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IN THE CANDID CORNER: Disappearing entitlement?

Matthew Farley

IN THE CANDID CORNER: Disappearing entitlement?

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We must stop believing that we are entitled and start believing that we must be participants . . . . – Minister of Education and Resource Development Ronald Jones.
As the international recession deepens and countries are forced to count the cost of services that have come to be taken for granted, the Minister of Education and Human Resource Development spent some time recently expressing some real concerns that have far-reaching implications for education in Barbados.
The occasion was the opening ceremony of the revived Pre-Erdiston training programme. Let me state up front that the minister clearly stated that no decision has been taken to change the funding arrangement for education.
Acting as the Prime Minister, Mr Ronald Jones spelt out the cost of educating students at each level of the system. He put the annual cost per child at the nursery, primary and secondary levels are $8 000, $4 800 and $5 900, respectively.
Additionally, he indicated that at the University of the West Indies (UWI), the cost increases exponentially. In the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, the range per year per student is between $28 000 and $30 000. In the law and medicine, the cost per year is $65 000 for the first three years.
When clinicals are considered, Jones said, the cost rises to $80 000 per student per year.
To underscore the key role of the Government, the minister pointed out that Barbados needs knowledge households. He said it was for this reason that the Government cannot withdraw from funding education.  
Mr Jones said that given the global economic stringency, the revenue capacity of the Government was no longer there. He went on to say that it would not come back for a long time. He drew reference to the recent riots in Britain, pointing out that a major change in the funding model was at the core of the uprising that resulted in massive damage of property and infrastructure.
It is clear therefore that the minister recognizes it is not easy to change what the citizens have come to accept as an entitlement.
The reality is that the issue of funding education is not new. Indeed, it is one that has dogged successive Governments for years. In the harsh economic times in the 1990s, the matter was trashed out in many fora. In fact, several town hall meetings were convened.
What was absolutely clear was that in spite of the challenges, the Government insisted that the model of funding of this important social service was to be maintained. The question that remained at that time was whether it was sustainable. It seems as though the chickens have now come home to roost as the tentacles of the recession dig in deeper and deeper.
At the heart of this issue therefore, is how will the Government, as Mr Jones challenged, make the shift to a new funding model without causing any social dislocation. How will we make the transition from the Government funding education as an entitlement, to the citizens making a contribution as participants?
Central to this approach is a political ideology that holds that education has been the ladder on which we have risen to overcome the pangs of poverty. Many will ask whether we see a means test emerging to determine who can pay. Others will charge that now certain black people have successfully climbed the social ladder, it is now their only desire to literally “kick it down”.
One waits to see how this Government or any other party in the political arena will play this card.
On the political trail, there has been some ‘dipsy-doodling’. When in opposition, a party might promise to look at the approach to funding education but when in Government, the same issue is avoided like a political hot potato. Indeed, very recently, the Leader of the Opposition has been mulling over the issue himself as he tests the waters and calls for creativity in the management of the economy by the Minister of Finance.
The question of the health services and the role of the Government in this sector has also been placed on the table. There have also been calls from voices within the UWI for the matter to be revisited.  
In the final analysis, if the recession worsens, this Government might have the best case for changing the funding model. It would hinge on the premise of sustainability. It is only in such circumstances that I envisage it ever being possible for this society to make the shift from seeing free education from the nursery to tertiary as an entitlement, to the point where the beneficiaries become participants in the funding of education.
It may be a bitter but necessary pill that the recession might force us to swallow and at the same time aid the Government’s hand in administering it.