JUST LIKE IT IS – Let students pay too
I said on radio during the recent Independence celebrations that just as the older segment of the population is being called on to pay for medications dispensed by private pharmacies to help offset Government’s fiscal deficit during the crippling economic downturn, university students should be asked to make a small contribution to the cost of their education.
My reasoning was that since 17 per cent of the population is over 65 and pensioners are struggling to make ends meet after contributing to building this great society in which we live today, why not make the current generation see their contribution to the cost of University of the West Indies (UWI) education as an investment in their future with significant economic benefits and delayed gratification at a bargain basement price.
My comments ignited a minor war of words from the younger generation who seem to believe they have some God-given, inalienable right to be educated at public expense and whatever the state of the economy they, the great untouchables, must continue to feed off the fatted calf with the rest of the beleaguered population taking the hindmost.
I suffer no illusions about the most significant contribution which education – expanded secondary opportunities, the opening of a local campus at University Row and later Cave Hill and publicly-subsidised university education – has made to building our skills bank, socio-economic mobility, national pride and confidence and staggering, universally acclaimed growth and development.
A car in every household is a natural, incremental expectation on a graduate similarly located. But as the economy nosedived forcing Government to control costs and raise additional revenues to protect the enviable standard of living to which we have become accustomed, Barbadians across all boundaries must tighten their belts and contribute to the national cause.
Empirical evidence and comparative analysis are indispensable debating tools. England is a developed country with a per capita income of US$27 700. Barbados is a developing country with a per capita income of US$19 300, putting us on the doorstep of developed status. Barbados has free university education and I am being pilloried for suggesting that UWI students contribute to its cost.
As I write this column at midday Thursday, CNN is showing thousands of angry students in England facing off violently with mounted riot police in Parliament Square over government’s decision to treble university fees from US$4 500 to US$14 000 per annum, one of the draconian measures it felt compelled to impose in the harshest budget adjustments in 65 years.
Difficult times demand tough, new measures. I shudder thinking of the reaction if UWI students were asked to pay even a tenth of that (Bds$2 800 annually) to assist with the costs of their education. Would that be unreasonable especially if financial institutions are encouraged to provide student loans repayable after graduation, buttressed by bursaries and grants to the poor and disadvantaged?
It would be a highly rewarding investment for the future, an elevator to enhanced life opportunities, raising appreciation of both their education and their value of money and diminishing the pervasive mendicant dependency syndrome. The argument that going through Cave Hill without making a contribution to tuition fees should continue ad infinitum come what may, cannot stand up to scrutiny.
The cost of funding a campus with an enrolment of less than 1 000 students cannot be reasonably compared with funding an enrolment of almost 10 000. Let me share some statistics. Government’s subventions to UWI over the last five years were 2004 to 2005, $114 662 515; 2005-2006, $117 414 844; 2006-2007, $123 515 221; 2007-2008, $122 737 762; 2008-2009, $134 862 377; and 2009-2010, $143 295 552.
One justification for the new charges on formulary medications dispensed by private pharmacies for qualifying Barbadians like pensioners, was that costs had gone through the roof to $49 million in 2009.
By comparison, UWI subventions have gone into the stratosphere, by almost $10 million last year alone. When vulnerable senior citizens have to make financial sacrifices, why not students too?
Allocations to education and health dominate the national budget annually. Nobody can dispute the over-arching benefits of a more educated population or a healthier, longer living population, including a record number of centenarians. Let us all as beneficiaries of state funds, also share the costs equitably. As Cave Hill continues to expand exponentially, students must pull their weight financially.
A number of experts have pointed to the false economy of Cave Hill admitting students to four-rather than three-year programmes. That year should be at the less costly Community College at great savings to the taxpayers. The Budget announcements that UWI entry requirements will be tightened and funding restricted to four years, are steps in the right direction. It is time to take the other step.
I give thanks that I live in a country which in 44 years since becoming a sovereign state has confounded the naysayers by achieving so much. If the upward trajectory is to be maintained, in the new dispensation hard realities must trump emotions with benefits and burdens shared fairly.
• Peter Simmons, a social scientist,is a former diplomat.