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LEFT OF CENTRE: Yes, but not across the board

Roosevelt Brome

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Barbadians have become accustomed to free education from infant to tertiary.
When Government abolished fees in the “older secondary” schools in 1961, primary education was already free. Indeed the same held for the hybrid secondary modern schools.
Subsequently the state-owned Community College and Samuel Jackman Polytechnic as well as the University of the West Indies Campus at Cave Hill came also with tuition paid by Government.
Most agree that primary schooling must be free, as it is the minimum required to support literacy, and nobody should be denied a basic right. People became accustomed to secondary schooling being free once the new Democratic Labour Party Government showed it would not bankrupt the Treasury.
In later years, debate focused on tertiary education. Both main political parties have come to accept the importance of paying tuition costs at UWI. Liberal thought says that no Barbadian qualified for university entrance should be denied a degree because he cannot afford to pay. Scholarships can go only so far.
The policy of subsidizing tertiary education has led to the explosion of degrees since the 1970s, and has contributed much to upward mobility in our country.
Yet opinion has been changing. Many are concerned about the burgeoning cost and wonder if Government can continue to afford to fund all who qualify.The concern is justified as demands on our budget have been growing apace.
The worldwide economic crisis has not helped, and Government’s unsustainable deficits cry out for spending cuts.
The more conservative among us believe that Government should end all tuition payments and make students pay the economic costs for their degrees. They argue that many students show little commitment and waste their opportunities because tuition is free.
Government could indeed be more rigid in demanding that students finish their degrees within the minimum time required to graduate, with exceptions on a case-by-case basis.
Government should be wary about a wholesale assault on tertiary education. The earlier rationale still holds, if to a lesser degree. People still need to be trained above secondary level to satisfy the demands of a sophisticated society.
Clearly, though, business cannot be as usual. In the new paradigm, governments need to find a way to rein in spending. Barbados can ill afford to continue to pay for people to study in areas that are saturated or irrelevant. Students should be directed towards courses of study that advance national goals.
Barbadians appear to be averse to means tests, yet this is the way forward.
Government must continue to ensure that nobody who qualifies is denied tertiary education, but it can dispense state assistance according to the particular need.
A wealthy father is hardly inconvenienced by having to fund his daughter’s degree.
Government could assist a comfortable family through the Student Revolving Loan Scheme. The number of students to whom Government commits full payment would be greatly reduced, and national objectives would still be achieved.
Government can achieve its educational goals with wisdom and balance.