Sunday, 16 September 2012

Student stipends: a social service or an investment in education?

When I was 17 I entered 6th form, at the time ( 1968/69) located at the Evans Buildings in Valletta which currently houses, amongst other things, I.D. Card and Passport units.    Six months later, though doing well in my studies for A-level in Physics, Pure and Applied Maths, I quit to take up a job as a clerk with Barclays Bank DCO.

I did not quite choose the job.  It rather chose me and took me out of my desperation at 6th form where  socially I was out of breadth with the rest of the team mostly composed of children whose parents were, unlike mine, pretty well-off.    Without pocket money and struggling to have my family support to buy the basic essentials for my studies, even though tuition was free, I had to take the first job that came my way.

Thankfully I was lucky in that it was a job where I could study and advance my career in banking and financial services even while studying.  Looking back at my 44 years working experience, just on the eve if reaching pension age, I really cannot but be thankful for the opportunities that came my way.

This came to mind when yesterday I was invited to address a KSU organised seminar for university students about the sustainability of student stipends.   It is refreshing that KSU seems to be recovering some of the spirit of 1968 when university students were the conscience of society and rather than discuss the lack of parking facilities at university they used to discuss and protest about social issues,   like poverty, expensive housing and mass emigration.    I congratulated KSU for being audacious in discussing an issue which many students consider a right rather than a privilege.

The main points of my contribution were:

  • -Are stipends a  social service or an investment in education of future generations?  The question of sustainability depends on this distinction.  If they are considered a social service than they are unsustainable in that there are more deserving sectors of society for such handouts.  If they are an investment then they are sustainable as the stipends bill amounts to not more than 0.35% of the GDP.

  • My personal view on this matter has evolved over the last decade and from considering them as an unsustainable social service,  experience has shown they are a worth while investment leaving returns in youth employment and economic growth as well as attraction of private sector investments in new economic niches, like  pharma industries, gaming, financial services, back office operations, through the availability of a young intelligent qualified workforce.

  • So for me the question is not whether they are sustainable but whether there is a better way how we can get a better return for our investment, how we can get a bigger bang for our buck.

  • This requires a comprehensive overview of our tertiary education models and cannot be restricted to just whether stipends should stay or go.

  • Such an overview would have to address two keys issues.  Firstly what resources and investment the University needs to exploit its international potential, in order to build an international brand which attracts on a larger scale fee paying foreign students so that the University can diversify its sources of revenue away from strict fiscal allocations by central government.   Secondly how can such increased resources be used to make our academic teaching more relevant to student careers after they go into the real world.  

  • My experience with graduates that work in our organisation is that they find that 70% of the academic learning is irrelevant for the real world experience and it would be far more effective if we build bigger linkages between industry and university to ensure that they can maximise their learning experience.   One way how this could be achieved is through vocational apprenticeships where the student attends university 2/3 days a week during the day and attend work during the other 2/3 days when they will also have university lessons after work.   In this way the work and the university experience can be made to re-inforce one another and rather than stipends students would command a commensurate apprenticeship salary.   Fiscal incentive to students and employers would be given for those who embark on this model.  

  • Fiscal incentives after studying in replacement of stipends are a non-starter.  Students need income whilst studying.  After studying they should repay society through paying whatever taxes are due on what they earn through their studies.  For this purpose I suggested that in the last year before graduation students should receive fiscal morality lessons emphasising their debt to society which needs to be repaid by being fiscally correct citizens declaring all their earnings according to law.  Perhaps they should be given a proforma invoice with the total cost of their tertiary education which would be hanged on the wall alongside the degree certificate to remind them of their obligation to society.

I enjoyed it.

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