Education left out of relief fund
The education sector has been left without a share of a $66 million recovery stimulus package in response to the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown.
The economic relief package had focused primarily on Health with a share of $20.2 million and an additional $12.5 million earmarked for the private sector. What was left of the funding has been distributed to food security and $27.5 million to secure purchasing power of the citizen.
The consequence of a zero subsidy in the stimulus package to assist more than 100 thousand students on all levels is already hurting the National University of Samoa.
N.U.S. is expecting to cut more of its courses that “are not sustainable” as a sacrifice to reduce its costs.
Enrolment will also drop for the educational year.
Vice Chancellor of N.U.S., Aiono Dr. Alec Ekeroma said the absence of assistance for education is predicted given the sector did not submit a combined report to influence the recovery package.
Given that education has no relief fund, Aiono said the only option is resorting to other sources of funding and to reduce expenditure so that it can stay afloat.
Since the state of emergency, the university has moved online to educate its students.
“A lot of our people in community are hurting and also parents who have lost their jobs and therefore the number of students will drop because parents can’t afford to pay for fees,” Aiono said in an interview with the Samoa Observer.
“When the number of students drop our budget is going to fall. All of those we need to strategise on how we can go forward with the university in order to survive and still deliver quality education…”
Asked if the university is considering reducing the number of institution fees to assist parents who have been laid off due to COVID-19, the Vice Chancellor said no but there are other measures.
“We can’t drop the intuition fee because M.O.F. [Ministry of Finance] packed that in our budget,” he replied.
“We can work around the edges by not charging penalty fee [late fee payment]. If we make a decision to drop intuition fees then that will affect our budget then that means we have to cut other expenditures elsewhere, when cut income we cut our expenditure.”
According to Aiono the university has moved to cut those expenditures by slashing the Journalism and Media course and new computers proposed will not be purchased.
He said the dilemma faced by the university is once the courses are slashed then the teachers will also be made redundant.
“But we have to maintain our core services and our core services is teaching,” he argued.
“We can’t let teachers go because it’s hard to get them back.
“We have to look at other ways of cutting our costs and we can’t cut our teachers…”
Aiono is hopeful that a meeting with the Ministry of Finance next week in relation to budget will bring some good news for the university.
It was not possible to get a comment from the Ministry of Education, Sports and Culture.
The Minister of M.E.S.C., Loau Keneti Sio was not immediately available when contacted for a comment.
There are currently 63,817 students recorded for Early Childhood, Primary and Secondary School and 2,867 teachers for the school.
Independent Member of Parliament, Olo Fiti Vaai, also expressed his views of disbelief in Government missing out one of the most crucial sectors.
Olo said the absence of assistance for education reflected how unimportant the education sector was to Government.
“New Zealand allocated a substantial amount to take teaching online for Colleges and University but our Government gave nothing for our education,” said Olo.
“I would’ve expected that maybe they should have halved the institution fee for students for the current semester but there is none.
“The least is for Government to set aside funding for service providers so they can provide a special plan for students and teachers enabling them to learn from home during this time.”
The M.P. said he felt sorry for teachers who have had to fork out internet costs from their own pockets so they can setup online courses and plans to teach their students.
He questioned where the broadband incentives that Government had invested thousands in the past to bring faster internet connection.
Olo said now is the time for those projects to make what they are made for to help students in their education.
M.E.S.C. had recently publicised that there are lessons for students being aired on 2AP radio, TV1 station and Government channel station.
The Ministry had urged parents to assist their children when the lesson plans and programmes are rolled out on the nominated communication platforms.
But Olo pointed out that these plans still have lapse as not everyone have TV stations given that the broadcast coverage is not 100 percent across the country.
He said that with most students having access to cell phones there should have been partnership between Government and the telecommunication companies to offer free wifi for students so they can study from home.
Speaking about the stimulus package, Olo said he had expected the Government to take lead by example and cut funding for political parties allocated in budgets to support the relief fund.
He pointed out the $300 pensioner funding was a one way bridge that would only benefit those with elderly people in their families.
“That funding for pensioners might have assisted a wider scope if it was put aside as a subsidy to pay workers in the private sector instead of losing their jobs.
“Every household have workers and these workers being laid off are the ones that are supporting elderly people in their families.”
He criticised a $2.5 million assistance given to the Scientific Research Organisation of Samoa (S.R.O.S.) to commercialise local value added agriculture processes like breadfruit flour, coconut oil and others to substitute import.
The $1 million earmarked to pay for Samoa Airways pills was also another funding that Olo said could’ve been used elsewhere.
Recalling the past, Olo said the Government had already spent a substantial amount of money on the breadfruit flour project that had not shown any benefits.
As for Samoa Airways, the M.P. said the priority given to pay the bills was not well thought out “because you can’t stimulate that money it just sits there for the expenses”.