Maha Sabha scholarship lawsuit set for August hearing

Maha Sabha general secretary Vijay Maharaj.
Maha Sabha general secretary Vijay Maharaj.

THE Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha's complaint over Cabinet's decision to reduce the number of national scholarships and introduce a bursary system has reached the courts.

And, on September 6, the High Court judge hearing the matter will give her decision following an expedited rolled-up hearing on August 5.

The dates were set at a hearing of the matter on Tuesday.

A rolled-up hearing amalgamates the two stages in a judicial review claim in which permission for the case to proceed is considered along with the substantive matter at one hearing.

The Maha Sabha initiated legal action over the new scholarship scheme announced in March which saw a reduction of national scholarships to 100 and the award of 500 bursaries.

The religious body is seeking to have the court declare that the decision to reduce the number of scholarships, from a previous policy of awarding up to 400, is illegal, saying the 2021 policy unfairly and unlawfully frustrated the legitimate expectation of those students who wrote the 2020 Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examination (CAPE) that they would be considered for a national scholarship based solely on academic performance from a pool of 400.

The SDMS, which runs several primary and five secondary schools, is seeking at least four declarations relating to the alleged unlawfulness and illegality of the 2021 policy and an order to have it quashed and have the Government revert back to the previous policy of awarding 400 scholarships, also applying it to the students to sat CAPE last year.

In the alternative, the Maha Sabha intends to ask the court for an order to consider all the students of its schools who wrote the examination, last year, for an award of scholarship based on the policy that existed at that time.

Although the claim covers the SDMS’s five secondary schools, its students, and three others from another denominational school, the court’s decision is likely to impact all who sat the 2020 examination, if it is successful.

The leave application said the Maha Sabha tailored its educational programmes at its schools to equip its students with the tools to compete with other schools at the CAPE level for scholarships.

It said national scholarships were not only a reward for the students but also the schools they attended as it enhanced the schools’ reputation.

“These students are young adults who have not yet begun their careers or their tertiary education and do not have any income of their own to pay for tertiary education and expected to obtain national scholarships for that purpose,” the leave application said.

The application contained affidavits from the Maha Sabha’s acting general secretary Vijay Maharaj and five students, three of whom did not attend a Maha Sabha school.

Those three, who attended Naparima Girls’ and Boys’ Colleges, are also represented by the Maha Sabha’s team of attorneys which include Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj, SC, Jagdeo Singh, Dinesh Rambally, Kiel Taklalsingh, Stefan Ramkisson, Rhea Khan, and Ian Dookie.

In his affidavit, Vijay Maharaj said the Maha Sabha board was representing some 268 students, who wrote CAPE in 2020, from its five secondary schools and the other students in the lawsuit.

He said the principals of these schools provided a list of 32 students who would have received scholarships under the policy which existed when they wrote the 2020 examination. He said over the years, the Maha Sabha schools received scores of open and additional scholarships in the various categories while in 2021, it received only 13 scholarships at two schools.

Maharaj set out the process engaged by the Maha Sabha’s schools for preparing for the CAPE examinations, beginning in form 4, adding, “To move the goal post at this point, after the students have completed the CAPE 2020 examination in the midst of a pandemic is unconscionable.

‘These students have been blindsided by this decision and a level of depression and hopelessness has set in among our young people who had to contend with the ever-changing format of their CAPE exams in 2020, the changing dates, the problems with the eventual grades- with many applications for reviews and now to be told that there is a 75 per cent cut in the number of scholarships.

“This is a very unjust and cruel situation for them to now deal with.”

The five students who also went on affidavits to support the judicial review claim all received eight grade ones in Units 1 and 2 and were all confident of receiving national scholarships based on their academic performance.

Anella Bachan, who was accepted in the University of the West Indies’ MBBS program, spoke of the challenges faced with the sitting of the 2020 CAPE “connectivity problems, getting devices, sharing house space with classrooms space” and the “fiasco” with CXC and grades.

“But reducing scholarships on top of that is the straw that broke the camel’s back. Indeed, it was adding insult to injury.”

Nikita Ramadhin, who was accepted to both UWI and St George’s University in Grenada, to pursue medicine, said she would be unable to enroll in the latter, which she chose because of its electives which can be done in either the UK, Canada, or the US, because of the $1 million tuition fees there. She, like the others, have applied for one of the 500 bursaries but they say they fear that their chances of receiving one were diminished since they focused solely on academics and the bursaries take into account extra-curricular activities, contribution to community/country, and alignment with the country’s priority areas of development.

Alayna Ragbar, who also applied to St George’s to study medicine, said when the new policy was announced, she felt the rug was pulled from under her feet.

Joshua Sookdeo who was accepted at UWI for the MBBS programme, said his father’s income was affected because of the pandemic and the family was hard-strapped financially, while Ravaska Rampersad, who was also accepted for the MBBS, said her mother was a stage-four cancer patient and a scholarship would have assisted her financially.

She said it would be almost impossible to afford to study medicine now.

The Cabinet is represented by attorneys Douglas Mendes, SC, Rishi Dass, and Zelica Haynes- Soo Hon.

Prior to filing the application for leave, in correspondence with attorneys for the Cabinet, the Maha Sabha was told its intended action was unarguable and destined to fail.

Haynes-Soo Hon denied scholarships were awarded solely based on academic performance and not financial needs and extra-curricular assessment.

“Reliance upon extra-curricular activities and/or means-testing for the provision of financial aid are well-established international norms in this area,” Haynes-Soo Hon said.

“The self-evident benefits of this process in the context of student development and assessment of overall merit is demonstrated by the ubiquity of such considerations in international matriculation criteria,” she added, as she noted that a means test had been applied to other local scholarships in the past.

She also maintained that the Maha Sabha could not claim it had a legitimate expectation that the number of scholarships awarded annually and the criteria used for selection would remain constant.

“There can only be a legitimate expectation that whatever policy is in place at the relevant time will be rationally undertaken and administered fairly with respect to eligible students,” Haynes-Soo Hon said.

Haynes-Soo Hon also said the reduction in scholarships and 500 new bursaries were intended to ensure well-performing and talented students had access to higher education regardless of their socio-economic background and that they pursue studies that help address national priorities.

“There being no expectation that could be engendered that any person would receive financial assistance upon completion of their exams, there can be no complaint of any diminution in scholarships or in the provision of a new system of bursaries for which applications may be made,” she said, as she denied claims that academic performance would no longer be considered.


"Maha Sabha scholarship lawsuit set for August hearing"

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