Hon. Minister Plenipotentiary, Mr. Mathias Voges,
Hon. Deputy Minister Plenipotentiary, Mr. Richard Panneflek,
President and Board Members of the Soualiga Foundation,
St. Martiners in The Netherlands,
Ladies and Gentlemen.
I want to begin by thanking the organizers of this forum for the invitation extended to me to be here with you today. I believe it is a measure of the importance I attach to this event that I decided to attend this forum. We are here because each and every one of you is very important to the process of nation-building we have embarked upon. Each and every one of you has a significant role to play in building the new St. Martin nation we have all been dreaming of: a new St. Martin nation full of opportunities for you; a new St. Martin nation which will thrive on the knowledge and skills you have come here to acquire.
Let me submit right from the onset that a new, progressive, truly democratic and humane St. Martin will be impossible to build without the input of each and every one of you. I do not know of any nation that succeeds in this modern world when large numbers of its brightest minds remain in some sort of self-exile in a foreign land.
I am sure when you left the shores of St. Martin, it was to come here in pursuit of the proverbial Golden Fleece. I very much doubt that it was to flee the island, abandon your families and friends, to set up shop permanently in this country. Certainly, that could not have been your intention; it was never the intention of the government that sent you, either. I want to believe that the sole reason you decided to come to The Netherlands was to seek an education and return home to take up your rightful place and make a meaningful contribution to the development of your island. If that is the reason for your being here, why then, you may ask, are we having this discussion? Why this forum? You know the answers to these questions better than I do.
Annually, between 275 and 300 students apply for study financing from the St. Martin government, out of which an average of 150 receive it. Approximately 75 to 80 students leave every year at the end of July to further their studies in The Netherlands. If all of them were to successfully complete their studies in the prescribed time, this would mean that over the last 20 - 25 years, St. Martin should have had at least some 1,100 to 1,500 graduates from The Netherlands alone. In one generation, the island should have been able to solve its manpower problem at the level of professionals: lawyers, doctors, nurses, teachers, accountants, engineers, ICT specialists, etc. How I wish that were the case, but you and I know that the stark reality is very different: in all these areas that I have just mentioned and more, St. Martin is in dire need of qualified personnel.
At present, there are 276 St. Martin students on study financing here in Holland. The government of St. Martin spends an average of 1,933 Euros on each student per year, according to the latest figures from S4.
Considering that each student spends between 7 and 11 years in The Netherlands to complete his or her Bachelor’s/Master’s degree, (in sharp contrast to an average of 5 years for those who go to the United States or study in the Caribbean region, for example), it means that effectively, government spends a total of between 13,500 and 21,000 Euros (in rounded figures or an average of 17,000 Euros) on each St. Martin student who completes his/her studies within that period in The Netherlands.
This simple math leads us to ask: what is the return on our educational investment? I have already commissioned a study to give us an answer to this question, but I am sure, given the fact that there is an estimated 68% drop out rate of our students in Holland, your guess would be as good as mine.
Let me hasten to explain that this “drop out” rate includes those who, for whatever reason, change their courses – some several times before they finally settle on one – and those who discontinue their studies for a while to pick them up again after a few years of working.
The “drop out” rate is not necessarily synonymous with what I can call the “stay out” rate, that is the number of students who, whether they graduated or not, decide to stay out of the island rather than return. However, it is not unreasonable to equate both rates because in effect, those who “drop out” are most likely to “stay out”. This basically means that two (2) out of every three (3) St. Martiners who come to study in Holland do not return to the island to contribute to its development.
Why is this so? What are the consequences of this for the present and future of St. Martin? What can be done to reverse this situation? These are questions this forum was convened to shed some light on, and gladly enough, they are issues of such serious concern to government that we have made it a priority to deal with them.
Why do St. Martin students who come to study in Holland choose not to return home? I am sure each individual person would have their own reasons, but generally, the most common ones include:
- It is very difficult to get a good job.
- Life is too expensive and salaries too low on St. Martin
- Government does not care about its own people
- There is too much corruption
- Come back to what?
I am sure there are many more reasons why so many of you do not think coming back home is your best option. But let us take a closer look at some of the reasons I have just listed.
