Ja­maica buck­ling un­der free­ness frenzy

Jamaica Gleaner - - OPINION & COMMENTARY -

SQUATTING KNOWS no bound­aries. It de­fies court or­ders, is in­dif­fer­ent to land owned by the Church, and is pre­co­cious given its prox­im­ity to Par­lia­ment and the way in which set­tle­ments perch pre­car­i­ously on river­banks and gul­lies. Land is 'free', cap­ture it if you have to.

Un­der our sys­tem of com­pas­sion and pa­tron­age, we'll even oblige with so­cial wa­ter and no prop­erty tax pay­ments for many of the es­ti­mated 700,000 in­di­vid­u­als il­le­gally oc­cu­py­ing land.

Our Gov­ern­ment's for­go­ing of prop­erty taxes and sup­ply­ing free wa­ter has a huge debt that leaves lit­tle fis­cal space to un­der­take sev­eral crit­i­cal pro­grammes. Pri­ori­tis­ing and pay­ing se­ri­ous at­ten­tion to costs are im­per­a­tive.

The min­is­ter of ed­u­ca­tion says aux­il­iary fees do not have to be paid if par­ents can't af­ford it. So, many schools, in­clud­ing Kingston Col­lege, with its diehard old boys, are strug­gling to avoid cut­ting ex­tracur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties deemed im­por­tant to main­tain high stan­dards.

What is ironic is that ev­ery time the min­is­ter re­minds us, "that when I say ed­u­ca­tion is free, I mean it is free, and that aux­il­iary fees are not manda­tory", some civil-ser­vant par­ents re­quest a re­fund of aux­il­iary fees be­cause they are now ex­empt. But good ed­u­ca­tion is ex­pen­sive, it can­not be free.

HUN­DREDS DEREGISTERED

Un­der a re­cent front-page Gleaner head­line, 'UWI gets tough', it was noted that hun­dreds of stu­dents were deregistered over un­paid tu­ition fees. The mas­sive dereg­is­tra­tion came as the uni­ver­sity's ad­min­is­tra­tion, led by re­cently ap­pointed prin­ci­pal Dale Web­ber, in­sisted that stu­dents must pay their tu­ition fees or ar­range a pay­ment scheme.

Some peo­ple were up­set with the uni­ver­sity for be­ing so hard and un­feel­ing in pe­nal­is­ing 'the poor' stu­dents who the so­ci­ety will need when they grad­u­ate. But if stu­dents don't pay or can't pay their fees, will uni­ver­sity lec­tur­ers, and re­search and ad­min­is­tra­tive staff take a pay cut?

As al­ways, the so­ci­ety finds ways to ex­cuse ini­tia­tive and re­spon­si­bil­ity, pre­fer­ring in­stead to in­duce peo­ple to be­come wards of the State be­cause their needs are so dire or their ex­pected achieve­ments so es­sen­tial for na­tional de­vel­op­ment that, ir­re­spec­tive of the cost, the State must sim­ply tax or bor­row more.

The ex­am­ples I cited above are three of many I could ref­er­ence but they are suf­fi­cient to help me re­but Sen­a­tor Damion Craw­ford's re­sponse to my twopart se­ries in The Sun­day Gleaner ti­tled 'The PNP needs a new vi­sion'. In that se­ries, I fo­cused on land re­form and the first-in-fam­ily schol­ar­ship for ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion.

The sen­a­tor found my stance on ed­u­ca­tion trou­bling. That was dis­ap­point­ing to me be­cause of his foray into busi­ness and his pre­sumed novel ap­proach as a for­mer MP ad­vo­cat­ing a par­a­digm shift in his con­stituency as to the im­por­tance of ed­u­ca­tion, in­di­vid­ual drive, and ini­tia­tive, as against mere hand­outs.

I was hop­ing that he would in­flu­ence a new di­rec­tion in the PNP, es­pe­cially now that he is in a po­si­tion to do so, hav­ing been elected to the ex­alted post of be­ing one of the four vice-pres­i­dents.

