Is it possible for a Government in Barbados to charge its citizens for their education and survive? Is there a party bold enough to determine that a specific, and perhaps substantial, portion of university education must be paid for directly by the recipient?
Since the economic challenges facing the University of the West Indies generally, but more specifically the Cave Hill campus, surfaced more than a year ago with the disclosure that the Barbados Government had been tardy in meeting its obligations to the institution, there has been much debate about the cost of university education and questions raised about who should pay.
There has also been a strong emotional component to the discussion, with the invariable suggestion that persons who have already benefitted from free tertiary education are in essence now trying to prevent today’s student from getting his due. In the face of such a stance it is going to be all but impossible for reason to reign.
But as is the case with a number of the “social” services that we have become accustomed to getting for free or significantly less than the true economic cost, we need to arrive at a national consensus on how we will approach the issue of tertiary education delivery in Barbados — or for Barbadians at the UWI.
With annual costs to the Government approaching $200 million, with the university actively working to ensure it is capable of offering more places to Barbadians, and with an increasing number of citizens recognising clearly that further education is a necessity for social and economic advancement, Barbados needs to have a major national discussion on tertiary education with the purpose of arriving at a clear plan for the future.
Our nation will not be able to get the benefit of a prepared citizenry if education debates are characterised by battle lines that are marked by political colours. Our development to date has largely been because education has been treated as special by all Governments, and while those of the past might not have had to deal with the flavour of economic challenge that now confronts us, we cannot retreat to party lines at the expense of our people.
Like it or not, unless at the national level we can demonstrate in the short to medium turn how we will increase and sustain our revenues, there is no way we will be able to maintain spending on tertiary education as we have in the past. Our politicians can fool those who will listen but not think, if they wish, but any Barbadian who reads with his eyes open must recognise by now that the formulas of the past can’t work with the numbers of today.
We do not believe it is in the best interest of our national development to reduce access to tertiary education, so we must find creative ways that are non-traditional to help us achieve our objectives. Perhaps, instead of $100 million to the UWI we may have to deposit $150 million to the Student Revolving Loan Scheme, with the scheme paying some portion of each student’s costs, with repayment expected to begin by some specified time after graduation.
Such an approach would guarantee the university its payments, while over time building up a substantial fund that sustains tertiary education with minimal annual input directly from the Treasury.
Some may conclude that our suggestion is not workable, and it just may not be, but our larger point is that we need to start talking in the search for creative alternatives. For sure we can’t go to the National Insurance Scheme annually for $50 odd million without putting the pensions of all at grave risk.