Providing for the Neediest Students
Education is frequently seen as the key to a country's social and economic development. On an individual or family level, it is also important as a means of improving a learner's prospects in terms of employment, health and standing in the community. Where some are barred from taking part in education because they cannot afford it, existing inequalities and divisions within society are simply perpetuated. This the rationale for making special provision for those who experience the most severe forms of economic, social or cultural disadvantage.
Many of those who fall into this target group (e.g. rural dwellers, women, unskilled men, minorities) have very low levels of disposable income that can be used to pursue their education. Where an open school, college or university is under pressure to increase cost-sharing through higher student fees, there is the danger that the most disadvantaged learners will, once again, find themselves excluded. For this reason, consideration should be given to ways of providing for the neediest learners. There are several different options for achieving this objective.
Reduce Fees Across the Board
From an administrative point of view, it is easiest to reduce fees across the board for all students, but this is not advisable. In terms of income foregone, this approach is an expensive way of supporting disadvantaged students. For at least some of those who enrol for ODL studies, paying fees does not pose a significant hardship. Instead of targeting those students who are in greatest need of assistance this option benefits all students equally, even if they can afford to pay full fees.
Concessionary Fee Scheme
In many countries, there are schemes in place so that students from very poor families are not required to pay the full fee for attending a conventional school. ODL institutions can adopt such a concessionary fee scheme, but there are a number of drawbacks.
- The procedures for claiming this concession can involve a considerable amount of time and added expense, which tend to undermine the purpose of the scheme.
- If there is no independent mechanism for verifying the information supplied by applicants, there is always the potential for falsification. Once it becomes known that one person had benefited even though they did not qualify, then others are tempted to try, and the system can break down.
- Processing the additional paperwork generated by a concessionary fee scheme can increase the administrative burden on full-time and part-time staff of the ODL institution during the registration period, which is one of the busiest times of the year.
- Finally, where levels of disposable income are low, the majority of potential learners may qualify for the scheme. Under such circumstances, it would be more efficient to reduce fees across the board.
Payment by Instalments
Dividing the total amount due for fees into a series of smaller instalments and allowing students to pay these over time is another approach to address this problem. However, while it may be easier for most students to find the cash to make small payments periodically, those who are severely disadvantaged may still be unable to raise the required amount.
Inevitably there are problems with the collection of fees with this approach. Once students have registered and received their study materials, they may be slow in making subsequent payments. Dividing study materials into a number of batches and withholding them until instalments have been paid will result in increased administrative costs for the ODL institution. Pursuing defaulters to pay their outstanding fees is a time-consuming process and may produce negative publicity.
Student Loan Scheme
Student loan schemes are a common means for governments to assist promising but needy students to further their education at institutions of higher learning. In most cases, lending money for tertiary education is feasible, since graduates can usually find employment at salaries which enable them to repay the loan.
Unfortunately, the same is not true for those studying for a junior or senior secondary certificate, because these qualifications are often the minimum requirement for entry-level posts in waged employment. Furthermore, in many countries significant numbers of school leavers remain unemployed for considerable periods, since the formal sector of the local economy rarely grows fast enough to absorb all high school ‘graduates’. For these reasons, those who graduate from open schools and colleges may never be able to earn enough to repay the loan.
The final option for enabling disadvantaged learners to access education would be to introduce a scholarship scheme. This is the strategy adopted by many countries to support needy students at tertiary level. Such schemes ensure that the available funds are targeted at those who are most disadvantaged.
Providing scholarships need not involve any money changing hands. Instead, they can take the form of fee remission for successful applicants. The level of scholarship/fee remission would need to be determined, but scholarship students should not be exempted from the payment of all charges since it is desirable that they contribute something towards the cost of their own education.
In order to ensure that the process is transparent, written criteria for the selection of candidates need to be drawn up and publicised in advance. If the objective is to assist needy learner, the main emphasis should be placed on economic disadvantage rather than scholastic aptitude or academic achievement, though applicants would need to be learners in good standing. Special consideration might also be given to orphans and vulnerable children, those living with HIV/AIDS or other severely disadvantaged groups.
One mechanism that has been suggested for screening candidates and awarding scholarships is to utilise local committees that may already be in place to advise on the management of tutorial or study centres. Membership of such committees are likely to include one or more elected student representatives, a tutor, community leaders and the Head of Centre. Since members of these committees are residents of the locality, they are in a good position to know the family circumstances of applicants.
Procedural shortcomings on the part of some local committees will almost certainly lead to complaints of favouritism or nepotism and these will need to be investigated by officials from the ODL institution. Nevertheless, a scholarship scheme will enhance the status and responsibilities of centre committees, which can also be empowered to solicit funds from local companies and individuals to support promising learners who would not otherwise be able to continue their education. In this way, people can contribute to the development of human resources in their communities, thus increasing their stake and sense of ownership of ODL programmes at the local level.