Free education clarification

Attorney-General and Minister for Economy Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum speaks during the budget consultation at the Fiji National University, Derrick Campus in Suva yesterday. Picture: JONA KONATACI

HAVING “completely free” education specifically for tertiary level is something Government cannot afford to do at this point in time, says Minister for Economy and Education Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum.

Mr Sayed-Khaiyum clarified this yesterday as Government commenced its 2018/2019 budget consultations with tertiary students at the Fiji National University (FNU) Derrick Campus in Samabula, Suva.

He made this clear while responding to FNU Derrick Campus Student Association president Rizwan Asgar, who had asked the possibilities of having a free tertiary institution, particularly for students from poor family backgrounds.

“So what you are proposing, completely free is something we cannot afford to do. At this point in time we cannot afford to do that,” Mr Sayed-Khaiyum said.

“At this point in time we need to be able to live every day within our means. I’ll be very surprised to find that any country in the world has completely free education.”

Mr Sayed-Khaiyum stressed that no one had talked about free university until Government introduced the Tertiary Education Loans Scheme in 2014.

“So somebody can come now and say ‘don’t worry guys, vote me in, I’ll make university free’. At what cost? Where will the money come from?,” he said.

“As a result of free education, we today have many students, as a result of TELS we have many students in universities.”

Government from 2014 to 2018 had provided about $480 million for TELS and the National Toppers Scheme, a cost which is further projected to reach $750m by 2020.

But while Mr Sayed-Khaiyum indicated that “things” could change in the future, he said the reality was for tertiary students under TELS to repay their loans once they started earning.

Mr Asgar also sought clarification on the repayment of loans, its burden on students and the interest rates accumulated with it.

“It’s not going to be a burden, don’t worry,” Mr Sayed-Khaiyum reassured.

“You only pay the loan once you start earning not once you graduate.”

Interest rates for the TELS vary according to combined family income per annum of students.

For instance, students from families earning less than $25,000 a year incur zero interest rate, those from families earning between the $25,000 to $50,000 bracket are charged with 0.5 per cent interest while those students from families earning more than $50,000 to $100,000 would incur a 1 per cent interest.

Those students from families earning more than $100,000 are charged with the highest interest rate at two per cent.

The current system, according to Mr Sayed-Khaiyum, was that 20 per cent would be deducted from TELS students’ salaries for the repayment of their loans.

“An issue that has been raised and been brought to our attention and it is something that we have been also considering is when you earn $15,000, maybe the percentage that you pay from your salary should be perhaps lower than somebody who is earning $30,000,” he said.

“The percentage should be lower, but not higher than 20 per cent.”

Mr Sayed-Khaiyum said the budget, one which was about balancing different needs, would be presented in June.

Consultations continue today for tertiary students at the University of the South Pacific (USP) Laucala Campus in Suva.