Monday 26 October, 2020

UWI Mona defends increase in tuition fees during COVID-19

UWI Mona campus in Jamaica (FILE)

UWI Mona campus in Jamaica (FILE)

Amidst public backlash, the University of the West Indies (The UWI) Mona campus in Jamaica is insisting that it has done everything in its power to keep tuition fees low.

However, the regional university has pointed out that the continued movement in Jamaica's foreign exchange rates forced it to revise its own rates, thus resulting in an increase in some programmes quoted in US dollars.

The UWI’s statement on Monday follows public backlash over its decision to continue quoting tuition fees in US dollars, a scenario that will see some students faced with huge increases come September.

Students in the faculties of medicine, film, nursing, engineering and law could see up to $100,000 added to their tuition fees for the upcoming academic year. They are particularly peeved that the increased fees come in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic that has severely limited face-to-face in-class sessions. Some students have taken to social media to vent and to implore the university’s administration to reconsider.

They are being supported by both the Jamaica Minister of State in their Ministry of Education, Alando Terrelonge and the Opposition spokesman on education, Peter Bunting who have appealed to the university’s administration to reconsider its position.

However, it appears that those pleas have fallen on deaf ears.

In its statement on Monday (August 3) The UWI argued that it provides the most affordable option for the majority of programmes across the higher education spectrum in Jamaica.

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It argued further that no other university in Jamaica has a more accommodating and liberal approach in terms of facilitating students with financial needs.

“In fact, over the last three academic years, we have given back to our students approximately J$2.5 billion in scholarships and bursaries, representing approximately 10 per cent of total billings for tuition,” it said.

The UWI said the decision surrounding whether to price programmes in US or Jamaican dollars can be revisited as the time may be right for such as debate.

See full statement below:

“The UWI Mona has taken note of the raging debate concerning our tuition fees and is not insensitive to our students' realities in this COVID-19 period. Our senior management is committed to working with our students to find solutions around the current financing challenges.

Despite our financial challenges for more than a decade now, The UWI has continued to be a critical partner in the development process, expanding access to Jamaicans at a very high quality.

Our student population has moved from approximately 15, 000 ten years ago to approximately 20, 000 today, without a commensurate expansion in funding from our contributing countries.

At the same time, we have done our utmost to keep our prices low, to the extent that the UWI provides the most affordable option for the majority of programmes across the higher education spectrum in Jamaica.

In fact, in the last four years cumulatively, our tuition fees have not increased by 10 per cent across the board. It is a testimony of the quality of our teaching and learning, research, administrators, students and faculty that against the background of these financial constraints, our international rankings as a university have been increasing progressively.

In the recent Times Higher Education rankings, The UWI placed in the top 4 per cent of universities globally, top 1 per cent in Latin America and the number one university in the Caribbean. Our competitors, with similar programmes, are behind the starting line in this regard.

Even whilst we strive to fulfil our role in nation building, we also continue to be a student-centred university. No other University in Jamaica has a more accommodating and liberal approach in terms of facilitating students with financial needs.

In fact, over the last three academic years, we have given back to our students approximately 2.5 billion JMD in scholarships and bursaries, representing approximately 10 per cent of total billings for tuition.

This of course includes scholarship to the very United States dollars denominated programmes. For instance, although the fee for our medical programme is 28,000 USD, a significant number of Jamaican students are afforded a 50 per cent bursary upfront.

Over the last three years, this has cost the university $1.2 billion. The corresponding figures for engineering and law are 63 million JMD and 81 JMD million respectively.

From the very onset we wish to share some facts in relation to fees for the 2020/2021 Academic year. The UWI Mona offers more than 300 undergraduate programmes, of which, only 10 are denominated in USD. Admittedly, a number of our postgraduate programmes are denominated in United States dollars.

A decision was taken by the campus to keep tuition fees for the 2020/2021 academic year at the same levels as obtained for the 2019/2020 academic year for undergraduate programmes, and for all but one of our postgraduate programmes.

The issue that has triggered the debate on the pricing of our programmes surrounds the movements in Jamaica's exchange rates, which has forced us to move the exchange rate we use from JMD$135 to USD$1 in 2019/20, to JMD$141 to USD$1 in 2020/21. It is to be noted that even at the JMD$141 to UDS$1 level of exchange, the University is already at a disadvantage since the exchange rate, as at July 31, 2020, is JMD$ 148.30 to USD$ 1. Indeed, we took a similar hit during the 2019/2020 academic year when our exchange rate was JMD$135 to USD$1 and the average Bank of Jamaica rate was above that.

Of course, the fact that the prices of our programmes have not increased and that some of our students might have to pay more due to the devaluation is of concern to us. At the same time, The UWI faces many US dollar costs in delivering our programmes, and the question is how these costs will be met and who will meet those costs. These include but are not limited to library international subscriptions, software licences, ICT hardware, chemicals and specimens.

The debate, therefore, will not be complete without addressing the fundamental question of what is an appropriate model for funding tertiary education, in a developing country where universities play a greater role in the development imperatives of society.

Yes, we can revisit the pricing strategy, which is whether to price in USD or JMD. The time may be right for such as debate and we stand willing to engage and consider.

However, the issue of how we finance the cost of running the University will still be pertinent.

This debate must also raise the issue of financing options for our students including borrowing from the Students' Loan Bureau.

Currently, only 23 per cent of our students are making use of this option. Importantly also, as a nation, we need to put squarely on the table, the need for a greater level of long-term savings on the part of our parents, if, as a nation, we are going to achieve the levels of tertiary enrolment necessary for a great nation.

In this context, The UWI Mona hopes that this public debate will be the start of a more balanced and focused conversation as a nation on the funding of tertiary education.”

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