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PM suggests shift from directly subsidising tertiary fees

BY BALFORD HENRY
Senior staff reporter
balfordh@jamaicaobserver.com

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Prime Minister Andrew Holness yesterday offered his Government's solution to the controversy over the inability of some tertiary students to pay their fees.

However, he admitted that his plan, which proposes a shift from directly subsidising the fees to supporting students' access to financing, would take time and dialogue with stakeholders, including the Opposition.

“It might not be the best model, but it is the model that I believe could see an expansion in the number of students entering tertiary institutions,” the prime minister told a function at The University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, at which he was officially added to the monument of graduates from the regional institution who have risen to become heads of government.

Holness is the third graduate of The UWI to head a Jamaican Government, following P J Patterson and Bruce Golding. However, the university had failed to include him in the list of regional leaders honoured for that distinction, despite the fact that he first served as prime minister between October 2011 and January 2012, and again since March 2016.

The omission became evident during a visit to Jamaica last July by Trinidad and Tobago's Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley to be honoured for the same reason. The UWI has since apologised to Holness.

“Some thought this day would never come. I was one of them,” he joked at the omission, as he opened his speech.

Holness, the youngest Jamaican prime minister ever, pursued his Bachelor of Science in Management Studies and Master of Science in Development Studies at Mona. He is Jamaica's ninth prime minister. There are now 23 graduates of the institution who have gone on to become leaders of government in their respective countries, according to The UWI.

Noting that he came to the university now knowing where the money would come from to pay for his studies, Holness said that his tenure there was an adventure.

“And what an adventure it has turned out to be,” he added.

He said that he was happy for the presence of the new leader of the Opposition, Dr Peter Phillips, at the function, because his Government plans to have dialogue among the country's leadership on the issue of whether they should subsidise the fees for struggling students or urge them to find ways to pay their bills.

The issue was triggered by a press report last month stating that a number of students would not have been able to take their final exams at Mona this year due to their failure to pay outstanding debts, including exam fees.

The Ministry of Education has since committed to subsidising the fees in return for public service from the affected students.

Holness said that, from an economic perspective, it might not have been the right decision to pay up their balances, as it could set off a trend of expectations. However, he said that his Government felt that, in the long run, it was the right thing to do.

“When you are taking social decisions, the responsibilities are on both sides. So, those who have benefited from the decision must pay back and pay forward,” he said.

“So, yes, we have assisted, but you must pay back, so that others can benefit, and you must pay forward, and help others who are coming. Give back to society,” he urged.

He noted that when he went to The UWI there was a sense of entitlement among his cohort, which may still exist today; that the society owed it to them because they were the brightest.

He said that, unfortunately, that might have been the thinking in the 1960s, when Jamaica did not have to meet huge debt repayments, and outside the university's gates jobs were readily available.

“The cohort in university now does not have that luxury, and cannot hold on to a sense of entitlement,” he said.

“The reality is that we have not grown in any significant way in almost 40 years. My obligation is to break that trend, to return economic growth to Jamaica,” he stated.

“The growth of which we speak is a growth of prosperity. Not for us alone, but for all. It is inclusive,” he told the audience.

He added that The UWI would have to play a critical role in achieving the social and educational transformation needed for the country to reduce crime and inequality.

“I still believe that we can end poverty in Jamaica. We must grow our economy. We must get the engine of economic growth cranked up, revved up, and speeding up,” he said.

Other speakers at the function included Vice-Chancellor Sir Hilary Beckles and pro vice-chancellor and principal of the Mona campus, Professor Archibald McDonald.

Entertainment was provided by a school band from Holness's alma mater, St Catherine High School, and drummers from Penwood High in his St Andrew West Central constituency, as well as the University Singers.

The function was chaired by the Campus Registrar Camille Bell-Hutchinson.