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Secret Scholarships

Sunday, October 19, 2014

There is something strange about this year’s results of the scholarships announced annually based on the results of the Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examinations (Cape). The results were announced Thursday, October 9, much later than usual, with no reason being given for the delay. More than a month ago, the Newsday of September 4 in particular was questioning the reason behind the delay.

I take an annual pleasure in reading the stories that normally accompany the release of the results of scholarship winners. I especially like the ones which show triumph over adversity, like the one this year of Naparima College’s Isa Pooran, who earned an Open Scholarship although battling kidney failure and studying while undergoing dialysis treatment three days a week.

As a newspaper editor I used to insist that stories like these be given front-page treatment, since they usually reflected uplifting stories still capable of sustaining public interest. So I was surprised by the fact that until October 9, no announcement had been made about the scholarship results.

A check revealed that the results of the Cape examination had been posted on the CXC Web site since August 10 and a merit list ranking student results, on which the award of scholarships is based, was sent to the Ministry of Education to accompany the release. It took the ministry two months to release the scholarships based on the merit list.

As anyone who has a child going to university would know, the timing is important, since, for many students applying to foreign universities anticipating scholarships, this year’s results were released too late, long after admission deadlines and after most universities had begun their academic year. The timing of the announcement is not my only issue with the scholarships awarded this year; so is the fact that, after sitting so long on the CXC merit list, the scholarships were, in effect, awarded in secret.

In announcing the scholarships, the ministry’s longstanding policy of releasing the names of the recipients to the media, inexplicably, was not followed this year. The Minister of Education, Dr Tim Gopeesingh simply announced the President’s Medal winners from Presentation College, Chaguanas and St Augustine Girls’ High School and stated the number of scholarships awarded to the winning schools.

The ministry’s Web site is not up to date, and some postings date back to 2010 (as if time stood still) while others go as far as 2012. In fact after the minister’s announcement, the schools had still not been informed of their successful students and were told the information would be sent to them last Monday.

In naming the results of the President’s Medal, Dr Gopeesingh revealed that the number of scholarships awarded had increased from just over 300 in 2009 to 452 this year. He noted that between 2010 and 2014, the Government had awarded 1,930 scholarships to students, but these scholarships were going to fewer schools, as he admitted that the schools receiving scholarships had declined from 40 last year to 36 this year.

The minister also admitted to a bias in the award of the scholarship: “In keeping with the PP’s thrust in education, we have tried to ensure that we move in the areas of science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics, and we are working with tertiary- level institutions to increase research being done on a national level.”

Dr Gopeesingh told the post- Cabinet press briefing last month that nine open scholarships would be awarded in mathematics and three open scholarships in the following subject areas: business studies, environmental studies, language arts, modern studies. Two scholarships would be awarded in technological studies and visual and performing arts. The problem with this is that it is all being done in secret without consultation and transparency.

Did students opting to study business, for example, know that their chances of winning a scholarship would be lessened? What policy influenced the decision to increase the number of scholarship awards from 300 in 2009 to 452 this year? And what influenced this decision to increase scholarships in science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics?

And why did the ministry not release the names of the scholarship recipients to the media, as is usually done, and instead leave it to the principals, who had the duty to call the students individually to inform them of the scholarship awards? Something does not feel right here. The PNM was rightly condemned for awarding scholarships without transparency and accountability, with the PP even going so far as taking the matter to the Integrity Commission.

It is worrying that the Government has taken what used to be a transparent process for the award of national scholarships and made it opaque, with no information being provided on the criteria for determining which areas were preferred for scholarships and who exactly were the recipients.

The opacity does not end there, since with the record millions being spent on communications by the Government, the Ministry of Education’s Web site cannot even provide up-to-date speeches by the minister or news released from the ministry. With the secrecy, the number of scholarships has risen by 22 per cent this year and will cost an estimated $27 million, according to the Education Minister.

Until the ministry provides a full listing of the recipients and their schools to the media and the public, one cannot help but suspect that there is something to hide. Maxie Cuffie is the prospective PNM candidate for La Horquetta/ Talparo.


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