When first I looked at this college from the perspective of an economist I got a terrible shock. To maintain a student at this college costs the West Indian governments one thousand pounds a year . . . . The West Indies could send students to England for less than half that price . . . . What then is the point of maintaining this college? – W.A. Lewis’ first matriculation address to the University of the West Indies (UWI), October, 1960).
W.A. Lewis’ answer to the above question was that there were far deeper contributions to self-identity, nationhood and national development from a university that overrode narrow economic considerations of cost.
I have deliberately quoted the above statement from St Lucia’s Nobel Laureate Lewis because he stands today as the most accomplished and decorated economist that the Caribbean region has ever produced.
I present him in deliberate contrast to the current generation of economists who now pretend to occupy his place both as regional academics and economic decision-makers.
Finally, I present Sir Arthur as a wise voice in the debate on government responsibilities for the provision of university education, in a context where the current generation is itself grappling with the issue.
In the abundance of water, the fool is thirsty.
Sadly, the current generation of economists fed on nothing but neo-liberal pap – which glorifies the withdrawal of state social responsibility, worships the primacy of the market in determining who gets what, when and how, and wallows in the notion that those who cannot afford to pay should not have been born in the first place – demonstrates clearly the depth of intellectual reversal in our region.
The current generation is replete with shallow accountants, masquerading as economists, who understand only costs while ignoring the deeper questions of development.
They are the purveyors of an extremely dangerous, potentially racist but certainly elitist, colonial and anti-people perspective, yet they continue to glory triumphantly in the so-called superiority of their perspective, oblivious to its devastating consequences. Only concrete struggle will shift them from their folly.
So narrow is the current cost-centric fixation of today’s economists that they fail to see the negative economic consequences for Barbados in the removal of free tertiary education.
The most obvious such consequence is the spike in unemployment that will be recorded in August, 2014, when the mass of secondary and post-secondary school leavers, who would normally have been absorbed into UWI, are thrown into the job market.
In addition, Barbados’ investment in education had clearly borne fruit, distinguishing it from the Eastern Caribbean in its ability to attract high-end foreign direct investment in services and in its export of trained human capital. A successful model is now abandoned.
Further, with students forced to take loans, those who can afford will likely send their children overseas, further draining foreign exchange.
Today’s narrow neo-liberal economists should humble themselves and revisit Lewis.
• Tennyson Joseph is a political scientist at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus, specializing in regional affairs. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.