by Shawn Cumberbatch
Politics towered over economics in the House of Assembly today, as Government and Opposition traded heavy verbal blows over the controversial decision to make Barbadians attending the University of the West Indies pay tuition fees.
The contentious issue dominated debate on the Financial Statement and Budgetary Proposals from early morning until the debate climaxed, with members on both sides vowing to take their battle to win public opinion outside of Parliament in the coming days.
And tonight, while former Prime Minister Owen Arthur warned government this and other fiscal policies would plunge the island deeper into recession, Prime Minister Freundel Stuart praised the Budget’s “courage” and said his administration had no choice but to fix Barbados’ unsound economy now.
In the heart of debate, senior Barbados Labour Party spokesman and veteran lawyer, St. Andrew MP George Payne, advised students to sue Government, and his colleagues called the policy shift backward and unreasonable.
But spokesmen for the ruling Democratic Labour Party defended the policy, which will take effect next year, and Minister of Education Ronald Jones promised Government would act as a “universal guarantor” for people who had to borrow to pay the thousands of dollars in tuition.
The issue also generated discussion outside of the Lower House, as Principal of the Graydon Sealy Secondary School Matthew Farley supported President of the Clement Payne Movement David Comissiong’s call for a national referendum on the issue of free university education.
Ever since Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler made his announcement of the policy change on Tuesday evening among a $436 million package of austerity measures, it has been the number one talking point among Barbadians.
Arthur, a former Minister of Finance, said Barbados was squandering the opportunity to build on the strength and calibre of its long envied social capital.
“Barbados faces the spectre of becoming a failed society unless at this critical juncture we agree to the right mix of policies and manage the trade offs between those policies in a manner that gives us a chance to avoid catastrophe,” he said.
“I do not believe frankly that the Government’s growth strategy is of a nature that will counteract a recessionary tendency of $450 million in tax increases coming four years after stagnation.”
The Prime Minister, said, however that Government “came to this debate on the clear understanding that if a building is structurally unsound there is no safe room in that building”.
“And similarly if an economy is allowed to become structurally unsound there is no sector of the economy that will not be affected by that unsoundness,” he said.
“And therefore the policies which we brought to the country in this budget were designed to ensure that an unsoundness in our economic structure that could have untoward consequences for every sector of this society, our households and our businesses could be fended off.”
Earlier in the day it was the turn of the Parliamentarians sitting on opposing sides to have their say and UWI was issue number one.
It was Payne, a Queen’s Counsel, who made arguably the most controversial assertion, however, as he advised Barbadians currently enrolled at UWI’s campuses that they had every right to take legal action against Government’s proposed “draconian” imposition.
“I am of the opinion that persons already at the University of the West Indies, might very well have a case for bringing an action against Government, because of the fact that they (students) have been made to believe … these students have been told specifically by the agents of government; the headmasters, the Ministry of Education; there are certain documents circulating which indicate very clearly, that they would not have to pay fees for three years; they have acted upon it,” he declared.
“If the government decides that they must pay and they are not in an position to do so; I must say to those students who are already at the university, I am telling them, ‘do not pay one red cent’.”
Jones, who spent the majority of his 30 minute contribution tonight dealing with the UWI tuition matter, disclosed that when he held discussions with members of the UWI Cave Hill Students Guild recently they were not pleased and had made recommendations “to help the process”.
But the minister, who described the current firestorm a “futile fight” and called for it to end, said given the heavy financial load Government had to carry, officials could not avoid reducing the state’s financial contribution to UWI at this time.
“This is a search for a formula to maintain some level of sustainability… It is not a shut project, this is not a closed project. It is an evolving project … but we are trying to find a mechanism to hold something for the future because we are not going to shut down as a country,” he said.
“…I understand we are holding the future in our hands at a most difficult time so that is why we came up with this formula. No one will be turned away … because we don’t want to create a burden and we will work out a process through which they (students) can repay (loans)… So we are not sending you begging or scrambling about Barbados,” Jones added, noting that since coming to office the current Administration paid UWI $606.2 million and still owed it $182 million.
Opposition spokesman, St. George North MP Gline Clarke, also bashed the tuition fee decision, and said UWI graduates, not new students, should be made to contribution to tuition payments.
“I am saying the choice today of asking parents to pay for their children is unfortunate. I am saying that the Government has a choice… Why can’t you come and say ‘Look all graduates can have a small tax, a levy’, so that every graduate of the University of the West Indies would pay that rather than asking the present students to pay,” he recommended.
Minister of Industry, International Business, Commerce and Small Business Development, Donville Inniss disagreed, however.
Inniss said the Student Revolving Loan Fund had been recapitalised and restructured to ensure that any Barbadian student entering any of the three UWI campuses were not denied access to them.
“And we have gone a step further and stated that in the few cases where one did not qualify to borrow money the state will pay. So no Barbadian can come and say that they were being denied access to the University of the West Indies,” he vowed.
Opposition spokesman, St. James Central MP Kerrie Symmonds said Government would regret its decision on tuition fees since the island would be negatively affected.
“Intricately linked to the UWI is Barbados’ capacity to maintain its competitive edge… We are already losing that competitive edge,” he said. firstname.lastname@example.org