Making Tertiary Education More Affordable

June 18, 2017

Government's recent bailout of hundreds of local tertiary students represented a timely reminder of the imbalance between the potential demand by Jamaican students for the provision of tertiary education and the inability of these students to afford such services.

Recall that in April this year - the onset of the 'exam season' - hundreds of university and college students faced the grim reality of being barred from sitting their final exams because of unpaid tuition fees. This situation has become a recurring decimal each year as more and more students seek to attend tertiary institutions, while being unable to meet the rising costs of such higher-level studies.

Add to this the factor of continuing globalisation, which has driven universities to become business enterprises. Universities everywhere are reducing their reliance on public support and are seeking to become more entrepreneurial. Compare the University of the West Indies, Mona, now to 15 years ago.

Government's injection of $300 million to assist needy students at the UWI, Mona, the University of Technology, and the Caribbean Maritime Institute campuses is a decision that was indeed applauded by the Opposition People's National Party and student leaders.


However, critics of the move contend that Government has already allocated more than enough resources to the tertiary sector. Government seemed to acknowledge that the additional support would likely be a one-off situation that it would prefer not to repeat.

It seems, therefore, that the tertiary education sector is ripe for disruptive innovations that can enhance or replace traditional methods for the delivery of tertiary education with quality educational services that are more affordable, accessible, and indeed, even more relevant.

In 1995, Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen defined a disruptive innovation as one that eventually disrupts an existing market and value network, displacing established market-leading firms, products, and alliances, while instituting a new market and value network.

Well-known disruptive innovations include the automobile, which replaced rail transport; the personal computer that replaced mainframes; and video recording, which replaced film reels.

According to standard disruptive innovation principles, incumbent firms direct resources towards sustaining technologies that bring about no prominent strategic change. Such sustaining innovations only offer incremental enhancements in the performance of existing products meant for current customers. Thus, an organisation's long-term survival can be ascertained by evaluating strategies and determining whether they were meant for sustaining or disrupting.

Is there an opportunity for newer tertiary institutions that do not have the luxury of governmental support to use informational technology solutions, for instance, to deliver more relevant, customised educational courses at lower costs with high quality, while serving national development goals, thus luring away potential customers from small and medium-sized institutions?

Another issue is the lack of focus of small and medium institutions, which are currently engaged in competition with each other. Furthermore, governance of the education sector in Jamaica has been an area of concern for some time. However, internationally, the governance of universities has since changed a great deal. A university is a community of stakeholders concerned with teaching, learning, and research. It is a force for socially responsible service and national development, and, whether ostensibly public or private, must be an entrepreneurial business to survive and grow.

During the decade preceding 2016, a range of business enterprise models for university management and structures emerged in many countries and have been incorporated in numerous universities.

Sustaining innovations allows organisations to reap profits by improving educational and service quality for their valuable current customers. Disruptive innovations result in the reshaping or creation of new markets. New entrants challenge traditional educational institutions by delivering enhanced educational products driven by quality assurance in more convenient ways to growing populations of increasingly demanding customers.

In the United States, for example, the costs of tertiary education have been increasing, not because of rising tuition fees, but because of rising infrastructural and other educational expenses. This has resulted in a trend towards unbundled higher education in many ways, enabling students to customise more affordable educational experiences from a range of components.


Within Jamaica, only time will tell whether most of our newer private and public tertiary institutions will begin to adopt similar strategies to provide education products, which, over time, can begin to rival and replace the educational offerings of many incumbents and competitors.

Meanwhile, the Jamaican State has a role to play in helping to level the playing field for the delivery of market-driven, quality education and training programmes to financially challenged clients. Refocusing assistance to such students, while maintaining the world-class standards required to develop the nation's human resources, enables the country to more effectively compete in the global economy.