Questions raised over Olympic ‘scholarships’

Young Nation Builder’s Fund under the microscope as government promises reform

Two students were given “sports contracts” of $28,000-a-year to train for the 2016 Olympics without any input from the Cayman Islands Olympic Committee or Ministry of Sports, an internal government investigation into the Young Nation Builder’s Scholarship Fund has revealed.

The two “contracts,” which were not attached to any school or academic institution, will now be reviewed by the Sports Ministry as government seeks to reform a system labeled “disastrous” by Premier Alden McLaughlin.

The Premier, in a speech in the Legislative Assembly last month, accused his predecessor McKeeva Bush of administering the fund “out of his back pocket,” personally deciding who received scholarships and who did not, without expert input or clear qualification criteria being set. Mr. Bush has denied any wrongdoing claiming the fund gave elite students a chance to progress.

In response to the internal audit findings, Mr. Bush said Wednesday, “As far as I know, the students who received the sports grants were recommended by associations.”

In a news release this week, the Premier’s office said the fund had also been used to award grants to Olympic hopefuls, without any obvious merit-based selection process.

“Two Young Nation Builder’s Scholarship Fund recipients received a three-year commitment of CI$28,000 per annum from April 1, 2013, to support their track and field training, reportedly in preparation for the 2016 Olympics. There was no involvement of the Ministry of Sports in awarding or administering this grant.

“Because there was no educational or scholarship component, administration of that financial aid has been handed over to the Ministry of Sports.”

It was not clear on Wednesday if the grants would be scrapped completely and Sports Minister Osbourne Bodden did not respond to requests for clarification by press time.

The Cayman Islands Olympic Committee confirmed it had no input into the selection of the sports scholarship recipients under the Nation Building Fund.

A spokeswoman for the committee said the normal process for Olympic hopefuls to receive financial support was for their sports federation to make an application to the committee on their behalf. The committee then applies to the International Olympic Committee, which makes the final decision on which athletes get funding.

The IOC pays grants of $1,000-a-month to support athletes in their preparation for the two years prior to the Olympics. Athletes can also apply to the Cayman Islands Olympic Committee which administers grant funding from a variety of international bodies to compete in other competitions, such as the Commonwealth Games, in preparation for an Olympic bid.

All applicants must meet strict qualifying criteria to be eligible for grant aid and, in the case of International Olympic Committee grants, their funding can be cut at any time if they fail to meet certain standards.

Former Premier Bush has previously claimed he used the Young Nation Builder’s fund to provide extra support for elite students. Mr. Bush believes government could face legal action if it tries to scrap or alter multi-year contracts signed under his regime.

He accepted some students had received more than others but said some universities and programs cost more than others, claiming the aim of the fund was to give “extra capable” students the chance to progress.

The Progressives government has already announced that it will ditch the Young Nation Builder’s fund and all scholarships will be brought under the auspices of the Education Council, with administers the bulk of government scholarships with an upper limit of $25,000.

The 17 students currently receiving more than the $25,000 maximum have been notified that their grants will be reduced at the end of the current academic year and advised to make new arrangements to finance their studies.

The bulk of the 116 grants handed out under the fund are below the $25,000 threshold, though nine students are also receiving grants from the tourism ministry and two students are receiving three government scholarships – from the fund, from tourism and from the education council.

The results from a Ministry of Education investigation, referred to as an “internal audit,” also highlight two scholarships handed out to high-school students of around $60,000 apiece annually.

The audit further highlighted 12 sports-related high school scholarships awarded at a cost of $306,754, apparently without any input from the Ministry of Sports.

“The purported primary purpose of these scholarships appeared to be to further the athletic skills of the high school students. However, the Ministry of Sports was not involved in setting any sports related standards or goals to be achieved,” the news release added.

The Progressives government has indicated that it plans to overhaul the scholarship system to ensure all students get a fair chance of government aid.

“It is government’s intention to level the playing field and establish proper and transparent criteria that will be applied to all scholarship applicants and recipients,” said the news release.

Premier McLaughlin has yet to explain exactly how the new system for administering nearly $13 million in scholarship funding will work. The previous PPM administration faced accusations of neglect and incompetence over its running of the system, including allegations that students with a Grade Point Average of 1.0 or less – equivalent to a D or lower – were still getting scholarships.

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