Whether or not you agree with what he outlined as his Government’s programme to get the economy back on track, it would be hard to deny that Minister of Finance and Economic Affairs Chris Sinckler had a lot to say during his three-hour Budget presentation yesterday.
However, it is also very clear from the reaction of Barbadians far and near, that nothing he said — not the multi-million dollar capital works projects, not the tourism incentives, not the freeze of public sector hiring — touched the population like the decision to make Barbadians studying at the University of the West Indies pay tuition fees from next year.
The words had hardly left his lips before the social media were hot with comments for and against. What’s clear from the discourse so far, however, is that the comments back and forth on the subject of university education, led largely by Government spokesmen and politicians generally, has done nothing to set a positive tone for what is now taking place.
Truth be told, Barbadians should not have been surprised by the announcement, since even though it was not exactly sure what was coming, only the intellectually blind would not have seen that something was on the highway headed in their direction.
What is unfortunate is how the Government chose — yesterday and prior — to sell its plan to impose tuition fees on Barbadians.
For nearly two years there has been a running dispute between the university, and in particular the administration of the Cave Hill campus, and education and finance officials over the state’s failure to pay its commitment to the institution. What therefore emerges now, as evidenced by the comments of those who have taken to the social media, is that the Government has not paid its bill and is now passing the burden on to current and future students.
Sinckler, Minister of Education Ronald Jones, Minister of Commerce and International Business Donville Inniss, Prime Minister Freundel Stuart and others who raised questions about the quality of students, the quality of teaching, the quality of graduates etc, within the context of an unpaid bill, all served to cast what is now occurring in the wrong light.
It should have been a systematic, structured national debate about the cost of tertiary education delivery vis a vis the financial ability of the country. Debt should not have been a factor since money legitimately owed is a commitment and men and women who renege from commitments only tarnish their reputations and lessen their credibility.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with a debate over whether a Govermment/country can afford a service it has traditionally offered for free, regardless of whether or not it is as emotionally tied to the aspirations and hopes of a people as university education is to Barbadians. So we wish that from this point onward money owed to the university is not linked to whether tuition fees should be charged.
The second major failure of the Government on this issue relates to a weakness of politicians generally — the apparent belief that everything must include some element of stealth and intrigue. Had the Government stated up front that it was headed in this direction, what Barbadians would have been looking to the Budget for would have merely been the numbers. The discourse on the efficacy of the decision would already have taken place.
Our politicians need at this stage of our development and Independence to place more trust in the people and their intelligence.
A third element, again resulting from the Government/politician-led debate has now added inter-island rivalries to the mess, with non-Barbadians using the words of our own politicians to cast the typical Bajan university student, particularly at Cave Hill, as lazy and indifferent.
The protracted, in many ways nonsensical public debate about Bajans taking six or seven years to complete a four-year degree programme, rather than dealing with them and the system that facilitated them when it occurred, was another example of how poorly we have managed tertiary education issues in recent years.
While we suspect that the Opposition, seeking quite legitimately to capitalise on this matter, will promise to reverse the Democratic Labour Party when they return to power, it does not lessen the fact that level-headed thinkers in our society still need to lead a sensible debate on the future of university education funding.
The only sensible options can’t be either that the student finds the money or the Government pays. In fact, we strongly believe that with prudence and proper planning Government can cut its funding to the university by an even larger amount than outlined yesterday, while not depriving a single Barbadian desirous of a college degree of getting it.