Jamaica Gleaner
Published: Sunday | February 3, 2013
Home : Commentary
Don't let education yield to poverty
Dayton Campbell, Guest Columnist

I believe that my success is an ode to the benefits of access to education. If it had not been for my exposure to tertiary education, all the experiences and knowledge that I am now privy to would not have been possible.

I, therefore, cannot sit idly by and allow us to ignore the issue of tertiary-education funding. It is accepted that education is the ultimate redemptive tool for families that suffer from abject poverty. Education is responsible for the triumphs of many successful businessmen, nation builders, and leaders.

As it stands, 13 per cent of the Budget is spent on education. Seventeen per cent of that figure is spent on tertiary education, and this currently funds 80 per cent of the economic cost for some universities. Eighty per cent of the remainder is spent on primary and secondary education and three per cent is spent on early childhood and special-needs care.

That being said, only 25 per cent of the age cohort has access to tertiary education. The simple fact is that education is the only legitimate source for upward social mobility, and the question is not, therefore, whether or not Government ought to fund education. The question is how will the Government do so?

For persons who are estranged from wealth, the Students' Loan Bureau (SLB) has assisted with granting them loans so that they can access tertiary education. Over the past five years, there has been an increase in the number of matriculates to universities and colleges, a reason for celebration, one might say.

However, the bureau is in no celebratory mood, because this increase from 6,600 students in 2007 to 16,607 in 2011 has led to a shortfall of $2.5 billion. The SLB has been blessed with loans and grants that have cut the shortfall to $500 million, and the fluctuation of the exchange rate has left the shortfall at $350 million, which the Ministry of Education has committed to contribute.

MORE GLOOM AND DOOM

However, more gloom and doom is on the horizon, as the projected demands for the upcoming year is $6.4 billion, and the bureau, based on inflows, will only have $0.8 billion, leaving a shortfall of $5.6 billion. Where does that leave us as a nation? We cannot allow the fiscal reality to deter our young people, rich or poor, from aiming to empower themselves in such a way that they encounter the very best within themselves.

We must celebrate the fact that more young people are matriculating to universities and colleges and not allow this achievement to yield to the fiscal struggle that it ahead of us where this matter is concerned. I used the inclusive pronoun 'we' deliberately, because this is a national struggle which we must overcome; it transcends political allegiances and social classes.

We must do this if we are serious about Jamaica being a nation on a mission. There is no educated country that is poor.

I cannot sit in Parliament and watch that door close for 16,607 students who have worked hard to matriculate to universities. Michelle Obama said it best: "When you have walked through that doorway of opportunity, you do not slam it shut behind you. You reach back and give other folks the same chances that helped you to succeed."

Poverty cannot have the deciding vote on who gets tertiary education. The Government will have to get creative and think of ways to fund tertiary education. With a country all too familiar with financial woes, we must explore feasible ways to keep that door open.

ADVANCEMENT MEASURES

I have identified several measures that I believe could be the difference in the advancement of our nation. These are:

a) Incorporate a practical component to courses.

b) Augment the income of students.

I also recommend that students who receive government assistance be bonded to reduce the instances of brain drain where we export our experts. At the same time, we have to pay special attention to subject areas that will contribute to nation building and give applicants for those areas preferential treatment. The Government should be prepared to stand as guarantor for students who have been beneficiaries of PATH.

As I mentioned before, this is not a problem to be borne by the Government alone. Society has a role to play. Parents must plan their children's education. I would love to see a public-private partnership where, if parents have saved, they are entitled to the saved amount in loan at a reduced interest rate.

Education is the custodian of the hope of thousands of families. We must not allow education to yield to poverty. Young people, irrespective of social background, must be allowed to empower themselves so that they can realise their potential as nation builders. We must stand firm and do what is right for the future of our nation.

Dayton Campbell is a medical doctor and member of parliament for St Ann North West. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and daytoncampbell@yahoo.com.

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