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Holding firm

Implementation, implementation, implementation…

The success of the 2013 budgetary proposals in turning Barbados’ fortunes around will largely depend on the Civil Service’s ability to honour the implementation schedule that was outlined by the Minister of Finance over a week ago.

The Stuart Administration must ascribe to an unprecedented level of discipline in order for its policies and programmes to bear fruit. Now that Parliament is on summer recess until October 15, ministers of the Crown will have to busy themselves in providing the type of stewardship and oversight of their ministries that will be required to usher in operation Adjustment, Reform, Recovery and Sustainability.

The economy required a course correction; guided by a new suite of policies and the resolve to do what is required during the narrowing window of opportunity to restore confidence in the Barbados economy. Tough action was needed; there is no getting around that!

The new policy agenda of the Stuart Administration finally entails the key elements of: (i) higher capital spending that underpins short-term growth and longer-term sustainable growth inducing capital formation;

(ii) current expenditure cuts;

(iii) reform;

(iv) debt management and Balance of Payments support;

(v) immediate investment in tourism development, strategic and tactical marketing and;

(vi) business facilitation.

Moreover, Government’s recognition that tourism and international business hold the key to the restoration of short-term economic prosperity is very encouraging.

Some of my colleagues are of the view that the 2013 Financial Statement and Budgetary Proposals are too little too late. I understand their anxiety but I am a bit more optimistic.

The new policy agenda is the last gasps of the economy. A lot will hinge on the efficacy and timeliness of execution. The people of Barbados need Government’s new medicine to work. If the Government is unable to hold it together, my colleagues could very well be proven right. For our country’s sake, let’s hope that does not happen.

It is against this background that I hope that the Minister of Education was not attempting to walk back the new policy on tertiary education fees when he said recently that the policy is evolving and not cast in stone. Government should remain mindful of the imperatives as well as the objectives of the policy as annunciated during last week’s Budget.

Please do not cower in the face of resistance from interest groups and stakeholders. There are many ways to skin a cat. There may very well be better ways to achieve the objectives of reducing Government’s annual financial obligation to the Cave Hill campus of the UWI and to achieve greater student commitment and responsibility.

There are those who expressed the view that instead of what was proposed, former students should have been called upon to make a financial contribution for their UWI education. In this respect I share the view as expressed by the Prime Minister recently. Many of the current and future Barbadian students of UWI are the sons, daughters, nieces, nephews, brothers, sisters and even grandchildren of UWI alumni.

It therefore stands to reason that graduates of the UWI that can afford it will be compassionate and committed enough to their families, and patriotic enough to their country to partner with the Government of Barbados to invest in the personal development of their relatives and of course the social capital of Barbados.

It is likely that any attempt to foist a retroactive financial commitment on UWI alumni would not only breach the social contract between graduates of 2014, their predecessors and government but it would also represent an abdication of the sacred bond of trust between a people and their Government.

Indeed, such a policy would be fraught with many implementation (logistical) challenges and will be heavily dependent on the voluntary participation of former students. A variant of that recommendation that applies only to new graduates would be more practical but not without its own difficulties.

For example, how would the Government guarantee the receipt of contributions from alumni resident outside of Barbados?

One has to also bear in mind the objective of reducing Government’s allocation to the UWI by at least $45 million per annum in the shortest possible time. Restoring fiscal order depends (in part) on it.

Capping the annual enrollment of Bajan students at the UWI at a number that the nation can realistically afford is another alternative. The cap could be raised as the economic fortunes of the country improve. This type of approach could usher in the type of managed expansion that the Cave Hill campus ought to have initiated on its own volition given the prevailing economic and budgetary circumstances.

A policy approach of that nature could be complemented by higher matriculation standards that contribute to the preservation and improvement of the quality of UWI graduates without compromising the lofty goal of one graduate in every household. Of course, this writer has always held the view that achieving higher tertiary graduation rates rests on the strides of the entire education system — from primary to tertiary. It is not and cannot be a tertiary pursuit alone.

In addition, as was said in these pages on previous occasions, Government could also have committed the taxpayers of Barbados to paying for no more than three years of UWI undergraduate study per full-time student and no more than five years per part-time student while requiring students to pay out of pocket to retake courses that they failed.

Again, such an approach would have to be augmented with a cap in the short-term in order to meet the very necessary fiscal targets.

Those that are getting all philosophical about the importance of education to Barbados’ development as they lobby against the new tertiary education policy proposal must understand that you can’t have your cake and eat it too. The Government of Barbados has a responsibility to present and future generations to ensure that it provides the type of stewardship of the nation’s resources that preserves the gains of the past while securing the opportunities of the future.

Economics is largely about the efficient allocation of scarce resources and at this time in our nation’s history, financial resources are scare and economic opportunities are few. The country cannot afford business “as usual” — whether that be in the sphere of tertiary education and its funding, public administration, business facilitation, public transportation, port charges, customer service or the existing funding model for healthcare.

No Government of Barbados will renege on its commitment to free (at delivery) tertiary education in Barbados unless it is the absolute last resort. Successive administrations will make every effort to safeguard universal access. Education is a central pillar of economic and social advancement in all countries, and a key success factor for Barbados. It is a sacred cow that will not be callously slaughtered.

Hopefully, the executive branch of Government, led by the Cabinet of Barbados will begin in earnest to provide more detail to the vague policies contained in the 2013 Budget and give effect to its new policy agenda. Government’s communication strategy will also be important to the implementation process over the course of the next 18 months.

They would be well advised to report regularly to the public on their progress and setbacks. They should also be prepared to be flexible enough to tweak their approach as the changing circumstances require while not losing sight of the objectives.

I implore the Government to stay the course. The country’s future demands on it.

All hands on deck, please!

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

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