Among the first major pronouncements of the minister of education, Senator Ruel Reid, was a policy change with regard to the payment of auxiliary fees by students who are enrolled in high schools across Jamaica.

While apparently gratuitous in intention, namely, fulfilling an election campaign promise by the Government, it represents a classic example of how not to make even the most benevolent of changes without consultation with stakeholders regarding the intention and the rationale for the same. Having made the announcement of the policy change and the commencement date, and having created a situation of unrest and protest among stakeholders, the Ministry of Education is now planning to call hundreds of stakeholders to a meeting to be held after this article was written to attempt to give legitimacy to the process by suggesting that consultation has taken place before the policy is implemented.

This announced abolition of auxiliary fees no doubt had an appeal to a significant section of the society that has been nurtured over decades by a political culture that fosters dependence and freeness from whichever party forms the Government of the day. As long as a government institution is involved, many citizens have come to expect that there is some freeness to be handed out. This Government can expect no less a response from many citizens to its announced decision to abolish auxiliary fees. The question is, will those who are happy for the freeness and their children be winners or losers in this proposed course of action?

Those of us who have been the first generation to attend high school and a tertiary educational institution know the value which was placed on our education by our parents who sacrificed to make it happen. For these parents, attendance at school was paramount, and applying ourselves to “our book” was not an option.
Those of us who were successful know that our parents kept in touch with the school to check on our performance and to see how the school and the home could work together in this educational undertaking. Those who are closely connected to our high schools today know of the lack of involvement in activities associated with the children and their schooling once they are registered.
Up to the current academic year, the Ministry of Education, having undertaken to bear the cost of teachers’ salaries and the provision of a small subvention to take care of utilities, has in addition made a contribution of $11,500 to cost-sharing per student to all high schools. While significant, this provision on the part of the ministry does not take care of many of the expenses involved in the efficient operation of our high schools.

Accordingly, the high schools have had to charge what are known as auxiliary fees, ranging from a low of less than $10,000 per year to a high of approximately $30,000 per annum. This is the fee that allows the institution to provide services related to co-curricular activities which, by any definition, are an essential component of a rounded education, as well as basic amenities related to laboratories, libraries, the provision and updating of technology and other student services.

How the issue is discussed in the public arena, especially at the beginning of each school year, one would get the impression that auxiliary fees are a means by which the administration of these schools are able to go on spending sprees.

Now the Ministry of Education has proposed that from the beginning of academic year 2016/17 all auxiliary fees in high schools should be abolished, to be replaced by an additional provision of $7,500 per student, thereby taking the ministry’s provision to $19,000 per student.

While this sounds like a gratuitous move, what it in fact does is to set the high schools off on a deficit position at the beginning of the new academic year based on current budgetary figures and projections, as the increase may just about cover the lowest current level of auxiliary fee charged in the upgraded high schools.

Let us explore a real example. In the case of high school X, Grade 7 students currently pay $25,000; Grades 8 -11 $22,000; and Grades 12-13 $35,000. This year to date, approximately 51.4 per cent of students paid in full, 30.3 per cent part-paid but on the average has paid only a half, and 17.3 per cent have not paid at all. The amount collected this year is $29.5 million.

The cost-sharing expenditure will exceed $45 million, of which the ministry, by paying $11,500 per student, pays $17.8 million for just under 1,600 students. The balance has to be made up from the auxiliary fees.

An increase of $7,500 per student from the Government (ie $12 million) and the abolishment of the fees will leave the school approximately $15,000 short per student, which gives a total of up to $24 million deficit to meet both the cost-sharing ($15 million) and other direct costs not shared by the Government. The auxiliary fees costs shared with the Government are instruction materials, utilities, maintenance (only some), office and cleaning supplies, etc, as well as security. The fees not shared are mainly the co-curricular activities, insurance, etc.

What would make for a most laudable perspective regarding this proposed increased provision by the Government is not the abolition of the auxiliary fees, but the provision of these funds for the upgrade of the substandard facilities which exist in the high schools, especially the upgraded ones, thereby bringing them up to a level closer to that of the traditional high schools. That would certainly redound to the benefit of the children and parents, who would be the supposed beneficiaries of the abolition of the fees.

It has often been said, “If the thing is not broken, don’t fix it”. This is certainly a case of a fix that is about to break the system and do damage to the quality of education which the best of our high schools will be able to offer in going forward.

In many of the schools, especially those with the higher fee scales, the parents have participated in establishing the level of auxiliary fees to be paid as they recognise that it is in the interest of the education of their children. In this regard, attention needs to be paid by the position being taken by the National Parent/Teachers’ Association on the issue as they are supporting the retention of the fees.

While it is clear that there are some parents who genuinely cannot afford to pay the fees, and schools make provision for such persons as the level of compliance currently indicates, the fact is that many who have not complied have taken a position that the education is to be free, and the present announcement by the minister has only served to undergird their position.

Many of these parents are those who never turn up to the school for any purpose for meetings of the Parent/Teachers’ Association, or to see to the welfare of the child, but turn up when it is graduation time with the most expensive outfits and hairdos, to see their child bedecked in an equally expensive outfit, and receiving a bit of paper which has no market value.

The politics of freeness may have its appeal to those who would desire the continuation of a culture of dependence on Government for free facilities and opportunities. Make no bones about it, those parents who are already paying the higher level fees at the top-performing schools will find new ways to contribute to the institution in spite of the action taken by the Ministry of Education, as they are invested in seeing their children become winners in this globalised world.

The proposal for the abolition of auxiliary fees will, in the long run, serve to keep the children of the poor and marginalised in their current social situation rather than be the window of opportunity for social mobility. Far from fostering such a culture, the Ministry of Education should be fostering strategies that lead to a greater sense of investment of parents in the provision of quality education for their children, rather than settling for the lowest common denominator. To succumb to this latter on the part of parents is to be captive to the position of losers in the educational enterprise.