Relevance of education

The following is an excerpt from a speech delivered recently by attorney at law Hilford Murrell at the first in a series of lunchtime lectures put on by the Cave Hill campus of the University of the West Indies and the Central Bank of Barbados.

by Hilford Murrell

As I seek to address the topic Has Tertiary Education responded to the social and economic challenges of Barbados?, let me be the first to concede that this is a wide-ranging topic which neither time nor opportunity will facilitate its fullest exploitation. My focus of attention may not target the varied and varying syllabi presented for tertiary education but I will endeavour to speak to those several beneficiaries of that upper level of education.

I am sure that you will forgive me if I employ as my point of departure, the opening lines from a 1960 publication entitled The Tyranny of Economic Paternalism in Africa penned by S. Herbert Frankel, Professor of Colonial Economic Affairs in the University of Oxford. I have chosen the opening extract from this booklet as it embodies and embraces the very philosophical vista that will engage our discussions.

Here the professor asserts: “The history of economic development of new countries can be usefully looked upon as a process of adjustment on three planes: (a) political and territorial (b)sociological and economic, and (c) psychological. None of these can be separated in hard and fast compartments. They can all be seen as a struggle which is both objective and subjective.”

Some of you may begin to wonder what political and territorial adjustment has to do with the topic at hand.

Permit me therefore to clarify. Firstly, the University of the West Indies is a regional institution which continues to shape the philosophical and, at times, the ideological inclination of its students. The economic survival of Barbados and is fellow Caribbean states demands that there is some stable level of regional integration.

This assertion is evident from the persistent calls for regional unity that were exemplified and articulated by Professor Sir Arthur Lewis in his publication The Agony of the Eight. In this 39-page booklet, Sir Arthur assiduously chronicled the simmering differences that prevailed among leaders of the West Indies Federation until it eventually collapsed on May 31, 1962.

There is an old adage which states that “pressure from without forms unity and cohesion within’. With the designation as a Small Island Developing State, Barbados shares many things in common with its Caribbean neighbours – diminishing economic growth, growing unemployment, high debt servicing burden and a significant dependence on foreign capital assistance.

This affirmation, coupled with a virtual warning to steer the Caribbean territories towards regionalism, was expressed in the publication The Third World in the age of Globalisation … Requiem or New Agenda? Here, its author Dr. Ash Narain Roy, Assistant Editor of The Hindustan Times, New Delhi, unreservedly declared that in this world of rabid global competitiveness, regional integration is a necessary imperative if social and economic survival is to be assured. And what is the Number One priority in responding to this New Agenda – education.

It is therefore instructive that the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas establishing the Caribbean Community and The Caricom Single Market & Economy to which CARICOM member states gave their signature of approval on July 5, 2001, included in Article 6: Objectives of the Community “… intensified activities in areas such as health and education.”

Moreover, in Article 46 which addresses the Movement of Skilled Community Nationals, graduates of tertiary education (University Graduates) head the list of the categories of Community nationals accorded the right to seek employment in their jurisdictions. The message being conveyed is that tertiary education is at the vanguard of national and regional development. But one may rightly ask, is that opportunity being fully exploited?

Education – an instrument of economic policy

Before seeking to respond to that question, please bear with me as I take leave into the realm of education as an instrument of economic policy. In this regard, there is a generally accepted principle, that investment, particularly international investment, seeks a resting place which gives comfort to its long term strategic plan.

Heading the list of such expectations, is the educational quality of the workforce coupled with a social environment that is not far removed from being a replica of its home base.

While these basic precepts are standard prerequisites, Lester Thurow, the Lemelson Professor of Management and Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was more candid and unceremonious in his determination of such expectations. In a publication Fortune Favours The Bold – What we must do to build a new and lasting global prosperity, the MIT professor asserts that business firms can effectively veto any country’s entry into the global economy.

He posits that business firms, not countries, decide whether a country has the right criteria to participate when they decide where they should locate their activities. Thurow then summarised his opinion in an undiluted expression: “No one is interested in producing the goods and services of tomorrow in a country with an illiterate workforce, without modern electronic infrastructure, and in a context of social chaos – crime, corruption, and no social services.”

The message from the MIT professor is that in an environment of incisive international competitiveness, countries have to learn how to sell themselves to global firms as good places to do business. As a country that yearns to attract foreign investment, Barbados well understands the arguments on the importance of education as an economic input hence the adoption of a socioeconomic policy that grants free education from primary to tertiary level.

However, can Barbados cope in this challenging environment of fierce global competition?

Coping with the challenges in a dynamic world

Attracting foreign investment is both a social as well as an economic imperative; social as a source of job creation and economic, as a provider of foreign exchange which is vital to economic sustainability.

In both categories, Barbados must place itself at the cutting edge of information and communication technology.

This applies as much to the mature worker as it does to the youth who are more readily inclined to grasp any innovative concepts. In its 2007 World Development Report styled Development and the Next Generation, the World Bank presents a case for more effective use of technology both as a tool for learning as well as for employment.

With a focus on tertiary education, the report lauds the Internet’s capacity for two-way interaction in that it offers the greatest promise for improving access and affordability and for providing the flexibility to combine work and further study.

From a domestic and private perspective, the Internet is the playground for the youth and this offers social challenges especially in households where there is limited or even an absence of computer literacy.

To stem the possibility of our unsuspecting youth being entrapped in child pornography and other forms of deviant exposure, tertiary graduates in his discipline should form themselves into volunteer groups and teach the youth to be safe and responsible users of the new technology.

I mentioned earlier that information and communication technology was one of the several prerequisites of attracting business to our shores. In fine tuning these policies the World Bank Report states that the main ICT priority of any government is to ensure a good investment climate that allows private companies to serve the growing demand for ICT services, by enacting regulations that provide for easy entry and competition.

In addressing the concerns of the youth, the report charges that government should provide good regulatory conditions for modes of communal access, such as village phones and Internet cafes. Above all, the report calls upon government to provide the youth with skills needed to best take advantage of new technologies, through teaching global languages and developing ways to teach youth to be responsible users of the technology.

When we speak of government in an abstract sense, we are actually referring, in the main, to those persons who at one time or other are the very beneficiaries of tertiary education and who can direct and assist in the formulation of government policy.

* To be continued in tomorrow’s edition.

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