Multimillion-dollar arrangement under scrutinyFriday, July 30, 2021
BY ALPHEA SAUNDERS
The Ministry of Education's multimillion-dollar arrangement with Western Hospitality Institute has come under sharp scrutiny based on budgetary allocations made to the institution since 2016 to administer associate degree programmes under the former centre of occupational studies (COS) initiative.
The COS was set up in 2016 to oversee associate degree programmes to students leaving the secondary school system. Those programmes are administered through 19 private institutions at a cost of $150,000 for tuition per student over two years.
Based on the recommendations of an independent evaluator, the COS unit in the ministry was disbanded, and a partnership forged with the council of community colleges to coordinate the associate degree programmes with the tertiary institutions.
Western Hospitality is among those institutions, and the largest supplier of services of the COS degree programmes, receiving tuition support of over $190 million since 2017. The tertiary institution provides some accredited tourism-related certificate, diploma, associate and Bachelor of Science degree programmes.
“You have an associate degree programme that is new and all of the established institutions that have associate degree capacity offerings existing, all of them fall below Western Hospitality Institute? That is very striking, that all the existing traditional associate degree offering institutions lag way behind,” St Catherine Southern Member of Parliament (MP) Fitz Jackson argued Wednesday at a meeting of the Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC).
The committee was reviewing the auditor general's 2020 report on the operations of the HEART /NSTA Trust.
He pointed to an allocation of $64.8 million in tuition support in 2019 for Western Hospitality, compared to other foundation colleges such as Knox Community College and Bethlehem Moravian, which received a significantly smaller expenditure — $4.3 million and $7 million, respectively. In 2018-19, Western Hospitality was paid $79.4 million (46 per cent) out of the over $172-million tuition allocation for all the institutions.
Permanent secretary in the education ministry, Dr Grace McLean, said the ministry did not dictate the number of students recruited by each institution for the programmes, and that it was based on those numbers that the budget was crafted.
“It could be that Western Hospitality has a lot of capacity for the hospitality programmes and so they may have been able to recruit more persons than the other institutions,” she offered.
At the same time, in what could be a Government procurement policy gap, Western Hospitality, despite being $183,000 indebted for in statutory taxes, at the time of its engagement by the ministry, was engaged to provide services for the programme.
Senior director of the HEART Trust Fund, Kevin Mullings, noted that Western Hospitality had settled the amount which was from as far back as 2011, but still has taxes outstanding. The HEART /NSTA Trust contributes $400 million to fund the associate degree programmes.
According to the education ministry, there is no requirement for an entity to be Taxpayer Compliance Certificate-compliant to carry out education and training programmes on its behalf. However, Dr McLean said she would investigate whether compliance should be made a requirement.
The external evaluation of the associate degree programme indicated that while the COS was effective in achieving its strategic objectives of developing an expanding suite of industry-relevant occupational programmes and services, it was not able to meet its goal of effectively providing certification to many of the students who initially enrolled in the programme.
The programme has seen a 61 per cent retention rate of the 2,896 enrolled over the four years. Dr McLean said this doesn't mean those who dropped out were not certified in any of the areas, as some leave for job opportunities once they have finished particular modules. Only 694 of those who dropped out had those stackable credentials and 336 have received their associate degrees.
Members questioned whether the tertiary institutions were being paid on initial enrolment, despite the high number of dropouts for which they would not have provided training and resources, but Dr McLean said the funds could not be assessed in that manner as they are used for overall operations.
“You will not find that the $150,000 is going to each institution and can be calculated for the entire period of the training programme. That's what the tuition amount is provided for — to take care of their operational expenses,” she said.
Trelawny Northern MP Tova Hamilton questioned the rationale of using tuition funds for operations, pointing out that despite efforts to limit expenditure, by entering into arrangements with these tertiary institutions, the ministry appears to be incurring the same, if not additional costs based on additional spend on capacity building training to run the programmes.
“It begs further clarity, further information,” she stated.
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