I have listened with much interest to the debate and discussion resulting from the recent budgetary proposals by the Minister of Finance. Some of interest resulted from the measure that requires Barbadian students attending the University of the West Indies to pay tuition fees.
I reflected on my own university experience and the fact that I was able to be part of a student population that enjoyed an education paid for by the people of Barbados including my parents and my sister as well as working people in St. Peter and Barbados as a whole.
While at the Barbados Community College as well as at the Cave Hill campus I had the opportunity to engage in robust discussions with colleagues, including some who are now policy makers, including Ministers Chris Sinckler, Michael Lashley and Patrick Todd, who were also benefiting from taxpayer-funded education. Some of us would not have been able to obtain and enjoy the benefits of that education if our parents had to foot the bill for tuition fees.
One of the more interesting aspects of my development and my colleagues’ development at the time was our recognition that education was critical to the social and economic development of Barbados. As a result we, including many of those colleagues, were inspired to protest in a vigorous manner when the Government of Trinidad and Tobago attempted to impose a cess on their students.
We signed petitions. We held press conferences. We as Barbadian students stood in solidarity with our “Trinbagonian” colleagues and voiced our opposition to what would have been a backward step in the development of our Caribbean community.
Barbados has been able to stand out within the Caribbean and the wider world due to the structure of our educational system. We developed as an educated and trainable population and have been able to attract the kinds of businesses, including banking, insurance, and international business companies, that need a competent, educated and trained workforce.
We have reduced our dependence on “expats” to lead and manage our organisations. We have a trained, indigenous public service. Our people have also been able to make a name for themselves in the wider world because of their education.
We are at a critical juncture in our development. The world economy is growing, albeit sluggishly. The leaders and thinkers of the world are recognising that education will be an important cog in the wheel that will bring back the prosperity we once knew.
We would have recently heard and seen United States President Barack Obama on a crusade to make college education more affordable. According to him, too many students are facing a choice that they should never have to make: Either they say no to college and pay the price for not getting a degree, or you do what it takes to get to college and wind up mired in debt.
Germany is also moving in a direction opposite to Barbados and moving to abolish the fees for university students. The leading economy in the Euro zone recognises that education will be the key to maintaining their social and economic strength.
But, isn’t Government short of cash? Is there not a large, unsustainable deficit? Is it not true that there just is not enough money to pay all university costs for students?
Let us take a closer look. If education is critical to our continued development, and to Barbados recovering from the current economic malaise, then the question should be “What is it that we are currently spending on that could be reduced/eliminated in order to ensure that our recovery is not jeopardised?”
Have we decided what the skill sets are that we will need in our recovery and post-recovery period? Could we not prioritise these and ensure that students in these programmes are allowed to pursue these areas of study without the potential hindrance of thousands of dollars in fees?
And what has become of the University College of Barbados? Was the proposal shelved, and if so, for what reason? This concept could, as far as I am aware, potentially allow for students to obtain undergraduate degrees at a fraction of the cost that would obtain at an institution like the UWI.
Why not allow the UWI to focus on specialist and paid areas, post-graduate work and research and development? Where is the planning and visioning?
As the son of a shopkeeper I know what it is to see poor people ‘trust’ food and toiletries when there are school uniforms and books to be purchased. I still cannot fathom that people, who also grew up poor but obtained a good education – in some cases, two or three degrees, could look their former neighbours in the eyes and act in any way that would effectively snatch their dreams from them.
Why, at this stage in our development, would we revert to a situation where those who can afford it attain their dreams while those who are unable to afford the fees resign themselves to the fate of unattained goals?
Why would we sacrifice the aspirations of our working people and our middle class — a middle class that has seen its share of the tax burden escalate exponentially due to the taxing of allowances, an increase in VAT, the imposing of the consolidation tax, and the municipal solid waste tax (an addition to the land tax)?
Why would those who benefitted from education now act in a way that denies other in similar positions from benefitting in a similar way?
After all that I have said, the real question in my mind is this: Have our policy makers taken the time to think seriously, carefully and strategically about the challenges Barbados faces at this time? Or are we reacting with the hope that something works?