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THE BIG PICTURE: University education

Ralph Jemmott

THE BIG PICTURE: University education

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I once boasted to a Canadian friend that Barbados afforded free education from nursery school to PhD level. “And how on earth is that possible?” she queried.
I must admit that I was stumped to explain exactly how, but I knew that it was possible to go from the Government Hill Nursery to Charles F. Broome Primary to Harrison College to the University of the West Indies (UWI) and proceed from the undergraduate to PhD programme relatively free of direct real costs. 
The Barbados Government never defaulted on its debts and the taxpayers, private and corporate, paid up because the education was never “free”. The money did not drop like manna from heaven and Mr Errol Barrow did not leave billions of dollars in trust to pay for some so-called ‘legacy.’ The perpetuation of the ‘legacy’ depends on the country’s capacity to underwrite it and there was never any guarantee of that. Admittedly, it was a great social and individual good and the country is the better for it.
The present Government has not “dismantled” free education. It has asked Barbadians students to pay tuition fees for their university education. The taxpayer still carries the economic costs and other facets of “free” education at all levels, including other tertiary institutions, remain intact. The critical issue is costs and a weak Barbadian economy with little chance of a quick recovery. You either accept that or you don’t.
For decades both parties that formed the government realized that state-funded university schooling was not sustainable in perpetuity. The 1995 report, Financing University Education, stated: “If government is to meet . . . the other demands on its necessarily limited resources, then some part of the student costs should be borne by the students themselves.” Mr Barrow himself, political pragmatist and economic realist that he was, was not unaware of the state’s limitations in that regard.
However, over the years “free education” became pivotal to the great Democratic Labour Party (DLP) political mythology. Now ironically, it is the Barbados Labour Party that postures as the defenders of some Barrow legacy that all education should be free, affordable or not. To quote Mr Owen Arthur: “Incantations cannot create what reality denies.” Fiscal discipline comes hard to Caribbean governments, but we cannot continue to ignore the imperatives of formal budgetary constraint. 
Some outlandishly self-indulgent claims have been made in defence of the “Barrow legacy”. One writer stated that asking students to pay tuition fees would end the process of decolonization. Another felt that it might lead to a return to slavery. Another scribe wondered whether the imposition of tuition fees meant a change in the DLP’s commitment to “egalitarianism”, by that one presumes, to the dreary dogmas of an ostensibly revolutionary socialism. Presumably, egalitarianism relates only to the more academically able and university bound. What about the egalitarianism for the poor, black, but “duncy” from the economic and cultural underclass, who fail primary school and go on to fail secondary, ending up on the ubiquitous blocks?  
Since 1963 when the College of Arts and Sciences opened, the cost of educating a student at that level has risen exponentially. This is true in most countries.
One possible solution is the imposition of a graduated education levy across the board on all citizens, if the society can support another tax impost. If Barbadian taxpayers are to be asked to continue to underwrite the cost of university schooling, it is clear that that some modifications must be made to guarantee greater transparency and accountability.
As Peter Wickham stated: “We need to be watchful of the way the university spends money.” The idea that a university can take in students as it pleases and send the taxpayers a bill is outrageous. As Victor Cooke has hinted, we now find ourselves with a bitter $200 million pill to swallow because proper oversight was not exercised. What else is new?
Quality of intake and quality of output must be one critical determinant of change. The Economist of September 13, 2008, described five GCSEs as representing only “baseline qualifications”. Is it really true that a student could be admitted to Cave Hill with five CXCs obtained in four sittings? The taxpayers should not be asked to support student admissions that fall short of either CAPE or Barbados Community College associate degree proficiency. The writer concluded that: “The strongest evidence of poor spending decisions in education is the dubious quality of the end product.”
Secondly, there must be a greater degree of relevance to the country’s manpower needs. Any degree programme, depending on its academic rigour, has an educative benefit. However, at a time of economic scarcity, more attention must be paid to more critical needs.
• Ralph Jemmott is a retired educator and social commentator.

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