IN THE CANDID CORNER: Capping UWI education
One of the issues existing before the St John by-election was the placing of a cap on the time in which students at University of the West Indies could complete their first degree. Minister of Finance Christopher Sinckler in the 2010 Budget speech indicated that after careful consideration of all the factors the Government had decided to limit the time in which students may complete their undergraduate studies.
So what is the problem? For years concern has been expressed about the number of students at University of the West Indies at Cave Hill, who spend as many as ten years to complete a degree that should be completed in three or four years.
In other words, they are many students who go to UWI and waste their time in non-productive activities, who lime on the lush grounds rather than apply themselves diligently to their studies. As the Minister of Finance said, they switch from faculty to faculty and waste taxpayers’ money.
The decision must be analyzed on two levels. From an economic perspective, the Government continues to spend substantial sums of money on education in general and on tertiary education in particular. The overall budget for education for 2010 was in excess of $500 million. So it makes sound economic sense to seek to cut out wastage and to remind the beneficiaries of tertiary level education that the resources of the Government are not infinite.
It seems as though the concept of free education from nursery to tertiary has now been taken for granted. From an economic standpoint, it makes a lot of sense.
As an extension of the economic argument, we have had calls for the Government to revisit the extent to which its practice of fully funding university education is sustainable. Professor Frank Alleyne, among others within the educational sector, has called for some analysis of the issue of sustainability.
Others have opined that those who benefit should repay a percentage of the cost. I was a member of a committee that was set up to examine the issue of the financing of university education in the 1990s. From our interface with the members of the public on this issue, it is clear that this is another sacred cow in Barbadian education.
What is also clear is that the political party that ever attempts to slaughter it will butcher its political fortunes. It is no wonder then that Minister of Education Ronald Jones reassured Barbadians recently that the Government was committed to continuing funding university education at the Cave Hill Campus.
From an educational standpoint, the idea of putting a cap on the time a student takes to complete university undergraduate degrees is problematic. Students are not clones of another. Within the context of education there is the fundamental tenet of individual differences which acknowledges that students learn and process information at different rates. While it would be unreasonable to expect the university to cater to this concept across the board, at the same time, the notion cannot be totally ignored.
The argument against wastage, especially during hard economic times is strong. However, there are other factors that must be considered. What about giving incentives to students who can complete their undergraduate programmes in less time? While it might seem reasonable to penalize the educational shirkers, incentives should be given to those who are capable of fast-tracking their studies.
Then provisions should be made for greater access to online programmes. Why should part-time students who are in full-time employment have to trudge to the campus when technology can be used to a greater degree to limit the need to be in a physical classroom on campus.
It is already possible for students enrolled in online programmes at overseas universities to complete their programmes via distance learning. In many instances they are only required to spend a few hours of contact time with their tutors face to face. What about mature students who might require more time? Isn’t there a sense in which this undermines the concept of a graduate in each household?
While the economic reason for the cap is reasonable and sound, there is a sense in which from an educational standpoint, it is seriously flawed.
The Students’ Guild should call for a return to the issue in order to avoid any disadvantage to students.
The fact is that we must guard against justifying educational decisions on purely economic grounds.
It may be a recipe for educational disaster. After the by-election in St John, this capping of education at university must be raised and resolved amicably.
• Matthew D. Farley is a secondary school principal, ahairman of the National Forum On Education, and a social commentator. Email [email protected]