PHILIPSBURG–Government is of the opinion that dialogue aimed at reopening University of St. Martin (USM) was prematurely cut off by the USM board and hopes the board will rethink its position and the weight of its decision to refuse Government’s offer of a financial injection and emergency aid. The USM board is refusing to sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU) proposed by Education Minister Silveria Jacobs in November for a financial injection for the institution aimed at keeping it open. The Government of St. Maarten stands firm in its resolve and commitment to assist USM to survive, as it is the only opportunity for many for higher education on the island,” Jacobs said in a press release issued late Tuesday evening. “Government pledges to continue to support and increase support to USM; however, in a transparent, efficient and effective manner where accountability is adhered to.”
Jacobs said on Monday, December 11, that she, the Department of Education and the Divisions of Inspection and Exams had met with the USM board represented by President Valerie Giterson-Pantophlet, Vice-President Wycliffe Smith, Secretary Marcella Henry and financial official Robert Judd in what the Ministry had expected would be the final meeting to come to an agreement regarding saving USM from imminent closure.
“After almost two weeks of discussion and correspondence back and forth about the MOU, it appeared last Friday that the [USM board – Ed.] was prepared to accept the proposed financial injection of three monthly instalments of 230,000 guilders to get classes restarted. However, that was not the case,” it was stated in the release
“On Friday, while the Ministry prepared for a meeting to fine-tune the agreement and further explain how the feedback of Legal Affairs and USM was worked out in the document, USM handed us a letter and postponed the meeting to discuss further with other board members not present.
“The Ministry, taking USM’s concerns into consideration, further tweaked the MOU in USM’s favour, conceding that due to the emergency the injection would be free and clear of any deductions and that the study financing tuition and other fees (balance 2015-2016) due would still be paid as well, including the current subsidy USM continues to receive (NAf. 63,750 monthly) without living up to the obligations for such.”
USM was to receive a payment of NAf. 230,000 after the MOU was signed. The Council of Ministers was expected to render a decision this week and payment would occur shortly after. The second payment was set to take place on January 8, with the third payment in February. The University would also bill government as usual for the students who receive study financing as soon as they could start which could be NAf. 170,000 to NAf. 200,000 depending on the number of students.
USM was further expected to cooperate with Government Accountants Bureau SOAB to do the financial review of its books from 2013 to 2016, as well as allow an investigation into the financial management and structure of the board and its affiliates (USM Endowment Foundation, MDC N.V.) and provide recommendations to restructure it to improve accountability, efficiency, transparency and management of USM in relation to its usage of public funds and guaranteeing quality education.
Once financial statements are completely reviewed and approved by SOAB, the board would also be eligible to receive the 10 per cent withheld (NAf. 170,000). USM was also expected to report monthly on the usage of the money to prevent it being used for old debts and to ensure that funds are used to execute the core objective of the university – education.
USM had mentioned in its closure options presented to the Minister in writing the possibility for the USM Endowment Foundation to secure a loan to pay off debts and so this also was included in the MOU to ensure that the new injection of funds would not be used for this purpose, it was stated in the release.
USM was also to submit all necessary documentation for the Ministry to process an increase in structural subsidy request (made November 2, 2017) of NAf. 3 million (not US $3 million as erroneously stated in Wednesday’s edition of this newspaper) per year by January 31, for the Ministry to have time to prepare the advice for a decision by March 30. This increase would remain in place until the Higher Education Ordinance could go into effect or until further increases are requested.
Government also highlighted the finalisation of the Higher Education Ordinance as a high priority with deadline December 2018. USM demanded that it be at Parliament by June 2018, but the Minister and Department Head of Education explained why that was not possible in the current situation, as collaboration with Legal Affairs is necessary for vetting. The Ministry is also seeking technical assistance to aid with the legal advice for this and other ordinances.
A formation plan of its staffing and the hiring of a Dean and President were also expected with the restart of the semester, the release said. “All this was presented with the intention to immediately inject much-needed funds, provide assistance with reporting, recommendations for restructuring, increase efficiency, move towards a higher structural subsidy and the finalisation of higher education ordinance to promote quality higher education on St. Maarten at USM.
“USM sat down in the meeting on Monday and after a few introductory words by the Ministry handed over the letter stating they would stick to their decision of November 23 and close the University, as the offer from Government was too late, was not sufficient, and they could not restart in January, as there was no registration in November and holidays were approaching.”
USM stated in its letter that the only viable options to restart were getting sufficient funds (which was offered in the MOU and its regular subsidy never stopped), getting a structured increase (which was offered as well in the MOU) and guaranteeing the higher education ordinance by June 2018, which is a priority in the MOU with a deadline of December 2018.
“USM has decided to jeopardise the futures of all students currently unable to continue their studies or start in January and put the employment of their employees further at risk in order to prove that they are right and the Government, which should have finalised legislation for higher education, caused their demise,” the release said.
“For the record, USM did inform in writing that one of the six options available, including filing for moratorium, was ‘negotiating with the incoming coalition to restart USM … .’ This statement would require much explanation as that date is not yet known and the same Ministry and departments would have to advise the new Minister as well,” the release said.
According to the release, the land on which USM stands is leased from Government and Government’s permission is needed to transfer such assets or take loans/mortgages on it, “so any other plans would require transparency towards Government.”
The board is also further reminded that “as long as they continue to not hold classes that their current subsidy can be suspended or stopped, according to the subsidy ordinance, pending further agreements. These are all scenarios Government has avoided over the years, including post-Irma, in the interest of continuity of the institution and the important role it plays in the community.”
The board should “seriously consider the consequences of its actions to the students, staff and community of St. Maarten.”
USM submitted a request in the afternoon of Tuesday, December 12, to meet with the Ministry of Education, Culture, Youth and Sport to revisit and discuss the proposed MOU again. That meeting was expected to be held on Wednesday. The outcome could not be ascertained.