Mon | Nov 19, 2018

Mark Ricketts | Jamaica buckling under freeness frenzy

Published:Sunday | November 11, 2018 | 12:00 AM

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 two-part 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.