In­stead, his lan­guage in Sun­day's re­but­tal main­tained the same ide­al­is­tic qual­ity of not pay­ing at­ten­tion to costs and fo­cus­ing solely on the im­por­tance of need, or what he de­fines as so­cial trans­for­ma­tion is­sues, most no­tably ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion. That then jus­ti­fies strate­gic in­ter­ven­tion by the State, or what he beau­ti­fully ex­pressed as "a covenant for so­cial trans­for­ma­tion made be­tween the Op­po­si­tion leader and the peo­ple of Ja­maica at the party's an­nual con­ven­tion".

The el­e­va­tion of needs and so­cial is­sues, with in­suf­fi­cient ref­er­ence to costs, pri­ori­ti­sa­tion, and re­source al­lo­ca­tion, have been the hall­mark of many of our bad poli­cies over the years.

Min­is­ter of Ed­u­ca­tion Ruel Reid re­minds us, "Fif­teen per cent of our pop­u­la­tion has ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion, 18 per cent has tech­ni­cal train­ing, and 67 per cent is some­where be­tween not trained and not cer­ti­fied."

15 PER CENT ARE PRIV­I­LEGED

That 15 per cent of ter­tiary stu­dents are the priv­i­leged few, and if they study hard and take the right cour­ses that busi­ness and the coun­try need, they are in an ideal po­si­tion to pro­pel this coun­try for­ward, ei­ther as highly skilled pro­fes­sion­als or as en­trepreneurs (and here Damion Craw­ford as an aca­demic should be com­mended for be­ing a busi­ness­man). For those hav­ing no in­ter­est in stay­ing in Ja­maica, they'll se­cure em­ploy­ment over­seas or do post­grad­u­ate stud­ies. The sky is the limit for what should be the cream of the crop.

Yet the au­di­tor gen­eral's re­cent re­port, which I quoted in my Sun­day col­umn, showed the Stu­dents' Loan Bureau (SLB) re­cently wrote off $2.5 bil­lion of non-per­form­ing and non-col­lectible loans, and of the to­tal loans that should be re­paid by our bright­est and our best, a whop­ping 58 per cent are non-per­form­ing.

The sta­tis­tics get worse. With debts of $7.95 bil­lion out­stand­ing for more than a year, SLB col­lected less than a bil­lion dol­lars dur­ing the last fi­nan­cial year.

For years, the uni­ver­sity ad­min­is­tra­tors bent over back­wards to try to not dereg­is­ter stu­dents prior to their fi­nal ex­ams, al­ways hop­ing that stu­dents would ful­fil their prom­ises and hon­our their com­mit­ment to pay up af­ter grad­u­a­tion. The uni­ver­sity of­ten­times is left hold­ing the bag.

That's not all. Ev­ery year, some stu­dents re­ceive grants or sub­si­dies from the Gov­ern­ment or the uni­ver­sity. In fac­ul­ties with high fees, in­di­vid­u­als re­ceive mil­lions of dol­lars. These are not loans; they don't have to be re­paid.

Un­for­tu­nately for this coun­try, an ex­tremely large per­cent­age of grad­u­ates mi­grate, and un­less they re­turn home, or send re­mit­tances, or help with Brand Ja­maica, a good por­tion of the coun­try's huge in­vest­ment might be wa­ter un­der the bridge.

How much more, Sen­a­tor Craw­ford, can tax­pay­ers af­ford? How much more can the uni­ver­sity for­give or of­fer in grants and sub­si­dies? How much more can gov­ern­ments tax or bor­row to on-lend to stu­dents? How many more grants and loans must be given to ter­tiary stu­dents?

Sen­a­tor, some­thing is fun­da­men­tally wrong with our ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem, our sense of en­ti­tle­ment, and our politi­cians' will­ing­ness to dis­re­gard costs, es­pe­cially when they em­brace what they re­gard as so­cial trans­for­ma­tion is­sues. These prob­lem ar­eas must be cor­rected be­fore we can of­fer more and more fi­nan­cial sup­port.

Mark Rick­etts is an econ­o­mist, author and lec­turer. Email feed­back to columns@glean­erjm.com and rck­ttsmrk@yahoo.com.

FILE

Damion Craw­ford lifted by sup­port­ers af­ter the PNP’s vice-pres­i­dent elec­tion.

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