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Make education a national priority

...starting with $200 a month per child

Canute
Thompson

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

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I have repeatedly heard Jamaicans from all walks of life say that governments in this country do not want to have a good education system for the political system requires a mass of uneducated people (lumpen who are willing to jump on a bus at a moment's notice) to function effectively. For who else but the uneducated or barely educated, and the unemployed or merely occasionally employed, can come out in their thousands to nominate a candidate. And who else but the destitute can be bought, or sell their vote, for $5,000, $10,000, $15,000?

So, I used to believe the reasoning that that politicians want the poor, uneducated masses. I no longer believe we can lay the blame for our education system purely at the feet of politicians; I think academia, civil society, the church, and the private sector have been complicit. As to the reasons for the complicity of the rest of us in this crime against the country we can explore another time. I am not letting politicians off the hook. I am simply saying all of us are guilty. But we can redeem ourselves and restore hope.

One measure of the deficiencies and failure of our education system is the low percentage of students participating in higher education. According to 2017 data from the World Bank, about 27 per cent of Jamaicans possess tertiary training. This means that with a workforce of some 1.3 million people, over 70 per cent do not possess tertiary training. If Jamaica is to attain its 2030 Vision and to achieve sustainable development, those figures must be inverted.

Moving from 27 per cent to 70 per cent in 10 years is impossible. If I were to advise the Government on how we approach the 2030 targets, I would recommend a fresh and realistic look and a revision of those targets and strategies. A key area of revision would be to focus on economic and social development, versus economic growth, and to reposition the education system and the centrepiece of that strategy.

The problem of a mass of uneducated, under-trained, and unemployed is not just about the quality of our primary and secondary education system, it is also a problem of access and affordability. Many qualified students are unable to access higher education as their parents did not make provisions for them, student loans are costly, jobs which enable them to pay back loans and live a normal life are few, and then there is the lure of quick money.

How can the Government increase access to quality education? Basil Waite of the People's National Party (PNP) shared with me an idea he floated back in 2008. He called it the Child Opportunity Trust Fund. This idea was introduced in the United Kingdom back in 2006, but discontinued. Other countries such as Kenya operate these trusts.

Waite's proposal is that the Government would open an account in each child's name at birth and vest that account with a one-time amount of $5,000. About 50,000 children are born in Jamaica each year and this means that each year the Government would set aside $250 million. I initially paused at the price tag of $250 million when Waite discussed the idea, and he immediately pushed back emphasising its achievability. On re-examining the $250 million I realised that it is less than one-third of one-tenth of one per cent the current budget.

The Government spent $800,000,000 on de-bushing in 2016. This money was spent over a 10-day period, between November 18 and 28, and benefited a handful of people. The annual commitment from Government proposed under this Child Opportunity Trust is less than one-third of this $800 million, and will benefit 50,000 people for a lifetime. I dare anyone to say that the country cannot afford this.

With Government putting in $5,000 for each child, parents would be invited to lodge $2,500 per year to each child's account, or about $200 per month. Each fund would have an 18-year life. So let's say the first fund is opened in 2020, for children born in 2019, that fund would mature in 2038 when those children are 19 years old. Let us see how that works. With $250 million put in by the Government, plus the savings by parents, which would amount to $2.25 billion over 18 years, the total yield, assuming a tax-free interest rate of six per cent per annum, would amount to $70 billion. Divided evenly among the 50,000 would mean that each would receive $1.4 million. To check this, go to your smartphone or laptop and search for a future value calculator.

What could $1.4 million per child do? At present it costs about $700,000 for an undergrad humanities or social science degree at The University of the West Indies, Mona and about the same amount for a two-year master's programme. The $1.4 million could therefore go a long way to pay for tuition at any university.

This funding approach has several key advantages. Firstly, it is no strain on the public purse. Secondly, it encourages parental participation. And, thirdly, it provides a guaranteed sum of money to give each citizen a solid start in life. That $1.4 million is not a loan, but a gift to a Jamaican for life.

To ensure that this fund benefits children and is not fretted away with high management fees, or embezzled, strict operational and accountability measures would have to be put in place.

This policy proposal of a Child Opportunity Trust Fund is one of the many policy recommendations the PNP Policy Commission has proposed.

I suggest that we can redeem ourselves of the crimes against Jamaica which has led to our parlous state with rampant crime and corruption, low productivity, and too many people living in poverty by demanding of the Government that resources of the State be used wisely. We can speak in support of policy measures which will advance the masses of the people. We should demand better schools, we should demand that the Government orders the priorities of the nation in a sensible way which supports sustainable development, and we should demand accountability.

The Jamaica Observer, in its editorial of Sunday, November 3, 2019, has called it right; we need to get serious about tertiary education. The editorial, while also highlighting the strike at the University of Technology, Jamaica, and the meagre sums received by The University of the West Indies from the Government of Jamaica, also point to the deplorable conditions at College of the Arts, Science and Education (CASE), and the massive mismanagement at Caribbean Maritime University. To that lot we could add the struggles faced by teachers' colleges and the fact that the only support they get from the Government is to pay salaries, and recently a $2 million per year, per institution grant to do research. Much more support is needed at the tertiary level if we are going to achieve sustainable economic development.

I am trusting that those of us in academia will start pressing the Government to fund tertiary education beyond salaries with greater strategic thinking and purpose. This means, among other things, more money for research, inter-institutional collaboration, and development.

Canute Thompson is chair of the People's National Party's Policy Commission, as well as head of the Caribbean Centre for Educational Planning and lecturer in the School of Education, and co-founder and chief consultant for the Caribbean Leadership Re-Imagination Initiative, at The University of the West Indies, Mona. He is also author of four books and several articles on leadership. Send comments to the Observer or canutethompson1@gmail.com.


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