ROUGHLY $26 million is owed to the State by people who accessed national scholarships but either failed to perform the obligatory work in the public service, or did not complete their studies and did not repay the value of the scholarship awarded to them.
These and other figures are spelled out in the Report of the Auditor General on the Public Accounts for 2019, recently laid in Parliament.
The report detailed tens of millions of dollars spent to fund about 400 scholarships annually and also hit the Ministry of Education for abject record-keeping practices in which paper files on scholarship winners were irretrievably damaged while in storage and thus no evidence could be shown on awardees’ indebtedness which led to millions of dollars in debt being written off.
From 2012-2018, according to the report, $862 million was spent on President’s Medal plus Open and Additional scholarships for the CAPE (Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Exam). In 2018 alone, $3 million was paid towards the President’s Medal and $144 million for 377 CAPE scholarships.
The period of obligatory service ranges from one year for a scholarship of up to $100,000, to five years for awards valued over $600,000, the report indicated.
During the period 2012-2019, 141 scholars failed to perform their obligatory service and of this, the Auditor General had no details on 21 awardees.
The other 120 were found to collectively owe $58 million and of this, $32m has since been repaid, but $26 million is still owed.
$13M LOST FOREVER
Further analysis of the 141 scholars’ indebtedness revealed that 71 scholars have completely repaid their debt. The report said three scholars did not return to TT to perform their obligatory service and have not repaid their indebtedness.
“The ministry sought the advice of the Attorney General and the matters have subsequently been taken to court,” the report said.
“Scholars who do not return to complete their obligatory service deny the State the opportunity to increase the value of the scholar’s contribution to the national development of the country.”
The report said that $13 million currently owed to taxpayers will never be recouped due to the Limitation of Certain Actions Act which puts a limit on the time the State has to take action. As a result, Government is statute-barred from taking action against 163 scholars to get back the $13 million owed. Of the 163 scholars, there are details in the system for only 54.
“The debt in respect of the 54 scholars is $14,345,290, of which $717,954 was recovered. An amount of $13,666,928 remains outstanding to the State,” the report noted, adding this represents a “significant” amount of revenue leakage.
Not mincing words, the Auditor General in the report said, “the Ministry of Education should ensure procedures are followed to avoid scholars’ debts becoming statute barred.”
The report complained of instances of poor record-keeping on scholars, resulting in a quarter of all files requested not being retrievable owing to damage by water. “The files which were stored in cardboard boxes on the floor were damaged. The files could not be retrieved due to the potentially hazardous condition of the of the storage facility,” the Auditor General noted.
“A sample of 257 of the scholars' files for the period 2012 to 2017 was requested. Of that number, the ministry only provided 192 files or 74.7 percent of the sample.
“Of the files examined, in most cases, documentation which would have provided information on a scholar’s history and academic progression was not seen.”
Details missing from files included students' university details such as letters of acceptance from the university, yearly transcript from the university of the scholar’s grade point average, and evidence of suspension (suspended scholars only).
Also missing was the scholars’ communication with the ministry. These documents are evidence of repayment of grants for breached scholars, request for deferral of obligatory service, letters of exchange for scholars who have got approval to defer obligatory service, evidence of scholars reporting for placement, evidence of placement and written communication between the scholar and student support officer.
Contacted for comment on Sunday, Education Minister Anthony Garcia said, “That report is now being studied very closely by senior officials of my ministry. We are aware that in some cases there are students who were beneficiaries of scholarships and part of their obligations would have been to serve the country for a specified period of time and some of those students have reneged on that. We are aware of that.
“A few years ago we took one of the public scholars to court seeking redress. So it is a situation that confronts us ever so often. We are doing everything possible to ensure this does not become the norm.” In fact, Garcia added, "I can safely say most of our scholars have returned and are doing their obligatory service."
In terms of the statute of limitations, he said that is something the ministry’s legal adviser is looking at. “I am supposed to get a report shortly on whether we have some of those students whose period of payment has lapsed.” Policy-wise, Newsday asked if the statute of limitations law should be revised so as to not exempt national scholarships, just as the UK has done for student loans.
Garcia replied, “The Attorney General is the person who advises Cabinet and the Government on these legal issues. Before I make any pronouncement I must confer with the Attorney General.” Asked about damaged records, he said, “I’m not sure about that. Remember I began this discussion saying senior officials at the ministry are looking at this report. All aspects of the report are being looked at and I am soon to get a report on it.
“Let me point out, when a student obtains a scholarship, that student’s studies are funded by Government and the student has an obligation to give back to the country. Some of these scholarships are in excess of $1 million.”
Newsday was unable to contact Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi for his views on revising the Limitation of Certain Actions Act.
In 2017, High Court judge Justice Nadia Kangaloo ruled that Dr Ryan Wellington must repay the Government $3 million after failing to return to TT after completing his studies, in breach of a contractual agreement to get the scholarship.
Wellington graduated in 2009 with a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS) from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and then moved to Australia.
He has since filed an appeal against Kangaloo’s ruling, which is still pending.