Still in limbo!

IT’S a new year but the same state of limbo for some Jamaican students who fled a war-torn Ukraine after the Russian invasion last February still exists.

The medical students, who had left Jamaica because of the exorbitant cost to study locally, had been studying in Ukraine and had already advanced to different stages of their programmes. Now, almost a year later, a majority of the students haven’t been able to continue their studies.

At The University of the West Indies (The UWI) the annual tuition for medicine is US$28,000, and when subsidised by Government that goes down to US$5,800. Meanwhile, in Ukraine, the tuition ranges from a starting point of just US$3,500.

One student told the Jamaica Observer that she has been stagnant since she returned from the besieged European country.

“There is no difference. When we had a meeting with UWI we asked if there was anything that was put in place by the Government, and UWI told us the truth. They said, ‘Listen, there is no special treatment for the students from Ukraine.’ UWI said they were told to look at our grades and see if they can take us in, and then see if we could make it on the subsidy list — but there is no special help,” she said last Thursday.

Last March, The UWI’s Registrar Dr Donovan Stanberry said that the university was exploring the possibility of academic placement at the level which the students were studying.

However, Stanberry said that each situation would have to be analysed to ascertain whether or not the student met “the matriculation hurdle” of The UWI, and said the university was not in a position to grant lower tuition fees to the displaced students.

This, he said, was because of budgetary constraints and because it would present a “moral dilemma” to grant discounted tuition to students since the last batch of students didn’t have the same benefit.

Stanberry also noted that the students would have most likely met the required standard for entry into The UWI’s medical studies programme, noting that some of them had even been offered places at the university prior to their decision to pursue their studies in Ukraine.

The Sunday Observer understands that several of the students have applied to The UWI to start their medical studies anew, based on their Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) and Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examination (CAPE) passes. This means their credits earned while studying in Ukraine will not be transferred.

The previously mentioned student was one of them who got in. However, she told the Sunday Observer that she landed in the very situation that had forced her to go to Ukraine to study in the first place.

“The few persons who got in are the persons with the perfect score across CSEC and CAPE. I got a spot, but I have to pay $4.3 million per year. That was the driving factor, so how is it the pulling factor now?” she questioned.

Back in February, Jamaica Medical Doctors Association (JMDA) President Dr Mindi Fitz-Henley told the Sunday Observer that there has always been a long-standing issue in terms of affordability of tertiary education locally.

“Unfortunately it’s not a new situation, but it is something that definitely needs to be sorted out because it cannot be that what is holding people back from acquiring all of this knowledge that is well-needed in Jamaica is funds. There is [a] very limited number of sponsored spaces, and the difference between the sponsored and unsponsored students is very significant,” she said.

Shereika Mills, policy and advocacy coordinator for Jamaica Youth Advocacy Network (JYAN), agreed, saying tuition in Jamaica is too high if students are regularly looking to leave their homes and families to go abroad for no other reason than to be able to afford an education.

“It’s not lost on us that most of the students that leave are pursuing degrees that in Jamaica are quoted in US dollars and subject to fluctuating exchange rates. Students have been lobbying for years to have this removed, and for an explanation as to why the fees have to be quoted in US dollars. Students are further encouraged to look for cheaper options because the return on education investment is low in a country that doesn’t have adequate employment options,” Mills told the Sunday Observer.

Another student who, like others, left behind many important documents including their birth certificates, argued that more could be done to help them secure new copies of the record.

“They said they would give it to us on a discounted price [but] oh my God! Our parents lost so much during the transition, so much money was being spent, and they basically made it seem as if they were saying, ‘There is the plate in front of you, eat.’ Not even our birth papers could be covered for us.”

On Friday, February 25, 2022 the Government said it raised US$11,500 to assist the students who were under siege in Ukraine. The funds were the equivalent of $1.8 million.

The Government had said the funds were to be donated by the foreign affairs ministry to the students. The donation was raised through Prime Minister Andrew Holness’s Positive Jamaica Foundation.

“We haven’t heard anything about that money and we haven’t received anything. It can’t be that you’re complaining about crime and violence and the future of Jamaica being in jeopardy when there are 20-odd young youth who want to make a difference and we are being failed,” the student continued.

“The system is set up for rich people pickney; I don’t think it’s set up for poor people like us, if I’m being quite honest. And every time wi talk about it wi get backlash from Jamaica, so it makes no sense. We are saving our mental heath at this point. Whether we talk or not, it makes no difference.”

A third student told the Sunday Observer that they are on their own.

“We just have to see where the road leads. If I’m being honest, I did not expect to just land in another university because all universities are different, with different ways how they go about teaching, grading and all of that, so it is a waiting game — a long one — but that is what we have to deal with,” she said.

She added: “Things did not turn out how we wanted it to but we are alive, and that is what matters. I already completed over a year and the thought of having to start over from scratch is really demotivating, but all will work out when the time is right.”

The People’s National Party (PNP) had also announced on February 25 that it had launched an emergency fund of US$10,000 to assist students stranded in Ukraine.

In the statement, PNP President Mark Golding said he had also donated a personal sum to assist students to purchase train tickets to take them to Poland.

In June students were presented with cheques valued at $75,000 by Golding, to help defray expenses as they applied to other universities to continue their studies.

At the ceremony, Golding said that he was perturbed after the minstry of foreign affairs and foreign trade informed him that it had been instructed by the financial secretary to transfer the funds from the ministry’s account to the Consolidated Fund. Nonetheless, he thought that the money would still be used to benefit the students.

Golding then said that a follow-up letter from the ministry noted that a decision made was to use the PNP’s donation to reimburse the Government for part of the cost of transporting the students to Jamaica.

He said he found that development inappropriate against the backdrop that the Government had pledged to fully fund the cost to bring the students home.

Four months prior, while the students were still in Ukraine, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade Senator Kamina Johnson Smith said the Government had been fully engaged with the students and their parents, and that the Government managed to make arrangements for all the students to get to Poland, where further arrangements would have be made for their return to Jamaica.

Speaking during a virtual press conference at the time, Johnson Smith said the Government would underwrite all the costs for the students’ transportation and accommodation until they arrived in Jamaica.

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