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WHAT MATTERS MOST: Funding free UWI should be priority


WHAT MATTERS MOST: Funding free UWI should be priority

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ANY GOVERNMENT POLICY that reduces the enrolment of a single learning institution from 9 000 to 5 000 students in one semester is bad policy.

It matters not that the institution is tertiary. What matters most is why the Government is currently unable to finance the one thing that has transformed the country’s economy and society since Independence.

The question is relevant in the sense that in its first full fiscal year 2008/09, the current administration collected the most revenue ever, to the tune of two billion, five hundred and ninety-seven point four million dollars ($2 597.4 million), some $360 million more than the Owen Arthur administration did in its last full fiscal year of 2006/07. The real issue is what went wrong since then?

In the last fiscal year 2014/15, the Government is expected to collect some $160 million less than it did in 2008/09, notwithstanding the imposition of severe taxation on the backs of Barbadians since 2008.       

The notion that education is at the heart of strategic planning and equality of opportunity in countries with inherently limited resources is, and has been, recognised because it is the single most empowering factor to have shaped the human condition/spirit and it will be forever.

The word “limited” is of particular note as it imposes constraints on – and forces choices in individuals, as well as governments. A government therefore has to have priorities and allocate its limited financial resources in budgeting to meet those priorities.

Making education accessible to Barbadians was a priority of every government prior to the current administration and so it was properly budgeted for. There is no evidence in the 1985 document referred to in the Estimates debate by Prime Minister Stuart that suggests that then Opposition Leader Errol Barrow ever considered making Barbadians pay for university education.

In fact, in making the point that every child born in Barbados should be able to develop the talents with which the Lord has blessed it, the Rt. Excellent Errol Barrow stated: “That is why one of the first things we did when we won the Government was to decree that secondary education (and subsequently tertiary education) would be free of charge.” The insert was Barrow’s.

It is known all over the world that the costs of education and health have outstripped the cost of living because of the increasing use of technology in the delivery of these services. This makes it more important to budget meticulously for these two major areas of government expenditure.

In last week’s column, it was demonstrated that in the absence of nominal growth in the economy over the last seven years, the Government lost some $475 million on average growth of a mere 3 per cent, which is half of the average recorded for the period 1980-2007. Instead, the Government chose the path of increasing taxation which compromised the ability of the economy to grow.

The current debate of financing tertiary education is now being stretched to include more health-care services and if there is no growth strategy for the Barbados economy, not just in the short term, but the medium-long term as well, the folly of the past couple of years will continue.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to be surprised by the arrogance of Prime Minister Stuart, whose grandstanding can now be assessed on his own words and performance. In the not-too-distant past, it was difficult to evaluate his rhetoric, since there was nothing to mark it against. Fortunately, time has taken his words out of the realm of an imagined world into the realm of the real.     

In the same 1985 document, it was noted that “A Democratic Labour Party (DLP) Government will work more closely with the UWI so as to determine where priorities lie and to determine how many places will be funded in each faculty, based on plans and manpower projections.”

Failure to adhere to this fundamental principle in government budgeting is what is at the heart of financing tertiary level education in Barbados. No child born in Barbados should be denied “the opportunity to develop the talents with which the Lord blessed it regardless of the family circumstances into which it happened to be born”.

In the circumstances, there is no inconsistency in creating an environment to incentivise the funding of tertiary level education, while making sure that no talented child is denied the opportunity of accessing university education. The key to such an approach is in the pursuit of an economic growth strategy that treats education as an indispensable part of our economic development and upward social mobility.

• Dr Clyde Mascoll is an economist and Opposition Barbados Labour Party adviser on the economy. Email [email protected]