Friday, August 27, 2010

A practical approach to financing education

Once again we are at the start of a school year, and politics raises its ugly head in one of the most important components of our development — education. Ever since I can remember, every year the parties spar about the need for government to ensure that no student is denied access to their exam results or entry to school if they do not pay the auxiliary fees. And this sparring match has been going on for years, and the position taken depends on who forms the government. Predictably, the government side will bemoan its lack of funding, while at the same time saying that no school should deny entry to anyone who does not pay. On the other hand the opposition always says that the government must ensure that no child is denied entry because of lack of ability to pay.

What neither opposition nor government has failed to say is, if the government cannot finance the school programme and the parents don't have to pay the much needed auxiliary fees, then where is the money to come from. In other words everyone expects the school to deliver the highest possible quality of education without the necessary funding to provide the desired quality. So I am always amazed when the opposition, government, and education ministry officials stress the importance of not denying students to enter school without paying and then bemoan the inability of the government to finance the service they say must be provided.

Traditional versus new high schools
And then we wonder why there is a vast difference between the results of traditional and newly anointed high schools. We wonder why the quality of the output of schools is lacking. And we fail to recognise the link between our uttering about, and inaction towards proper education financing, and the declining productivity levels we have been seeing in Jamaica between the 1970s and 2007, as reported by the Jamaica Productivity Centre. The fact is that the world entered an information revolution in the 1970s when ideas became more valuable than machinery and capital, which resulted in Jamaica being left way behind because of our inability to develop our human capital and more specifically our education system.

The recent announcement by the Education Minister about the approach to financing the exam subsidy is a move in the right direction. The fact is that the financing of education must not be treated as a welfare programme (as it has been since the 1970s) but must be provided because there is some value added to be gained, just like any other investment. It is therefore wise to ensure that only students who maintain a certain grade point level are rewarded with the exam subsidy. This sort of approach is essential in the financing of education if we are to achieve the desired results with the very limited resources we have, and have always had.

In deciding how we finance education it is important to take a problem solving approach to the issue. First we should determine what it is that we want our education system to achieve. If the objective is to provide a welfare system that can provide a good election platform speech then congratulations we have already achieved the objective and we do not have to do anything further, because we have succeeded in ensuring education's place on that grand stage of political football. If on the other hand we want an education system that can provide a highly productive workforce that will contribute to the economic development of the country, then it is essential to ensure that we take a practical approach to education financing.

Two primary means of financing
For most schools there are two primary means of financing. These are (1) government financing; or (2) fees charged by the school. This assumes of course that we are thinking about the provision of an acceptable quality of education, which includes basic things like water, electricity, security, books, a school management programme, etc. Now if we look at it logically (that is not through a politician's eyes) it is clear that if the government cannot provide adequate funding to achieve that quality education, then it must come from the fees and vice versa. On the other hand, we can do what we have been practicing in this country and ensure that the school has access to neither avenues of funding and create another political argument that the government is not doing anything to improve the quality of education.

There is of course one other source of financing, which is available mostly to the traditional schools, and that is the contribution from past students. I am fortunate to be on the board of my old school - Jamaica College - where the funding requirements has substantially been met by the contribution of old boys. We have a vibrant old boys association and an established trust fund, where we raise much of the funds needed to improve the school's physical and education facilities. This along with the commitment of the old boys, serving as board members and assisting the school programmes, as well as the managerial skills of the principal, has seen the school transformed from one where our quality was being threatened to one which is sought after by parents.

The fact is that the government does not, and for a long time has never had, the type of funding needed to properly finance education, despite their best efforts through the ministry. In my own view therefore unless we are willing to continue to accept the sub standard education system we have, then it is going to be necessary to ask parents to fund (through auxiliary fees) a part of what is needed to ensure that their child receives a better education. The fact also is that many of the fees are in the range of J$10,000 to J$15,000 per annum, or just over J$1,000 per month. This is significantly less than what is spent on phone cards and/or at the hairdresser in one month for many persons. So why not talk a little less so you can afford a proper education for your child.

The other approach is similar to the minister's approach to the exam subsidy. The government has to look at the value added being gained from how the limited resources are being spent, and more precisely target spending to areas that will give it the greatest return. So for example, at a recent seminar I presented at on Education Financing, I asked a ministry official if they had any numbers on how many accountants, doctors, lawyers were needed for the next ten years, and the answer was no. So how do we target our expenditure in the best way if we do not know how many professionals are needed in order to achieve the country's development, and particularly the 2030 vision. There must be a link between how we finance education and the national development plan. In other words, the person who wants to study the DNA of a raindrop should not be given the same level of subsidy as one who wants to become an accountant or doctor.

Another way is to also encourage companies to finance the education of some of their employees, eg through tax incentives. There are a lot more ways I can think of but it would take a lot more time to discuss. The point is that if we truly are concerned about education's role in the country's development then we must take a practical approach to its financing and not see it as a welfare programme.

The definition of madness
Einstein defined madness as doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results. Leading up to and even right after, the recent Tivoli incident, there were many people singing praises of the security forces and the need to support them. I cannot recall any other time in recent memory, where the security forces were so well supported by the Jamaican people from all walks of life. It was very refreshing and I thought that we were about to turn the corner, where the relationship between the security forces and the people of Jamaica developed that needed trust to tame the crime monster we have become so accustomed to.

Then came the secrecy surrounding the Tivoli episode, then Buckfield, and finally the killing of the 15 year old in Tredegar Park. And it seemed as if the police were retreating to their old ways with each incident. The irony is that I know there are some police that are trying their best to overcome the image of the past. But if this was not a wasted opportunity then I don't know what was.


David Mullings said...

Definitely agree with your post Dennis.

When we look at Singapora, India, China and others we see that real planning took place and they focused on targeted investments when it came to education.

If farming is really a major leg for the Jamaican economy why are we graduating so few people with agricultural science degrees?

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