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Cutting education not wise move

Decisions have been taken, and a five per cent direct cost payment for a university education is the new norm. If Dr. Leonard Shorey’s analysis is to be accepted, more room might even exist for increasing direct payments/cuts to Government spending on the university. While many Barbadians welcome this policy, I suggest we do so from problematic premises and without sufficient care as to outcomes.

No-one denies that Government needs to identify where it can reduce its obligations in these difficult times. However, that we should treat education as one of those expendables where costs cuts can occur is both unfortunate and damaging for our capacity both to exit this world depression and for future growth.

The philosophy which holds that “the consumers of education should be asked to bear some or a higher proportion of the needed outlays” is a quote from former Central Bank Governor by Dr Shorey in his article. This philosophy is the new faith for education spending that too many of us adopt. The new education philosophy misleads on at least two counts.

Education is not a consumption good of the order of a food or even housing. Rather, it is an investment in people for the future.

Barbados’ real capital was always its people, and there we had decided we would sink our funds for the future, until this new mantra that education is an expendable cost and not an investment.

Secondly, beneficiaries of university education are not limited to the single individual who is educated, though that is an easy fiction to adopt. Families, the business sector, communities, the government sector are all beneficiaries when the single individual is educated. Benefits extend to the political process, and to social, creative, and ethical lives of all in the country. In these times of challenge in the region on all these counts, I fail to comprehend how we are well served to stint on university education.

Risk of loss

We should look more closely at what we are likely to lose even as Government is able to reduce expenditure in payments to the university. I believe that this policy will have the following immediate effects:

* Lower Barbadian student enrollment

* Lower student enrollment from the Caribbean region

* Lay-offs of staff at lower end of pay scales

* Reduction in academic programmes that are not perceived in strictly utilitarian terms (humanities and the arts)

* Reduction in economic activities in the areas surrounding the campus

We are all aware, I think, of the extent of income exposure of the Barbados middle class, so it is unlikely that they can afford to take up the rise in fees, especially in the current economic circumstances. Those below them are even less likely to be able to pay, except at great hardship.

Therefore, I do believe we are likely to see an immediate decline in Barbadian student enrollment. This response might be lessened as parents and individuals are able to get bank loans to offset the current costs of education. So banks will benefit.

Regionally, enrollment numbers will also decline as Barbados is already known as a high cost destination for students in terms of living expenses. This will express itself in drop-off of rental incomes of the many housing services provided by Barbadians in the areas surrounding the university, as perhaps also other economic services.

It is certain that the university will get new income. Caribbean people, even if not Caribbean governments continue to place great faith in education as a mechanism of social mobility, and in the case of many in Barbados, as the way their children will be able to maintain at least the middle class living standards of their parents. However, I suspect that new income might not mean more income for the university as Government expenditure on students is tied to enrollment.

The way universities in other parts of the world have responded to reductions in government subventions is to target staff and programmes for cuts. These slashes have followed a fairly predictable path of cuts to staff at the lower academic and non-academic end. It has also meant cuts to programmes in the humanities and the arts. Cuts are not normal for medical and law programmes.

I accept that I have made no suggestions for how Government can cut costs in current circumstances. I make no apologies for that. I just want to de-link education investment from cost-cutting. If I were a householder needing to make cost-cuts, the education of my children is no-where that I would look to cut (poor grammar, I know). Their future is more important to me than my own consumption now. It is in my consumption that I would cut.

* Margaret D. Gill is a tutor at the Cave Hill Campus of the University of the West Indies.

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