A leading academic today lamented that the poor and vulnerable were being offered up on the sacrificial altar of economic fiscal adjustment.
Vice Chancellor of the University of West Indies Sir Hilary Beckles also highlighted the situation with declining student enrollment at the UWI, as he gave his analysis of data released today in the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Caribbean Human Development Report.
The document, which was launched at the Hilton Hotel during a ceremony attended by regional and local officials, revealed that women, youth, elderly, persons with disabilities and indigenous people, were among the more vulnerable in today’s Caribbean society.
Using diminishing access to education, especially tertiary education as point of reference, Sir Hilary emphasized that the English-speaking Caribbean was now at the “bottom” of the education ladder when it comes to student enrollment in higher education.
“So you take the hemisphere from Alaska to Argentina and the Caribbean has the lowest enrollment in higher education and if you go further, the English-speaking Caribbean has the lowest enrollment in the Caribbean. So we in the English-speaking Caribbean are at the bottom,” he said.
The Vice-Chancellor went further to explain that the situation had come about as a result of policymakers making trade-offs in the face of scarce financial resources.
However, he warned that those decisions had come at a high social price.
“The trade-off leads to the social question: Who, not what, ought be traded off? So throughout the region, higher education has been cut and access to higher education has been reduced because the trade-off to balance the fiscal deficits is the poor and vulnerable,” he stated.
Though not cited directly by the UWI Vice Chancellor as an example, the 2013 decision of the Barbados Government to cut state-funded tuition payment for students attending the UWI, did not escape the professor’s drag net analysis. In the 2013 Budget presentation, Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler had announced the cuts, saying they would save Government $42 million per year.
However, at the start of the new academic year earlier this month, the Principal of the Cave Hill Campus, Professor Eudine Barriteau, expressed concern that there were many students who, despite their best efforts, were unable to even begin the higher education journey.
Barriteau told the audience at the 2016/2017 matriculation ceremony that severe financial constraints were preventing prospective students from pursuing a tertiary education.
“Ladies and gentlemen, 57 per cent of the qualified and accepted applicants did not make it to Cave Hill. When we telephoned and spoke to some of these potential students, they emphasized their straitened financial circumstances,” she said at the time.
And given the inability of so many students to meet the cost of their tertiary education, Barriteau had called on the Freundel Stuart administration to raise the threshold of the Higher Education Financial Grant from $25,000 to $35,000 per year while lamenting the low numbers of male students currently enrolled at the university, where men account for one-third of the student population.
Since then, the Opposition Barbados Labour Party, which was represented at today’s UNDP event by its leader Mia Mottley, has also expressed concern about “the frightening situation where the Cave Hill campus is reporting that less than 1,100 Barbadians have been able to register in courses for this semester after 2,500 qualified citizens had been accepted.
“The remaining 1,400 qualified persons or 57 per cent are not going to be able to attend UWI this semester after 50 years of political independence, due to lack of money to pay the tuition fees which have been harshly imposed by the DLP Government,” the party’s Shadow Minister of Education and Human Resources Edmund Hinkson said in a statement issued late last week in which he stressed that there had been a more than 40 per cent drop in student enrollment since 2014.
However, during the question and answer segment at today’s event, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade Senator Maxine McClean offered a rebuttal to Sir Hilary’s interpretation of the facts. She noted that Barbados made significant investments in its citizens’ social development but raised the question of sustainability in the face of tough fiscal choices as well as the better positioning of citizens to now help themselves.
“Are we in a position to sustain this [significant development in social development over 50 years]?” she asked. Are we required to do that within the context of development that has taken place? If you talk about tertiary education in its broader sense, where must our priorities go?”
The Government spokeswoman recalled that when she attended university her parents were not in a position to support her in any way.
However, she said: “My generation is now fortunately in a better position, recognizing the exceptions, to partially finance and that has been happening across the region even before Barbados,” she added.