THE Opposition has urged Government to remove the guarantor requirements to access funding from the Students’ Loan Bureau (SLB) for all students, instead of limiting it to those on the Programme of Advancement Through Health and Education (PATH).
Julian Robinson, the Opposition spokesman on finance, made the call in his 2023/24 Budget Debate presentation in the House of Representatives on Thursday, arguing that the benefit announced by Finance Minister Dr Nigel Clarke at the start of the debate on Tuesday does not go far enough to assist those most in need.
Robinson pointed out that one of the main reasons that Jamaica has a low tertiary participation rate of 27 per cent, compared to its Caribbean Community neighbours Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago, at 65 per cent, is that many citizens are unable to access tertiary education because of the high cost.
“One of the biggest impediments is the need for a guarantor for the Students’ Loan Bureau. You have lifted the guarantor requirement for students on PATH; you need to lift it for all students. The students who can’t get a guarantor are generally the students from the most difficult backgrounds; they can’t find somebody in their family, they can’t find a friend [to sign as guarantor]. We need the persons who come from lower income households to get access so they can lift themselves. You started with PATH, let us expand. Let’s look at a pilot to see how it works [and] what are the issues you may need to address,” he said.
Introduced islandwide in 2002, PATH is a conditional cash transfer initiative funded by the Government and the World Bank to deliver cash grants to the most needy and vulnerable in the society.
Robinson pointed out that, globally, countries with the highest levels of gross domestic product (GDP), per capita income, and innovation have tertiary participation between the high 70s to 90 per cent.
On Tuesday, Dr Clarke had also announced that the SLB is projected to make available an additional 4,200 grants of $60,000 for students from PATH households or households with incomes of less than $1.5 million, in 2023/24. He also noted that 98 wards of the State have accessed funding from the SLB under the no-guarantor policy for that cohort of applicants.
On Thursday, Robinson also disagreed with the Government’s approach to education transformation, with the proposal to build six dedicated science technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM) education-focused schools — the centrepiece of the Administration’s more than $4-billion push over the next three years to advance the modernisation of the sector.
Robinson said the curriculum should be embedded in primary schools, and across the entire secondary school system, not just a half-dozen dedicated institutions.
“We believe that all secondary schools should be equipped to provide a robust STEAM programme, with different schools offering different skills, depending on teacher resources… so we shouldn’t just build six schools, let us bring it into the schools, with the trained teachers, so that all students can benefit, because it is only the students who have the opportunity to go to those six schools who will get the STEAM education. It fosters inequity in the system,” said Robinson.
He said if the negative findings of the Orlando Patterson-chaired Education Transformation Commission report are to be reversed, then STEAM must be administered at the primary level.
Speaking directly to the trillion-dollar budget presented by the finance minister, Robinson said, while it presented a number of positives, it does not tackle the major suffering and hardships facing Jamaicans, and the constant feature of low wages, low technology, and low productivity. He said the current economic model can reduce unemployment but it will very rarely raise the standard of living for the majority of Jamaicans.
“The only way to raise the standard of living, reduce poverty and reduce crime is to transform the economy structurally to a higher value-added, higher-income, higher-tech economy,” he said.
“This transformation requires investing in a number of critical sectors — agriculture, education, renewable energy, to logistics, the cultural and creative industries — and also to look at new and innovative ways to finance things like our environment,” Robinson argued.
He stressed that, despite the weaknesses in education, investment, productivity and other areas, this reality can be transformed with new approaches and comprehensive policies.
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