Thursday 30 March 2017

Act now or the Island will pay later

Monday 20 March 2017

Act now or the Island will pay later

Campaigners are urging Ministers to act fast to resolve the current higher education funding crisis otherwise the Island will have to import key skills and push up the population number still further.

A new report has criticised Ministers for not doing enough to help local students, with little being achieved except for the setting up of a new sub-committee to investigate the funding problem.

Now, Nicki Heath, a leading member of the Student Loan Support Group has given her reaction to the report, saying: "...any change needs to happen quickly. We can't be leaving it for much longer, otherwise there will be more students having more problems."

Over the past 10 years, the number of students taking part in higher education recorded by the Education Department has dropped from 1,538 to 1,113, a reduction of over 25% states the Scrutiny Panel Report. In addition to this, Jersey's gross enrolment ratio is 31.2%, one of the lowest in Europe, with countries normally averaging around 65%, while England is at 56%. This is calculated on the estimated total student population of 1,785 and the number of people between the age of 18 and 22 of 5,730. 

Number of students registered by the education department

Nicki Heath says: "As a group of parents, we would like to see something being done without further delay. It has taken two years to get to this point and for the Chief Minister to create a sub-committee. This could have been done last year. This is not just this Assembly's fault but also the previous ones. The problem got worse, especially since the fees increased in 2012, and it wasn't addressed. If nothing is done, higher education will gradually become more unaffordable."

One of the Scrutiny Panel's recommendations to the Minister for Education was the immediate introduction of an online calculator, "...that allows families to understand their entitlement and that is flexible enough to change as policy is amended" - something that the Student Loan Support Group has been asking for for a long time.

Mrs Heath says: "It is such a complicated system families have no idea how much they will have until they receive the results. There is not enough information and parents are quite shocked when they discover that a full grant does not cover a full cost and they will have to pay £6,000 or £7,000 more than they expected. Parents should be able to plan and not find themselves in the distressing situation where they have to tell their children, 'sorry but you can't go.'" 

The introduction of the calculator will help families being better informed but it still won't be enough. Ms Heath explains: "In our 2016 survey, we found out that a lot of parents weren't aware of the limitations of the grant system. There still isn't any information on the Student Finance website about the cuts in the funding of maintenance costs or the changes in regulations. For example, under those changes, if a student fails or withdraws from a course, he will have to repay the whole grant instead of just for a term. Likewise, if some of the information on a  parent contributor's application is inaccurate, the student will be expected to repay. This is quite a worry that such changes are not made available for parents and students to see."

Another of the key recommendation was for "the Council of Ministers Sub-Committee to consider some form of student loan system", a solution that Deputy Anne Pryke, Assistant Minister for Education, said wasn't "long standing or sustainable", as "it could cost up to £30,000,000 a year."

Commenting on those figures, Mrs Heath says: "It doesn't make sense. I'm not quite sure where they come from. The point of a loan is that it is repaid so the money is coming back. A loan system seems like the most obvious option. It is not as expensive as financing higher education through grants. But it all depends on the political will to come up with a way of funding, unless they are prepared and happy to carry on the way things are. The current picture does not show Jersey in a good light and we are going to face a shortage of skills and will have to 'import' those."

Whichever action the States choose the take, the Student Loan Support Group wants to see it happen quickly, especially with the elections taking place next year.

"The system has not been updated for 15 years. It has taken two years to get to this Scrutiny Panel. Next year, we will have a whole new load of politicians, if nothing is done before then, how long will it take them to get around it?"

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