Auditor General: Scholarships did not follow process

By NEIL HARTNELL

Tribune Business Editor

nhartnell@tribunemedia.net

Government officials have admitted that Ministry of Education scholarships are awarded to persons who do not go through the proper approval process or meet application deadlines.

The Auditor General’s report into the processes employed by the Scholarship and Education Loan Division (SELD), tabled in the House of Assembly this week, reveals that not all scholarship recipients are approved by the Board designated for this task as “other persons in the Ministry [of Education’s] leadership” can give the go-ahead outside the established processes.

The report reveals that the Division’s management conceded such practices existed, while also revealing that “exceptions were made outside our purview” to accept scholarship applications submitted after the due deadline expired.

These disclosures suggest that the scholarship awards process is open to potential abuse from arbitrary and political influences that threaten to undermine the concept of a Bahamian meritocracy, depriving more deserving candidates after much sought-after educational opportunities.

The Auditor General’s report, acknowledging the “risk” that some applicants may have received financial awards despite not meeting the qualifying criteria, agreed that this may have prevented persons who did make the requirements from obtaining scholarships.

These concerns are especially critical given that the division’s management admitted that typically just one out of every seven, some 500 out of 3,500 applicants who provide all required documents and are taking a “priority” subject, receive scholarships.

The Auditor General’s Office, which was supported by the Deloitte & Touche accounting firm in its assessment of the division’s processes, said: “During our review of the approval process it was discovered that all scholarship awardees may not be selected through the Board approval process.

“In addition, requests for Board approval reports were not readily available to determine if all applicants had been approved by the Board. Specifically, approvals can be granted by other persons in the Ministry’s leadership.”

Detailing the “implications” of this, the report added: “There is a risk that applicants may have been approved who may not have met the requirements at the time of the selection or at all. In addition, there are no controls in place to determine if applicants in the system were in fact approved by the Board as the reports were not stored in an easily accessible location.

“Consequently, applicants who met the requirements to receive awards may have been denied the awards. The Board should ensure that the Department’s approval process is adhered to at all times for the issuance of awards. Specific approval should be documented for each criteria of award for transparency along with the number of awards issued. Approvals should be properly maintained and readily available.”

In response, the scholarship division’s management admitted that applicants were approved outside the established processes. “While it is agreed that Ministry’s leadership may recommend approvals which have not been recommended by the National Scholarship Committee, such referrals were co-mingled with applications approved by the committee prior to the 2018-2019 cycle,” it conceded.

“Now, the written approval for this second group is provided to the administrator of SLED and, as indicated earlier, they are recorded on a separate list. These candidates may or may not be in compliance with the policy guidelines for Board approval.”

Responding to the Auditor General’s conclusion that more deserving applicants were being denied scholarships and financial assistance as a result, the division’s management complained: “It is important to point out that because of budgetary constraints a large percentage of qualified persons are not granted awards.

“Generally speaking, approximately 5,000 individuals apply annually for the National Scholarship Awards and approximately 3,500 are in submitted mode. However, funding is only available for approximately 500 of the students in submitted mode. This grouping consists of qualified persons with all supporting documents submitted who are pursuing one of the priority areas of study.”

The Budget constraints, though, would seem to increase the importance of ensuring only deserving, qualified scholarship applicants receive funding due to the scarcity of resources, and that this is achieved via a fair and transparent process.

Besides the “significant override” of the process, the Auditor General’s Office found that scholarship applications were being processed even if they missed the deadline or cut-off period by which they are due to be received.

“Students were able to request and obtain scholarships outside of the scholarship window, creating a backlog,” the report found. “Applications accepted after the Department’s deadline impact the internal approval schedules and create additional backlogs. The backlogs lead to excessive overtimes and payment delays to respective institutions.

“The Department should establish and adhere to set deadlines for the submission and approval of all applications, which should be adhered to. This would ensure an efficient process and assist with ensuring that the Department has the required resources to process applications, especially during the busier times of year.”

The division’s management, in response, indignantly said the Auditor General’s findings were “inaccurate” as deadlines were in place for submitting and approving applications. It added that the cut-off dates for 2018-2019 were “strictly followed”.

But then, in the same breath, it admitted: “However, exceptions were made outside the committee’s purview and these were recorded separately.”

The Auditor General’s Office, together with Deloitte & Touche, reviewed the scholarship division’s policies and procedures, interviewed and met with staff, and examined 405 existing applicant files and 267 belonging to new ones.