Female Marshalls Education Minister, Hilda Heine, interviewed on US decision to cut college scholarships

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18 June 2012
Marshall Islands Education Minister, Hon Hilda Heine
Marshall Islands Education Minister, Hon Hilda Heine

The Marshall Islands has criticised the United States for its unilateral decision to phase out funding for college scholarships for Marshalls students. Up to $US 800,000  a year was being provided for scholarships under the supplemental education grant. Much of the money saved will be directed to the general education system.

Presenter:Brian Abbott

Speaker: Hilda Heine, Marshall Islands Education Minister

HEINE: Like any developing country compared to the building and sending students off to college to come back with career and college degrees it's essential for developing the workforce and developing the country. It's quite important to the Marshall Islands.

ABBOTT: Wasn't one of the problems with this scholarship scheme the fact that only 14 per cent of the students who were rewarded scholarships completed their education and graduated?

HEINE: Well this has been one of the issues earlier on. I think in the past two years though we've seen an increase in graduates out of the program. Students going off to college are better prepared these days, and so the number of graduates coming out has increased. I don't think it's 14 per cent anymore, it's increased to more like 40 per cent of the graduates, and it's increasing every year. So we see a trend of increased number of graduates coming out of that. I think initially that was an issue, but I don't think it's an issue anymore.

ABBOTT: How many students each year were helped by the scholarship funding?

HEINE: Well I think earlier we have about 125 students currently being assisted by the Marshall Islands scholarship program, and we see about like this year we saw around 35 students coming out of college. So when you break down the 125, there's about 30, 40 or so students per level.

ABBOTT: And do those students who then graduate go on to university?

HEINE: Well these are the ones who graduate from university and four year colleges, these are the ones that I'm referring to. The scholarship program is primarily for college and universities, four year institutions in the US system.

ABBOTT: Is there any way Marshall Islands can continue some sort of scholarship scheme when Washington stops the funding?

HEINE: Well the scholarship program will continue because not the entire scholarship program is funded by the contact monies, what they call supplemental education grant. Part of the scholarship program is funded by the ATG(?) and this is targeted funds that will be reduced. So yes the program will continue but it wouldn't be at the same level.

ABBOTT: Now the money that went into those supplemental grants is not being lost from education in Marshall Islands, it's going to boost general education I believe?

HEINE: That is the plan yes, and it will go towards teacher education, teacher development, so a lot of it will be supporting our efforts to ensure that all of our teachers are certified. And so it's not going to be lost, and I think the issue here is that there has been a unilateral decision to cut the program without the consultation that has been ongoing, being realised, I think the Marshall Island government was hoping to discuss with the US in August a final decision on the issue. So I think our issue here was the unilateral decision to make the cut.

ABBOTT: So there was no consultation before Washington pulled the rug?

HEINE: There has been consultation up to this point, but the final consultation is scheduled for August. And so we were preparing to have that discussion in August before this all came out. So I think that it's more the issue here.

ABBOTT: Now education is very, very important right across the Pacific, right across developing countries. What percentage of Marshall Islands children go to primary school and then what percentage move on to college education?

HEINE: Primary school meaning up to year 14 right?

ABBOTT: Yes as soon as they begin education?

HEINE: Primary education for us goes from kindergarten, which is year 5 or age 5 and up to grade 8, which is usually 13 or so. I think in the primary school about 95 per cent of our students, 80 to 95 per cent go to school depending on certain locations but they attend school. So that percentage is up there for primary. When it comes to secondary schools though we see a high drop-out rate along the way between first grade and eighth grade. So our programs have been attempting to get the students to stay in school longer so that there's an increased number of students finishing secondary education.

ABBOTT: So how are you trying to get the students to stay at school longer? What incentives are being offered?

HEINE: We're doing more tutorials, counselling, we're increasing those areas so that there is more support for students while in school. There has been kind of school by school programs in these areas, and we're trying to mandate more of these across all of our secondary schools so that there is increased retention at the secondary level.

ABBOTT: What's the greatest problem for education in Marshall Islands? Is it attracting qualified teachers?

HEINE: Yes actually that is our current problem and that is one of our biggest initiatives right now it to try to not only train the teachers we have on board, but also attract younger students, bright students into the teaching profession. So we're working at different initiatives, including increasing salaries of teachers at certain levels, as well as recruiting early. We have teacher academies in our high schools and we're looking at strengthening those academies so that we can interest young people into the teaching profession early on, and then bring them into a pre-service teacher education program at the College of the Marshall Islands and try to turn out more trained teachers on a consistent basis.

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See http://www.radioaustralia.net.au/pacific/radio/program/pacific-beat/us-decision-to-cut-marshalls-scholarships-under-fire/961062 for the radio interview.

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