Students, stipends and fiscal sustainability
The national debate on our educational system occasionally tackles important issues that need to be addressed from a broad perspective to ensure that we do nothing that puts at risk our social and economic prosperity in the future. The late Prof. Peter Serracino Inglott, for instance, made very valid comments about the proposed new national curriculum. But there are other important issues that need to be addressed.
The sustainability of our stipends system is once again being debated in the context of the changing economic realities that Malta, like the rest of Europe, is going through. Some economic observers believe that it is time to dump the present system of paying students to continue with their studies, or at least limit such payments through a means test to those students who come from deprived backgrounds. These observers have an understandable concern that the cost of the services provided by the state should be curtailed to ensure fiscal sustainability in the long term.
But looking at the issue of stipends purely from a fiscal sustainability perspective misses important considerations of a social nature that in the longer term could also affect our economy. One of the main weaknesses in the way we manage our educational system is that we still do not have meaningful and effective mechanisms to conduct value-for-money audits on how we spend taxpayers’ money on education. The payment of stipends in just one part of the total expenditure on education and focusing on this issue without looking at more substantial educational cost issues amounts to no more than a quixotic attack on imaginary windmills.
The European Commission has repeatedly urged the Maltese government to undertake a study on why our educational achievement levels have been the lowest in Europe for at least the last two decades. The EC is obviously not convinced by the mantra that by spending more on education we are by definition investing wisely in this sector. Until the government decides to undertake the study recommended by the Commission, we will continue to fly blind on the governance of our educational system and will still be disappointed by results.
I believe that one of the main reasons why our educational system is failing at least one out of every three students is connected to the cultural and economic circumstances of a large sector of our society. Many middle class families provide safety nets for their children when they begin to show signs of not coping with the pressures of learning. They resort to private tuition, private education and a considerable amount of parental support to ensure that their children in the end obtain the required qualifications that open the doors to good employment. These parents need to be supported more rather than less, especially when their children move on to higher education. This is where the stipends system plays a vital role in promoting higher educational achievement.
But the case for paying stipends to all post-secondary students is even more compelling when one considers the economic and cultural background of a large section of our working class families. It is a sad reality that a substantial part of our society is made up of families with one bread winner earning a little more than the minimum wage. The pressure to put bread on the table for the family often precludes any consideration on the importance of securing the best educational facilities for the children in these families. If it were not for the incentives created by the stipends system, most of these children would end up leaving school at the age of 16 and entering the blind alley of the precarious and often unofficial labour market that could lead to social failure and crime.
The success of educational institutions like MCAST and the Institute for Tourism Studies is partly attributable to the stipends system that entices students from different economic and cultural backgrounds to continue with their studies despite initial failures in their schooling years.
The stipends system does need to be fine tuned from time to time to ensure, for instance, that it encourages students to go for courses that open up more doors to employment rather than soft educational options that offer poor prospects for good employment. We also need to rationalise the spectrum of courses to ensure that our best teachers provide the kind of training that enhances the skills demanded by today’s economy.
The stipends system should therefore be sustained rather than suppressed.