National scholars are a source of pride for the country. They represent the best and brightest among us and awarding them scholarships is supposed to incentivise their decision to come back and serve their country. Evidently, according to the Auditor General’s Report for 2019, recently laid in Parliament, not all our national scholars feel that way.
From 2012-2018, $862 million was spent on national scholarships, including the President’s Medal. While most of these awardees have adhered to the scholarship contract, the report noted that from 2012 to 2019, 141 scholars failed to perform their obligatory service, and of this the Auditor General could find no details on 21 of those scholars. The remaining 120 owed collectively $58 million, of which $32 million was repaid – leaving $26 million still owed. There’s also $13 million owed that will never be reclaimed by taxpayers because of the time passed has exceeded the statute of limitations. Government is therefore unable to take action against some 163 scholars.
The report highlights a more egregious failing of the Ministry of Education: out of those 163 who reneged on their agreement, there are details in the system for only 54 scholars. The report mentions apparent water damage and missing documentation for what should be a matter of national importance. Education has the biggest allocation the national budget this year – $5.4 billion. The Scholarship Division gets $224 million of that, or four per cent. The estimated budget for national (graduate) scholarships this year is $200 million; in 2019 it was $196 million and in 2018 it was $145 million. Yet it appears the ministry’s record-keeping system is woefully lax – and has been for years.
The Education Minister told Newsday in a report Monday that senior officials are looking into the findings of the Auditor General’s report. In an age of digitisation, this sort of easily compromised, paper-based filing system is unacceptable. The solution should be easy and should not require the lengthy bureaucratic process to resolve. Not only has the ministry’s irresponsibility cost taxpayers substantial amounts in lost financial resources, it has also directly contributed to the country’s “brain drain.”
There is, no doubt, a certain allure to be a national scholarship winner. But is it time, then for the ministry to re-evaluate the way it disburses these awards? What are the criteria used, besides academic achievements? Should, like the Government Assistance for Tertiary Education (GATE) programme, a needs test be part of the assessment? And what are the terms and conditions for opting out or even partially out of a national scholarship? And are we holding back our young people by forcing them to accept criteria that may be difficult to enforce when the world of opportunity is open before them? Is the criterion of obligatory service too restrictive to retain and benefit from these returning scholars?
The current system is that if in three months, returning scholars are not placed within the public service, then they are free to pursue employment elsewhere. This has led to some unfortunate instances where these best and brightest are dulled and dented to fit a mould in order to meet a requirement – often placed in positions not related to their skills and far beneath their abilities. How then, does this inspire them to give the best to their country?