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Time to talk

During the last four years, beginning in April 2009, Barbados has accumulated a debt of $150 million to the University of the West Indies. Apparently, for the first time since the establishment of the Cave Hill Campus, the country has repeatedly fallen short in meeting its financial obligations of covering the tuition fees and economic costs of Barbadian students of the UWI.

Against the background of the consequential financial challenges facing the UWI, Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West Indies, Professor E. Nigel Harris noted that there should be a national bipartisan discussion [in Barbados] about the long-term funding of Cave Hill [UWI].

I happen to agree with him. In fact, as far back as 2005, I have been of the view that universal access to “free” tertiary education and health care will become more and more unsustainable as Barbados marches into the future. Continued access to tertiary education and health care is critical to our national development but it is only a matter of time before those who benefit directly from this social infrastructure will be asked to pay a share of the economic costs at the point of delivery.

Some of you may recall that a few years ago, former Prime Minister Owen Arthur supported UWI’s controversial hike in the amenities fees which Barbadian students at the Cave Hill Campus were forced to pay towards the infrastructural development of the campus (among other things). Barbadian students protested against the fee hike which represented at least a 30 per cent increase in their annual out of pocket registration costs. They did so because they considered the hike to be discriminatory (as the increase applied to Barbadian students only), unaffordable for some students, and too significant an increase (it was felt that the increase should have been incremental, much lower or both).

That development signalled clearly, that even in a more favourable economic environment, Barbados was unable to shoulder the entire cost of expanding the Cave Hill campus or increasing access to tertiary education in Barbados. I do not agree with that approach.

Over the past ten years, the Cave Hill campus has increased the student amenities fee by over 65 per cent. It is my understanding that during the past year, Sir Hilary, principal of the Cave Hill Campus, has advocated another increase. I certainly do not agree with such an upward march of registration fees to supplement Cave Hill’s infrastructural expansion.

My own view is that tuition should cover the economic costs of a student’s university education. If it is necessary for graduates to bear some of those costs, let us have that discussion. The necessary concessionary loan arrangements can be put in place to ensure that university graduates contribute to their education after graduation.

Currently, Barbadian students pay annual fees of $970 inclusive of an amenities fee of $820 per annum. Though this figure is relatively small compared to the costs borne by the taxpayers for the university education of Barbadians, poor families may find it too heavy a burden to bear.

There is no doubt that there has been an element of unbridled (some may say indiscriminate) growth in Barbadian student enrolment at Cave Hill campus. There has also been an attendant increase in dropout rates and protracted enrollment. The net result has been higher costs to the Government and taxpayer, an understaffed faculty, poor accommodation of part-time students and unsatisfactory academic outcomes. That is why I agree with the Freundel Stuart Administration’s 2012 Budget proposals which are intended to reduce enrollment durations, ensure high matriculation standards, reduce the per student economic and tuition costs of tertiary education and ultimately improve the quality of education and increase access.

After all, Barbadians not only deserve to be able to continue to access higher education, our future depends on it. Education is an instrument of social mobility, economic enfranchisement and enriched economic and social participation. It has been a prominent feature of Barbados’ economic development.

Additionally, increasing the rate of student enrolment in post secondary education is vital to Barbados’ future as a society and an economy. Human capital must continue to strive on the basis of high quality primary, secondary, technical vocational, college, university and continual adult education.

It is essential to our survival in a fiercely competitive world. Education is and must continue to be an indispensable feature of the Barbados model of social and economic development, a strong tenant of the independence project.

According to Professor Harris: “There was a decision made at CARICOM to grow the number of tertiary educated students and the university deliberately embarked on that as policy to increase access with the understanding that a knowledgeable, educated workforce would put the Caribbean in a more competitive mode.”

I agree wholeheartedly. Indeed, governments all over the world are doubling down on their commitments to higher post secondary graduation rates and better outcomes. From Malaysia and Taiwan to Australia, the UK, the United States and Canada, governments understand the importance of education to their future prosperity.

Despite the fact that the costs of post secondary education have been rising, nations recognise they cannot afford to fall behind their competitors in educating their people. Tough decisions have to be made. Last year, there were riots in Britain as a result of the government’s decision to increase university tuition fees. A similar scenario played out in Quebec this year, as mass student protests paralysed university operations after the provincial government decided to raise university tuition fees. These developments arose in the context of severe fiscal challenges and the need to sustain increasing access to tertiary education.

I do not believe that change in Barbados will be greeted with that type of acrimony. Barbadians are an intelligent and reasonable people. I believe that as long as our leaders are straight with the people they would appreciate what is at stake and stand prepared to carry their fair share of the burden. The country must come together and agree on a way forward for funding tertiary education in Barbados.

All stakeholders must be held accountable, especially the UWI and its students. The quality of tuition and its administration must be raised at the lowest possible cost. Students must be put in a position where they are unable to take their access to a university education for granted.

Let us take heart; there are a number of options that lie before us. For example, a strategy to attract larger numbers of international faculty and students can result in a better quality education that is more affordable for the Barbadian student, taxpayer and Government. If that is achieved, the tuition of extra-regional students could subsidise the tuition of Barbadian students and their regional counterparts while earning Barbados foreign exchange.It will also enrich the diversity of the learning experience while facilitating international networking. What could result is a higher quality university education at lower costs to the students and their governments.

There is also the potential for future business connections and research and development collaborations.

The pressing challenges which the country faces can be turned into opportunities. If only we would act.

Carlos R. Forte is a Commonwealth Scholar and Barbadian economist with local and international experience.

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