The days of Government supplying ‘one university graduate in every household’ are all but over.
Minister of Labour Dr Esther Byer-Suckoo said as much Friday when she addressed the Democratic Labour Party’s (DLP) lunchtime lecture at party headquarters George Street, St Michael.
“Our focus now is to ensure that our education is demand driven, not supply driven,” the Government spokeswoman said, stressing that “it is not going to be a case now where a couple thousand students come out of the university with perhaps half of them graduating with a degree in Social Science.
“What are they going to do with that degree? They have to go knocking all over the place to see who would accept them with this degree. They have the degree and they are now trying to fit themselves into slots. What we are now working on is shifting to demand driven education. This is one new role Government is undertaking in an effort to enhance productivity,” she said.
It was a clear departure from the tertiary education policy espoused by former UWI principal Sir Hilary Beckles, who is the current vice chancellor of the regional learning institution, as far back as the early 2000s.
Though the policy later found favour with the previous Owen Arthur administration, it has since become a financial noose around the neck of the Freundel Stuart Government, whose spending, according to figures published by the Caribbean Centre for Research on Trade and Development, rose from $49.39 million a year to $159 million a year, as part-time student enrolment in the UWI jumped 141 per cent in ten years, with the main area of concentration being the Faculty of Social Sciences.
As a result, Government is currently indebted to the UWI to the tune of nearly $200 million, but has been systematically working to reduce its annual subsidy to the learning institution, for which a provision of $71.3 million is made in this year’s Estimates of Revenue and Expenditure.
However, speaking on the topic, Enhancing Our Largest Resource: The New Role For Government in Enhancing Productivity, Byer-Suckoo chose to focus on the educational requirements of the country’s labour force, arguing that it was no longer a question of the number of degrees, but the skills set of graduates that mattered.
“Some employers are complaining that graduates come into the workforce with a piece of paper, but they do not know what to do. We in the Ministry of Labour are trying to ensure that when they enter the workforce they hit the ground running. We are also interacting with employers to find out the needs of the world of work so that we are not faced with a situation where a large number of young people pursue degree programmes in Psychology,” she said, adding that the same would also apply to graduates of the Vocational Training Board.
“You have someone who comes out of the Vocational Training Board with a certificate which says that he is a carpenter and then you hear people say he is supposed to be a carpenter and he does not know how to line up wood and he does not know how to cut wood straight,” Byer-Suckoo said, adding that her ministry was setting up centres “where carpenters of 20 years’ experience can go and be assessed by officials.
“The officials can say the skills of the carpenter places him at a Caribbean Vocational Qualification level 3, which gives the person enough points to achieve a certificate in a tertiary educational institution,” she explained.
As far back as 2010, Freundel Stuart, while acting as prime minister, had indicated that Government was having second thoughts about its commitment to placing one university graduate in every household.
Addressing a major education conference at the Lloyd Erskine Sandiford Centre, Stuart, whose Government has since abolished free tertiary education by requiring that students pay 20 per cent of their total costs, had told the gathering that included principals and other educators that “we’ve been overtaken now by events which are forcing us to rethink even our commitment to the goal of having a graduate in every household by the year 2015 and to facilitating this by providing free education up to the tertiary level”.
Back then, Stuart had also indicated that an area of concern about the one-graduate-per-household programme was the male/female imbalance at institutions of higher learning – two to one and growing – and that the country must find ways to ignite the interest of its young males in the pursuit of higher education.
The DLP had initially supported the one-university-graduate-per-household programme when it came to power in January 2008. However, since then, even Sir Hilary has backed away from the 2020 vision somewhat, focusing instead on the development of knowledge-based households, utilizing technology.