five years. The guild president is also calling on the Government to "stop talking and start doing.

"One of the first challenges we were having (was) how can we address that ever-increasing tuition issue, because of the budgetary constraint of the university, as well as the government subsidy being cut," stated Laing. "The projection is that if it continues to increase and if its increasing at the percentage projected, we are looking five years down the line, it's going to be a case where the average person cannot afford to go to university and I doubt that is a direction (in which) we want to go," he went on.

Laing also highlighted that there are issues with the current structure of the SLB and that studies in 2010 and 2011 had reported that, "without regular capital injection, the SLB would have challenges meeting the application numbers and affording the funding for those who apply".

"They are saying there are some restructuring the government will have to employ in order to ensure that the opportunity is there for students to access tertiary education," the St Mary High School Old Boy continued.

He said, since then, the Government has been talking a lot about financing and even announced a few measures that made it easier for students to access loans, but that the structural issues with the SLB highlighted by the studies are now being faced.

"I hear nothing coming from the Government as to what are the options for these students who are being denied loans, what are they expected to do?" Laing insisted. "They are leaving high school, some of them have subjects, CAPE subjects, they are bright students, they are qualified for university, have been accepted to university, the only thing separating them from reaching their goal is financing.

"And the government is saying to them the SLB can't give that financing, but I don't hear anything coming from them about alternatives for these students," Laing said.

"Do they seek jobs in this climate, what is it that they are expected to do?" Laing questioned.

Laing declared that the talking must stop. He also told the Sunday Observer that the UWI Mona Guild wants to lead the charge in coming up with a proposal to effect long-term changes to the system of financing tertiary education.

"There are a lot of propositions, but no action," said Laing. "So I am hoping that the Guild Council of the University of the West Indies can lead that coalition that can force the government, or encourage the government, to really begin some action with respect to the structural issues of the SLB, and the projected path of the cost of tuition, especially for university."

The president told this tabloid that he is working towards having this proposal compiled and ready for submission to Government by the end of October. He also said that other tertiary institutions and their representatives as well as the private sector will be included in the process.

"We are operating under the theme: Your guild working for you, advancing student welfare through advocacy and accountability," Laing told the Sunday Observer. "Advocacy speaks to tertiary education financing... If we don't do it, who will?" Laing said.

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