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Higher education in the balance

Sean St Clair Fields

Higher education in the balance

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“The problem is that we are trying to prepare people for the new economy using a higher education system built for the old economy.” – Marco Rubio

Several commentators have weighed in on the issue of higher education in Barbados. While I am in full agreement that as a small nation in a 21st century driven world economy, we need to breathe innovation and encourage out-of-the-box thinking as we seek to develop a highly skilled citizenry, such exploits cannot be conceptualised in a manner that does not include the reality of our circumstances.

Consider that we are an island of 166 square miles of land with limited natural resources. Our population is considered to be quite dense; our businesses fall predominately within the buy and sell model; we are heavily dependent on foreign exchange that is acquired through tourism and international business; we import a lot of what we use and we are particularly susceptible to natural disasters. Acknowledging these constraints should therefore allow us to treat them as primary determinants in how we chart the way forward. Support for our foreign exchange-earning sectors must be in the forefront of our strategies and plans for higher education.

I will concede that higher education, no matter the area of specialisation, can be a critical asset to any nation which is serious about development, but it is one thing to suggest that our young people should look beyond Barbados for job opportunities and quite another to misdiagnose their desire to live and work in the place they call home.

Truth be told, there are only so many jobs that will be available in Barbados at any time and it is likely that only a few will provide high-paying salaries. This reality may cause some of us to question the practicality of having university graduates pumping fuel at a petrol station.

Former prime minister Owen Arthur once suggested that Barbados could export its most abundant resource, and in so doing, earn much-needed foreign exchange through remittances from our young graduates who choose to spread their wings and fly to other shores.

Is this the way forward? I don’t know, and to suggest a way forward without broad dialogue across the various sectors and interest groups is, in my view, a tragic mistake.

I support those who continue to make a plea for broad-based national consultations that provide every citizen the opportunity to add his two cents worth. I believe that if our leaders continue to ignore these requests, we are unlikely to reach common ground together as a people. We would not have articulated and perhaps determined what we need to do so that we can flourish – and note I did not say survive – in this new and ever-changing modern world.

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