ALL AH WE IS ONE: Education vacillation
In recent weeks, the issue of the discontinuation of state-funded tertiary education has become the “issue that will not go away” in Barbados. First, it was the shocking admission by the Prime Minister during the estimates debate that whilst he is personally against the removal of free education, he is unable to counter the neo-liberal perspective.
This has been followed by announcements by university officials on frighteningly low levels of applications which threaten the University of the West Indies’ (UWI) future sustainability. Perhaps the most damning development was the forceful and authoritative statement by UWI’s vice-chancellor designate, Sir Hilary Beckles, who denounced the intellectual poverty and narrow “economism” now dictating policy, and cautioned against the social impact upon the poorest sections of the population.
In addition, the disappointment felt by the thousands of students who have waited beyond the 11th hour for the Minister of Education to deliver the “3 000 bursaries” has been very deep, given the inadequacy and arbitrariness of the amounts dispersed.
A clear indication of the crumbling of the previous self-assured façade on education policy was seen when the Minister of Finance was forced to admit his concerns over the low levels of student enrolment at UWI, and to express regret over the inability of previously registered students to complete their education.
This collective volte face has made the Government appear weak, uncertain and bungling, with no deep philosophical belief in the positions which it has stridently adopted and conviction in the policies it has vigorously announced. It diminishes public confidence when the Government is seen strongly advocating positions, flaying opponents, and insisting that there is no alternative, only to reverse themselves with equal vigour and stridency on convenience.
Perhaps the most damaging feature of the Government’s handling of the tertiary education issue, has been the wider anti-UWI and indeed anti-education sentiment which it has unleashed among the wider society. It has been difficult to understand why a more difficult economic challenge in funding UWI should have led to the spurt of false claims about tertiary education, the “uselessness” of UWI and its academics, the poverty of its research by those who know little or nothing about its production rates, and why such negative venom could have seeped so deeply in the public consciousness. Opportunism was rife.
However, now that the political tea leaves suggest a failing grade for the Government, and a new electoral posture is being fashioned which requires a more mature, less anti-intellectual stance towards the UWI, it will be interesting to see how the Government swallows its vomit and puts on a brand new face.
As with many of its policy challenges, the Government, overwhelmed by short-term economic considerations, confused policy-tweaking with far-reaching philosophical remaking of its previously deeply held beliefs. It might have gone too far to convince the public that all should be forgotten.
• Tennyson Joseph is a political scientist at the University of the West Indies Cave Hill Campus, specialising in regional affairs. Email [email protected]