Securing a good job in St. Martin is not always as difficult as it is often portrayed to be. The critical issue here is information: knowing what is available where and what the requirements are for the job. Government has a website, and the various ministries post vital information regarding job vacancies on it. The Personnel Affairs Department (P&O) also has a website where it lists what is available.
However, I do not want to create the impression that Government has to hire everyone. There are a lot more vacancies in the private sector that need to be filled by qualified St. Martiners. Our labor laws require that all companies seeking to fill positions within their operations first advertise these locally. This may be one of the areas we need to look at where it concerns those of you studying abroad who may be interested in those positions. You may be unaware of these vacancies because they are advertised in the first place in the local media and, therefore, you may not have access to this information.
My advice to you is to keep abreast of developments at home. Several of the private companies have their own websites where you can find information regarding vacancies. Similarly, I would like to encourage you to apply for internships back home and maintain contact with the employers, keeping them well-informed of your study progress and expected graduation date. Through internships, you build relationships with your potential employer and have a much better idea of what is happening at home not only in that company, but also in others you may be interested in. By so doing, you would be keeping one foot in the door, so to speak, and this could almost guarantee you a job when you are ready to return home.
Let me stress at this point that your failure to return home upon completion of your studies opens the door for key positions to be filled by non- St. Martiners. You have to also realize that it is not only the study financing you were granted that would go to waste if you were not to return home after you finish, but also all the money spent training you from kindergarten to this point in your career. Each one of you who decides to stay out of the island that nurtured and educated you to remain in a country that is eager to send its own professionals down as highly paid technical assistants is de facto giving up his/her place in the St. Martin society and inviting foreigners to take it over.
Concerning the issue of cost of living, and the salaries that may be associated with the jobs you may be seeking, this is relative and must not only be viewed in empirical terms but also taking into account other important factors that may not be quantified in dollars and cents but which, I am sure, are equally important. There is a reason why our elders say “East or West, home is the best.” Living and working at home, in spite of some of the frustrations, can never be compared with working in a foreign land, where no matter the passport you carry, you will always remain a non-belonger and in many cases, be treated as such by your hosts, no matter how understanding and gracious they may be. But more importantly, as my advisor Calvin Mardembrough, who is here with me, likes to say, “a dollar is a dollar in every man’s country.” The fact of the matter though is that there are many young professionals in and out of government who are doing very well. They made the right decision to come back home.
Of course, there is the other matter of having to pay back the DUO study financing agency in Holland in Euros while you will be earning guilders. Let me inform you that DUO has special arrangements to calculate the monthly payments in accordance with the salary you earn and the currency in which this is paid.
We now come to the perception that government “does not care about its own people.” Or that there is too much corruption. I will try as much as possible to steer clear of the political undertones in such statements, but let us consider the actual facts, which I believe, as young students and professionals, should be what you should be concerned about.
This is my second official visit to The Netherlands since I took office some 18 months ago. Following an established tradition, I accompanied those of you who came here last summer. There are very few countries in the world where the person charged with education gets on the plane with a batch of students to accompany them to their place of study and ensure that they settle down properly. As far as I know, the Dutch Minister of Education does not accompany any group of Dutch students going to study in the United States, for example. However, this could never be construed as a sign that the Dutch government does not “care about its own students.”
The policies of this government where it concerns education are centered on the well-being and progress of the student, both at home and abroad. It is an established rule in my Ministry that students have priority over everything else.
I must make mention also of the St. Maarten Student Support Services (S4), a foundation, which as its name suggests, was established to care for St. Martin students in The Netherlands.
We are currently evaluating the tasks carried out by S4 and other persons, to determine which ones are definitely necessary and which may have to be discontinued in the future. It is important for me to stress at this point that the idea is you to become more independent young people, meaning that S4 may only be required to secure housing for arriving new students and ensuring that they are settled and admitted to the educational institution they have chosen, and generally helping them to make a smooth transition from St. Martin to their new environment in The Netherlands.
In an effort to keep track of our students residing in Holland and to better monitor their progress, I have held discussions with DUO and as a result we are strongly considering going back to making our students’ financial administration one of the core tasks of the S4 organization or whichever organization may be tasked with handling our students affairs in the future.
