During the recent budget presentation in Barbados, Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler announced that the government would be cutting its subsidies for students at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill campus. The blogosphere is divided over whether the move is a good one for the country.
In his speech, the Minister said:
‘While remaining committed to providing continued access to university education, the government cannot simply continue to preside over a situation where the growth and development of the non-university component education system is severely retarded. The country needs to be able to build capacity at all levels of the education system.
As a consequence, the government has decided that in an effort to assist it in meeting the exploding costs of university education it has now become necessary to ask students attending and desirous of attending the University of the West Indies to contribute to their education in a more direct manner.’
The Minister explained that the government would look to means-testing and a revamped student loan program to make sure deserving students are still able to afford school. Education in Barbados has been essentially free up through university level since independence. This has been critical to the island's development and many Barbadians took great pride in this. The government's decision has spawned great debate, encompassing issues of education policy and debt management.
David Commisiong of the Clement Payne Movement, widely regarded as a left-wing political entity, called the decision of the government an “act of political treachery” and considered it to be a betrayal of the legacy of the ruling Democratic Labour Party‘s founder and former Prime Minister Errol Barrow.
If this is not an act of political treachery, then what is?
[This] is being amplified by the fact that Barbados has just gone through a General Election, and at no time during the course of that Election campaign did the DLP indicate to the Barbadian people that they were proposing to institute such a drastic severing of the fundamental social rights of the people of Barbados. In fact, they did just the opposite, suggesting that it was the Barbados Labour Party (BLP) that was threatening the social rights of the Barbadian people, and that a vote for the DLP would be a vote to preserve such social rights as the right to ‘free’ education at the University of the West Indies.
Commisiong made the point that key political figures were themselves the beneficiaries of the subsidized schooling initiative:
Prime Minister Freundel Stuart and the vast majority of his Ministers have all benefitted from ‘free’ education at the UWI! Stuart…was born into a poor working-class family and was raised by a single parent – his mother – who worked as a maid. But Stuart was fortunate to come of age in an independent nation whose founder -leader – Right Excellent Errol Walton Barrow – had had the good sense to accord the right of young Barbadians to education from the Primary level to University level, the status of a de facto fundamental human right, and to put a system in place whereby the cost of education was collectively borne by all taxpayers, rather than being left on the shoulders of the individual student and his or her biological family.
He concluded that the matter should be decided by a national referendum:
The people of Barbados never gave the DLP Government any mandate to dismantle the system of ‘free’ University Education. Let us therefore raise our voices and demand that they put this issue to a vote by all of the people of Barbados in a nation-wide Referendum! We, the Barbadian people, must be permitted to have a say in something as fundamental and serious as this!
Omar Best-Delice, meanwhile, wrote an essay exploring the issues related to funding education in Barbados:
To effectively determine how best to structure tertiary educational policy in Barbados, the issue thus comes down fundamentally to what is the purpose of education and specifically tertiary education? Is tertiary education special or distinct from primary or secondary education? If it is, what special attributes or benefits does it derive that the other two types of education are less equipped to? If tertiary education however, is nothing special, but merely an expansion of primary and secondary education, why would it or should it receive differential treatment compared to the other types of education?
According to Best-Delice, education cannot be seen as just another government service, given its role in development:
Education and its contributions are fundamentally more important towards economic and social value creation than virtually all other types of services fathomable. The particular form that tertiary education has taken in the Barbadian society is culturally idiosyncratic, having been forged by prior policymakers as a means to ameliorate a very real societal condition and a history that saw vast majority of the populous disenfranchised from significant economic contribution and value creation. It would therefore be remiss to divorce cost of tertiary university education from an understanding of the totality of the benefits it has provided over the years.
At Barbados Underground, a reader named “Fair Play” defended the decision and felt that most Barbadians supported the government's stance:
I believe our plan to ask students to contribute a small part of the cost of their tertiary education at UWI has more public support than we think. Talking to people from all walks of life, and ironically, particularly among low income earners, there is much support. Their comments run the gamut from: it makes sense; the country cannot afford 100% funding at this time; other countries that are better off than us don’t do it; and, it should have been implemented long ago; to, they have an attitude after graduation – forgetting who paid for their education; and they do not give back to society, especially the doctors and lawyers who charge the same benefactors (the taxpayers) very exorbitant fees.
Commenter “Prodigal Son” wondered why there was not an outcry from the university community:
Let them keep their silence, say nothing and do nothing. Let me tell them something…if less people are able to send their children to UWI, there will be less money going into the coffers of UWI, the UWI will have no alternative but to cut and combine programmes. Thus there will be no need for so many lecturers, professors, deans, tutorial leaders, programme assistants, office staff etc.
Imagine not a word on the severity of the cuts to the QEH [Queen Elizabeth Hospital] and to me this is the worse (sic) cut of all. As a caller to Brasstacks [a radio programme] said yesterday, the government can provide children with free bus rides to get to the UWI but when they get there, they cannot go in as they have no money to pay the UWI tuition cost the government has imposed on them.
So keep your silence, UWI elite, this is the poor’s time, your time will come!
The Guild of Students at the University of the West Indies has decided take up the issue with the government.