WHAT MATTERS MOST: Left hand, right hand at odds
The chastisement of the minister of education by the minister of finance in relation to the issue of financing university education speaks to a major matter of lack of information in decision-making by the Government.
These two ministers attend Cabinet meetings weekly and yet are on separate pages with respect to a very important public policy.
The major impact of the new tuition fee policy has been to reduce student enrolment at the University of the West Indies (UWI) by just over 2 500. Therefore, expected savings of $42 million for the current fiscal year has turned into a doubling of the figure, since the Government does not have to pay either economic cost or its portion of tuition cost for 2 500 students. In addition, all the remaining students will pay part of their tuition fee, which was the intended source of savings.
As a result, the Ministry of Education will find that it has over-budgeted for the UWI. Therefore the ministry will be able to find the money for bursaries. Perhaps this has now been recognised and that is why the acting minister of education is able to make the statement that money will be provided notwithstanding the chastisement by the minister of finance.
Yet another serious issue has turned into a public relations exercise for the Government. More recently, the minister of transport took the crown when he created policy while visiting the bus terminal. He said that he had instructed the inspectors to allocate the buses in relation to how many passengers are waiting to catch a particular bus; forget about scheduling.
The ad hoc approach to the governance of our country has the potential to quickly reverse the gains of the past. This matter cannot be taken lightly given the short-term implications for the stability of the economy and moreso, the long-term sustainability of our economic and social development prospects. Barbados has already been set back by at least a decade.
Ironically, this is not the first time there has been such public divide on fundamental policy. Prior to the last election, the minister of finance spoke to the Chamber of Commerce and identified a programme of privatisation for specific public entities. The prime minister eventually pushed him under the bus, figuratively, and then literally used a bus to deny any knowledge of such a programme involving his Cabinet to win an election.
From the first term of the current Government there has been a pattern of behaviour regarding public policy that is reactionary and outrageously vote-seeking. Several commentators viewed this as politically appropriate regardless of its implication for the social and economic development of the country. In short, all actions, once deemed politically astute, are justified within the body politics of the country.
As a consequence of the peculiar failure to demand information from the Government, preferring instead to be impressed by empty rhetoric, Barbadians have suffered from an unusual level of comfort in these recent times of misery. It is a worrying addition to the psyche of a people who have taken pride in being very knowledgeable. The first requirement of the latter is in being able to differentiate between information and its counterpart, misinformation.
It is fully accepted that the Government has a spending problem but has sought to remedy the addiction by taxing. In spite of the relapses that are obvious, the Government persisted with its denial. Perhaps the denial is now so engrained that the minister of education, in his failure to understand the enrolment and consequent financial implications of the tuition policy, still offered hope and will be able to deliver it when he understands its total, not just partial, effects.
One could only conclude that the members of Cabinet are not fully informed of the gravity of the fiscal crisis confronting Barbados. This is understandable, if the same method of dodging the issues used by the economic advisers in reporting to the public is employed in informing the Cabinet.
Then again, if it is possible to pass exams without providing the right answers to questions, why should anyone be required to have knowledge since it is not a requirement for success? This speaks to a fundamental concern of being able to win general elections without having to address any serious issues confronting the country. This is a very worrying trend that is increasingly being sold to the people.
• Dr Clyde Mascoll is an economist and Opposition Barbados Labour Party adviser on the economy.