Editorial | HEART versus Patterson Report
The removal of fees for students enrolled in technical and vocational training courses run by the government’s training agency, HEART/ NSTA Trust, will be widely popular, including, we expect, with employers who regularly face a shortage of skilled workers.
It is estimated that nearly seven in 10 Jamaicans have no formal training for the jobs they do. Indeed, in recent times Prime Minister Andrew Holness has floated the idea of importing labour to fill gaps in the economy. The construction sector, which has enjoyed a boom in recent years, has been an area of focus.
While this newspaper appreciates the administration’s dilemma and generally supports efforts to accelerate technical and vocational education and training (TVET), there is need for more and better particulars on the policy context within which the decision to drop fees for HEART’s students were taken. Further, taxpayers should be assured that they receive real returns on the additional expenditure, rather than their resources being poured down giant sinkholes, or sucked away by entities that offer little.
With respect to the latter issue, the HEART board, chaired by Professor Alvin Wint, ought to show what it has done in the 15 months since its appointment to wean the agency off its spendthrift and wasteful habits, and to improve its ineffectual skills at oversight.
These concerns are relevant on two fronts. One is the recommendation by the Orlando Patterson commission on the reform of Jamaica’s education system, relating to the allocation of HEART’s resources; the other is the 2020 analysis of the performance of the training agency by the Auditor General’s Department, headed by Pamela Monroe Ellis.
It is a matter of deep concern that in the year and a half since Professor Patterson delivered his report, there has been no substantive or rigorous government-led debate of its findings and recommendations, although an implementation task force has been appointed and is presumably at work. Who knows what they are implementing and in what context?
An appreciation of what was discovered by Auditor General Monroe Ellis is important. It is possible, as Prime Minister Holness said, that the removal of fees for HEART courses will be “a game changer for poor, underserved youth” for whom they were “an obstacle for participation in formal training”. It could be that the 50,632 people who received HEART certifications in the fiscal year now ending will rise by another 48 per cent, or higher, in the coming year.
In any event, the addition of 16,400 skilled and certified people to the workforce is welcome. Nonetheless, it would be useful if it were disclosed at what cost these graduates were trained, the ratio of HEART’s intake that they represented, and how much better the agency is doing at keeping enrollees in their classes and ensuring that they successfully complete their courses.
For instance, in her 2020 review, the auditor general discovered that over a five-year period, between 2014-15 and 2018-19, HEART spent $30.5 billion, an average of $6.1 billion annually, on various training programmes.
These should have delivered 232,301 graduates. However, only 103,452, or 45 per cent, actually graduated, a one-percentage-point decline, compared to the start of the period.
Over those five years, HEART increased admissions by 151 per cent, to nearly 102,000. Some of its training programmes were delivered by “external training providers”, to which HEART paid $8.3 billion. The graduation ratio for many of these external partners was significantly below the average, being as low as 19 per cent.
HEART is primarily funded by a three per cent payroll tax, which brings it over $14 billion a year. The Patterson Commission suggested that some of what HEART now allocates to TVET should be skewed to early-childhood and pre-primary education, the sector to which the government spends not only a smaller percentage of its education budget, but less as a proportion of the country’s GDP than its regional peers, even as it matches, or outpaces, them in other areas. Spending on vocational training, as a proportion of GDP, surpasses many of Jamaica’s global peers.
Arguing the need to establish a solid foundation upon which to build education, the commission recommended an “increase in private funding and private engagement in the provision of vocational training”.
Says the commission, “An extremely important premise for the overall understanding of this recommendation is that the certifications provided by HEART/NSTA Trust do have significant value to Jamaican industry, and the certifications are of value to the persons being certified. The recommendation should not be construed in a light that fails to appreciate the value of the certification. Quite the contrary. The view is that the same or a higher number of certifications can be achieved with fewer enrollees; a higher percentage of certifications relative to the number of enrollees; and the reallocation of resources now targeted to HEART/NSTA Trust to lower levels of the educational system.”
It would be useful to hear the government’s specific responses to that analysis, and others in the Patterson Report.