Now, tell me, in spite of all of this, is it fair to claim that “government does not care” about you?
The charge of “too much corruption” is a serious one. Let me say that there is no level of corruption that is acceptable to this government. We have a zero tolerance policy towards corruption as evidenced in the various checks and balances that have been put in place to ensure government functions in a transparent, just and equitable manner based on the principles of good governance.
I admit that we have an image problem, especially with the Dutch media, which has customarily painted St. Martin in less than flattering light. I can assure you we are doing all within our power not to give them any excuse to continue in this vein. Every country has its own share of negatives and positives, and believe me, the positives outweigh the negatives in St. Martin, no matter how the media portrays us.
So, come back to what, you still ask? I would be deceiving you if I told you that it is all a bed of roses at home. It is not. Jobs do not come to you automatically; they seldom do anywhere in the world. You have to go after the jobs. This is an exciting time in the history of St. Martin. As I said earlier, we are engaged in a process of nation-building and we need all hands on deck. You will therefore be coming back to a St. Martin that is a work in progress; a St. Martin whose destiny you can help define and shape; a St. Martin which your children and grandchildren will be able to inherit with pride, knowing that you were part of the construction crew.
To lure you back home, government has quite a package of incentives that should make your decision much easier.
After completing their studies, students returning to St. Martin to work for government for a minimum of 3 years are entitled to the following allowances:
• Relocation Cost of
NAfls. 3.750 for those who are married and NAfls. 2.000 for the single ones, plus an allowance of NAfls. 250,- per child.
• You and your legitimate family members will also receive Economy class tickets for your flight back to St. Martin.
• Similarly, you will be compensated for the transportation costs of your household items, including car, or alternatively, you get NAfls. 5,000 to cover your shipping expenses.
Once you are back on the island, you are entitled to receive a cash advance of NAfls. 6,000 plus a maximum stay of 6 weeks in a hotel (with you making a 15% contribution).
After working a minimum of three years with government, you will qualify for a maximum 20% of your student loan to be converted into a grant. In other words, you will now only have to pay back 40% of your study financing cost.
The incentives in the private sector, of course, vary depending on the size of the company and your level of entry.
Do you still need more reasons to make up your mind to return home after you have completed your studies? Perhaps you may wish to examine with me the consequences of deciding otherwise.
Apart from the waste of scarce financial resources which I have already outlined, there are serious developmental implications of what, in essence, can be considered a brain drain of sorts. Why should St. Martin, a dependent territory of The Netherlands, be sending its sons and daughters to study in this country only for them to stay there and help continue to develop it? Does it not behoove The Netherlands, in the spirit of the constitutional ties that bind us, to also join hands with the government of St. Martin to ensure that this brain drain is reduced or eliminated altogether?
Put differently, The Netherlands does not need the help of St. Martin for its further development; to the contrary, St. Martin can do with more targeted help from The Netherlands to achieve sustainable development. It is my considered opinion that one way such help could be rendered is to partner with St. Martin to guarantee that our students return home at the completion of their studies here. How that partnership can work effectively is what we are seeking now in our new relationship with the Dutch government. It is untenable in today’s world that tiny St. Martin should invest so much in educating its children for The Netherlands to be the ultimate beneficiary of this investment.
But it would be disingenuous of me not to recognize that the decision to stay here, where you are not really needed, instead of returning to your homeland, where your services are critical to its development, is a very personal one. And one aspect of that personal decision which is seldom discussed publicly is the disappointment and even shame that accompanies the failure to accomplish the objective of your sojourn here.
In other words, failure in your studies often translates into failure to return home. Conversely, the more successful you are in your studies, the more willing you would be to pack up your bags to come back home. It is, therefore, very important to ensure a much higher rate of success amongst you. That is where you come in. Giving it your best shot is the minimum St. Martin expects of you. I am confident you will not let yourselves or your island down. St. Martin needs you; each and every one of you. I, therefore, urge you to “study successfully and return successfully” as the theme of this forum states.
I look forward to a very interesting and rewarding exchange of ideas with you during this forum.
I thank you.