The legacy of the Right Excellent Errol Barrow, the issues of quality and value proposition, now meet head-on at the crossroads, where students of the University of the West Indies (UWI), Cave Hill Campus, have now been asked to meet the tuition costs of their respective degree programmes, while the public purse continues to pay the economic costs.
The context of the policy: the current fiscal position of Government, growing debt and the effects of an ongoing recession have dictated that Government expenditures need to be significantly reduced to more sustainable levels, and one such expenditure has been the level of expense incurred to continue a 100 per cent free tertiary education regime at the UWI.
Education has been free to the end user but never free to us as taxpayers or the Government, and it has come at a significant cost. There is no reason to deem it a permanent measure either as my research saw developed countries like Germany moving away from free education to paid education, and back fully to free education.
Our country is evolving and developing, and these are the birth pains of development.
Implementation of the policy: many questions remain surrounding the implementation of the policy, and at the core of the problem stands a total lack of timely communication with affected persons on the details of how the policy is intended to work. It has been absolutely unacceptable that in an environment where students have not had the experience of paying fees that up to eight months after the articulation of the policy in the Budget Speech neither the UWI or the Ministry of Education was able to communicate the intricate details of the fee structure, or any of the proposed relief mechanisms that would allow better planning by the affected persons.
The public outcry has been more about process than objective, and I fully respect this, as much as I respect the position Government seeks to address in its finances. However, at this time we need to assess the available solutions.
I believe, however, that the following are possible options:
1. The new fees should not be payable by existing students of UWI; they should continue to pay the existing fees required by UWI until graduation;
2. The use of a phased approach to the introduction of fees; for example, the fee of $5,625 for tuition in the social sciences faculty could have been phased as follows: 2014 to 2015 –– $1,875; 2015 to 2016 –– $3,750; and 2016 to 2017 –– $5,625. On the basis that no fees were ever contributed by students, it would have allowed better planning time, especially for families with multiple students on campus or in some dire financial circumstance;
3. Tax relief –– with the understanding that the finances of the state would determine its feasibility, I would propose that Government create a tax credit that becomes available to UWI graduates as a mechanism to gain partial relief from the fees they were asked to pay or from the interest costs they incurred on student loans;
4. Work and study options –– with the advent of fees, we need to encourage our employers across public and private sector to create innovative programmes that would enable a more extensive work and study programme consisting of full-time and part-time options. In addition to assisting students with income for their studies, it also facilitates transfer of knowledge in the areas that the UWI has been unable to address effectively, such as practical application of knowledge gained prior to graduation; communication and writing skills; analytical and creative skills.
Available options for students: in articulating the policy, and in the midst of the ensuing discussion and commentary, the Government has indicated a few options that it will avail students of, as they seek to complete their UWI degrees, and the private sector is also creating several funding alternatives for students.
1. Student Revolving Loan Fund –– the fund is being topped up for increased access by students of the UWI;
2. Credit unions –– our two major credit unions are introducing educational loan facilities for its members;
3. Commercial banks –– at least one of the commercial banks has officially indicated its educational loan plans as well, and these have not been restricted to UWI studies;
4. Savings –– individuals and families may opt to access any savings held. However, this may result in a sacrifice of some future plan or objective. The financial institutions should also now place more emphasis on savings instruments geared towards education than they have in the past;
5. Family –– financial support of family and friends will likely be an avenue chosen by many students;
6. UWI Scholarships –– applications for these scholarships would likely increase and become more competitive; and I encourage even more private sector and other organizations to become a part of this scheme.
Additionally, there are several other private initiatives being pursued to provide relief to students as they seek to commence their UWI studies, and I am sure these will come to market over the next few months, even if not available for the coming semester.
The future of education: after August and the introduction of tuition fees, I anticipate positive change in our overall approach to our educational system as a whole and not just the funding aspect. The funding is a new twist for the country, but as Minister of Education Jones alluded to last week, there are several cracks in the system that threaten its effectiveness, and a comprehensive review across all levels is required. So what does the future hold?
1. More private sector involvement: in respect of funding, knowledge transfer, providing job opportunities and mentorship during degree programmes and articulating their needs and future direction through dialogue with Government and stakeholders to ensure that the educational system meets our socioeconomic development needs. Provision of funding for the research and review of our existing system would also be a welcome initiative.
2. Expansion of fees: it is likely that fees will be extended across tertiary institutions like the Polytechnic and Community College and all prospective students should be well prepared and plan for any such eventuality. I am not seeking to guide any future policy,
but these are the times we are asked to live in.
3. Improvement of quality standards: students now being asked to pay will create within the need to demand even more value for money. The UWI will be held to even higher standards in administration and course delivery and options, as there will now be a more direct link between the costs of running the UWI and individual or family pockets.
The future of our students, young people and indeed our country is heavily dependent on education. I encourage existing and prospective students not to give up on their educational plans if the introduction of tuition fees puts access beyond their reach, but rather to set about creating their plan of action to achieve their intended goals.
Let us as a country find solutions to this new challenge. Our Government has taken the steps it saw necessary to address our economic woes, and I have no issues with persons being asked to contribute to their education, but lack of communication has created the proverbial monster.