Former Principal of the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill, Sir Hilary Beckles today called on this island’s leaders to stop all the ‘hot air’ talk about education, and to gather together the best minds in the national interest.
“I do believe that what is happening in Barbados at the moment around education and higher education is that we are not collectively putting our best thoughts together,” Sir Hilary, the UWI vice chancellor, told Barbados TODAY in a frank interview this afternoon.
“I do not have all the answers. No Government has all the answers, [but] I believe that the issue of how to educate a nation is a national responsibility and it is a shared responsibility because the survival of the nation is dependent upon it and I do not believe at the moment that our best thoughts and our best ideas and our best imagination is at work around the future of how to educate the Barbadian people to sustain the nation in the next 20 to 30 years,” the Barbadian professor added, while brushing aside recent criticisms levelled against his ‘one university student per household’ policy.
In defending the ruling Democratic Labour Party’s (DLP) 2013 decision to stop footing the full cost of tertiary education for students attending UWI, Government Senator Verla De Peiza last week suggested that the campus had lowered its standards in a misguided attempt to fast track Sir Hilary’s vision, unveiled in 2009, of having a UWI graduate in every Barbadian home by 2020.
However, Sir Hilary told Barbados TODAY that if that vision was wrong “it would mean that Barbados as it is now with a vibrant and professional middle class should not be, because the vision was based upon the realization that the most effective way to take people out of poverty in a post colonial society like Barbados was to give the majority of the citizens access to higher education and professional training.
“So if it was wrong that would mean that I would have had to have committed myself to people staying in poverty, to the majority of our families staying in poverty, to a vision of my country as a socially backward society. So I don’t know. I understand how all perceptions of higher education are subject to criticism, but I really do believe that this is more about commonsense,” he stressed.
Sir Hilary also responded to De Peiza’s suggestions that the campus had an insatiable appetite for funding and was proving to be a financial burden on the Government due to an “explosion” of its physical plant.
“If the time ever comes when our appetite for knowledge and personal advancement is a problem, I think all of us can pack up and go home,” the respected academic said in reply, while stressing that the role of educators was to grow the appetite for knowledge information and personal development.
At the same time, he argued that the collective role of the private sector, the state and the institutions themselves was to work out strategies of affordability and the strategies that will enable the citizens to fulfill their potential.
“I believe that what was formulated at Cave Hill in my time was really in fact common sense and I don’t see it as a vision in fact,” Sir Hilary told Barbados TODAY, adding that “when common sense is seen as a vision then clearly there is a problem of imagination”.
It has now been three years since the Freundel Stuart-led DLP has stopped meeting the economic costs of students attending the UWI, with the campus reporting that its enrolment has fallen from a peak of 8,841 students in academic year 2011/2012 to just over 5,300 currently.
With this in mind, the Mia Mottley-led Opposition Barbados Labour Party, which is actively campaigning for elections due by the middle of next year, has promised to restitute free tertiary education if elected to Government.
However, while insisting that the matter should not be one of “party political contestation”, Sir Hilary suggested that the positions of the DLP and the BLP were really not very far apart.
He explained that while the DLP had sought to take between $35-$40 million out of Governmenet’s investment in Cave Hill, “my understanding of what Mia is saying is that you can find within the Barbados economy that $35 to $40 million to restore the model”.
While acknowledging that a question mark remains over where that money will be found, Sir Hilary contended that there were several fundamental questions that needed to be answered, including: “Should the traditional model be re-established and tweaked or should it be completely set aside and a new model put in place?”
He suggested that the number of citizens a $9 billion economy is able to fund “through the highest level of professional training” be determined, once that figure is arrived at, the methodology would have to be worked out for making the funds available.
Sir Hilary also said there was a need to identify the new drivers for the Barbados economy, while stressing that future investment in education should not be seen simply as an expenditure, but also an investment in the human capital to build the economy and society.
“The greater your investment, the greater your capacity to modernize your economy,” he said, while stressing the need for balance going forward.
Sir Hilary, who previously chaired a national task force of principals of tertiary education institutions, warned that there had to be an imagining of what the Barbados economy and society will look like in 20 years.
“We cannot allow more people to fall into poverty, which is already happening. We have to expand the imagination of the younger people, we have to stimulate their desire be great citizens and to love their country and want to build it and education is the key to all of this,” the vice chancellor said, while suggesting that detailed strategic planning time must be dedicated to this process as opposed to having “a hot air” national conversation. [email protected]