Jamaica must decide on free tertiary education

Monday, April 10, 2017

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We share some of the anxiety being expressed by affected final-year students of The University of the West Indies (UWI) who fear they might not be able to sit final exams because they have not paid fees owed to the university.

As it has always been — except for the period under the Michael Manley Government of the 1970s and its policy of free education — many students have found it difficult to pay their university fees, not necessarily because they don’t wish to, but more often because they can’t afford to.

Based on reports in yesterday’s edition of this newspaper, The UWI has told finalising students who have not paid outstanding fees and do not yet have a payment plan in place that they would not be able to sit their final exams unless they pay up by the April 18, 2017 deadline.

It has been the practice of The UWI to allow students to sit exams even though they were in arrears, but withhold their degrees, grades and transcripts pending payment. However, according to, university spokesperson Dr Carroll Edwards, this no longer applies to final-year students, apparently because it would be harder for The UWI to collect those fees once the indebted student has left the institution.

Notwithstanding our sympathy for the affected students, we quite understand the position of the university, which also has serious financial challenges trying to deliver a high standard of education, despite rising costs and late or non-payment of contributions by some territories.

As critical as a university education is to national development, it is not yet a right, and students have to pay their fees so that it is possible to maintain the university at acceptable standards. The painful truth is that, like other goods and services, if one cannot afford it, one has to do without.

That is why we laud those companies and organisations which offer scholarships and other assistance to their staff and needy students to enable them to complete their tertiary education. We also commend individuals who work and put themselves through college, as difficult at that is.

Having said all that, we would love to see the day when Jamaica returns to free tuition at the tertiary level, perhaps on terms just announced by the state of New York in the United States, which frees up payment for tuition but excludes room and board.

The money has to come from somewhere as there is no truly free education. Mr Manley diverted funds from the bauxite levy to fund tertiary education, but over time that became unsustainable. Jamaicans would have to decide if it is worth it and what is an acceptable means of financing free tertiary education.

It is also clear that the country would have to see the obvious benefits of free tertiary education. The anecdotal evidence suggests that the mere bonding of students did not provide the expected returns on investment made in their education under Mr Manley’s free education policy.

Too many persons used it as a stepping stone to migrate to greener pastures, much the way some who owe money to the Students Loan Bureau are now doing.




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