In 1962, a system of free education from primary to tertiary (university) was introduced by the Government under Errol Barrow’s leadership as a significant aspect of his vision for the national development of Barbados. In the pre-Independence era, access to education was largely dependent on one’s ability to pay school fees, which naturally restricted and guaranteed a good education to the wealthy only. In the context of current changes to the mechanism for funding university education it is worthwhile to revisit this legacy of free education and consider its intent, its purpose, its continued relevance and how current socio- economic factors should influence the way forward.
Fifty-two years ago Barrow’s vision was to transform the social landscape and create equality amongst citizens while positioning Barbados for the birth and growth of a new economy. The new policy back then on access to education and how it should be financed was indeed appropriate, for the provision of this access with costs borne by the state created priceless opportunities for households that never existed before. Free education policy essentially meant the emancipation of many a person to fulfil their full potential, be independent and take their rightful place within society
Many generations within households were able to pursue tertiary education and this led to improved job opportunities and better prospects for increases in household income. The changes to the economic circumstance of households was now definitively linked to the expansion of our middle class that would go on to be the engine for development and growth within our economy as employees, professionals and entrepreneurs.
The social upliftment and alleviation of poverty that resulted has been a more than worthwhile investment in our country and today continues to serve similar purpose. The significance of the education policy articulated by Barrow’s Government was that the administration had had enough of citizens suffering, lacking good opportunity and being sentenced to the lower class for life as a result.
Barrow’s vision for Barbados required that its citizens at all levels be empowered. It required that people be given the opportunity to chart and navigate their own course to self-development, but this was also crafted against a backdrop that Government over the next approximately 20 to 25 years would lay the framework and infrastructure required to create full employment and the indistrialization of our nation to ultimately utilize the skills and knowledge that free education was intended to transfer.
Education became the development tool of the 1950s and 1960s without doubt. I believe that if we are to understand, appreciate and even ascertain the way forward from the crossroads we now find ourselves at, we must reflect on whether we have exploited this policy in the manner intended and what our future approach necessarily should be in regard to education and the financing of tertiary education specifically.
1. Access – There is now universal access to education at primary, secondary and tertiary levels, and this continues to be a major success of the policy. It should be noted however, that access to the correct mode of education is still somewhat lacking when it relates to those students/persons with special needs. The policy aimed to ensure education for all, especially the less privileged, and I believe that in the 21st century this now calls for the addition of clear entrance assessment for students from the pre-primary level to the tertiary level.
The intent of such assessment is to guarantee the correct schooling and training to students that will ultimately level the learning playing field and leave no child behind. Universal access also implores to pay specific attention to early childhood education and the government initiative with the Maria Holder Trust in this regard is well noted and applauded. The number of special needs institutions at nursery, preschool, primary and secondary is critical whether we partially integrate or fully separate them from the mainstream system
2. Social upliftment – Education opens horizons, but there cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach to its delivery. Such an approach effectively hampers its usefulness as a tool of social restructuring. Every individual has a dream and inner ambition and we must collectively use education as a tool to enlighten and motivate people to improve their current status. Our system largely forces students through defined streams and as we move ahead we must bring a more structured approach to the personalization of education.
Our educational system at all levels illustrates that social status does not determine ones ability to succeed and elevate oneself above current circumstances – education represents that opportunity ti elevate and that single mandate must be largely preserved and protected at all costs.
3. Economic development – We have created a services based economy which calls for highly qualified and skilled professionals and wider workforce. Tourism and international business demand such qualifications, and as a result our education institutions, especially the UWI, the more recent Hospitaility Institute and the Barbados Community College, remain critical to our sustainability as a services economy.
To effectively tie economic development to education, we must seek to educate the population along the lines of what is required for the sustenance and growth of our service industries, not only in direct hospitality and business certifications but also in ensuring that the traditional professions – accounting, law and science are well equipped to find their place with our key foreign exchange earning sectors.
4. Financing – Finally how does a nation with a population of 280,000 plus afford the free education policy we have established to be so vital? Should our Government continue to fund 100 per cent of the costs? Should students at UWI be asked to fund part of their costs? Should all tertiary education be part-funded by the students?
What is the role of the private sector in funding mechanisms and supporting education? To date, Government has undertaken 100 per cent of the costs as a national investment in our socioeconomic advancement. We will explore these questions in greater detail in part three of this series.
In essence, this crossroads provides the prime opportunity for us to consider our entire educational system and seek to remodel it and update our national policy on education, which as I wrote in this space last week should be a vital plank in a National Development Policy.
Next week, I will consider quality, demand, supply and educational assets in the pursuit of a well structured and functional education system that has been the pathway to our very own Barbadian dream.