UWI Guild president discusses issue of students paying for tuition from 2014

Students' Guild President Damani Parris
Students’ Guild President Damani Parris

Since the delivery of Government’s 2013 Budget, there has been much discussion and protests to the suggestion that from 2014, students at the University of the West Indies should pay for their tuition, reversing 50 years of “free” tertiary education. The protests at the university level have been led by the Cave Hill Campus’ Students’ Guild, whose President Damani Parris sat down with Barbados TODAY’s Latoya Burnham this morning to explore the issue in detail from the Guild’s perspective.

Today we bring part one of this two-part interview.

Q: What essentially is the Guild’s problem with UWI students having to pay what is being said will be 20 per cent of their tuition costs?

A: The best way to define the Guild’s problem in this context is the Guild’s perspective of its students’ body. The Guild understands first of all that its student body is 80 per cent working class. It is therefore difficult for an organisation with an 80 per cent working class student body or student roll, to support a measure that essentially erodes the ability of that student body to come to the University of the West Indies; essentially erodes our ability to survive as an organisation because of the significant amount of fall-out that will be suffered by such a student body through this policy. Therefore the Guild can only be concerned and can only be against the position that threatens the vast majority of the students that it serves. Like any other union body we have a responsibility to protect the majority of the persons we represent and it is therefore only natural that we would oppose a situation where though 20 per cent may seem reasonable to the average person, that is an unreasonable position for those of us who understand what 20 per cent might mean to the average student who is going to attempt to come to the university next year with the idea of advancing themselves and learning and growing and developing.

The Guild’s other problem with this policy is that the Guild has not been consulted. We believe that if we had been consulted on this issue then we could have made relevant contribution that could have avoided us having to take such a drastic step at this point; and the most fundamental problem the Guild has with this policy is that the policy does not seem to have thought carefully about the potential impact on a number of the students at the University of the West Indies.

It does not seem to consider that 80 per cent of working class families, it does not seem to have considered the part-time students who cannot incur further debt because they are simply too laden with family issues, work commitments, mortgages, car payments and such things that are essentially making and sustaining their very existence. That to ask them to further add to that a situation where they now have to contribute 20 per cent, some $6,600 at minimum to their education per year will be an undermining factor in their pursuit of higher education and higher learning. Essentially for the majority of the part-time students that we have spoken to here in the guild, it will be the requiem of the Cave Hill part-time programme, something that we simply cannot have, and it is against that background that the Guild will have a problem with this policy, not because the Guild opposes the idea of paying fees altogether, but because such a situation will be to the detriment of the majority of students.

uwidamaniparrisgesturesQ: How do you respond to those in the public who say the Guild is sending the wrong message to students by expecting free education at this level to continue?

A: First of all we must correct a serious fallacy in the understanding of the public that education is “free”. The Guild has always been of the opinion that we have community paid for education. Community paid for education is different from free education. The tax payers of this country on entering the social contract agreed with our Father of Independence that we were going to make a contribution to secure two fundamental requirements – “free education” and “free health”. What that essentially meant, was that we would have community paid for education and community paid for health care. The difference is that because we are requesting community paid for education, and community paid for health care that the public of Barbados in its infinite wisdom, entered into a policy position where it was going to fund the education of the masses with the intention of ensuring that those masses would always have the quality of education that is necessary for the advancement of the country and the economy as a whole.

It is not by accident that Barbados finds itself so high on the Human Development Index. It is not by accident that you hear claims that Barbados is a developed country.

This was not something that we tripped and fell into. It was the result of careful planning by our forefathers to accomplish measures and accomplish results of an economic model that is to my mind as a young and aspiring economist, one of the most brilliant models in the world. It has based itself on the idea that if we give everyone equality of opportunity, then people will be judged and progress because of their talents rather than because of the resources they would have had at birth. That is a significantly more fair system, both to the people of the country and to the country itself because it does not ever rob the country of having a brilliant person advance beyond poverty to the point where that person can accomplish greatness and that is where we at the University of the West Indies have a fundamental problem – this idea that free education is unreasonable.

It is no more unreasonable than suggesting that we should have free health care to ensure that the workers of the country are always well. To us it is no more unreasonable than the idea that we should have a government that is voted for democratically. You see these fundamental principles in the Barbadian model have always secured us and held us in firm stead against the passage of all kinds of storms and tides of life and I fear that what we have misunderstood is that though the Barbadian model can be restructured, it would be a terrible mistake for the public to suggest that it is time to destroy this model especially when there has not been a more favourable or a more well-thought out model established that we are in pursuit of. So in the absence of another model of development that we are pursing, I find it unnerving that we are going to throw away the model that we currently have and I think that is an extremely important point that we leave our model that has served us so well up until this point in favour of nothing.

So I argue that community paid for education is still essential to the Barbadian model of development and if you want to look carefully at the scenario, the purpose for which community paid for education was designed was because there was a small minority of people in Barbados who held the wealth that the large majority did not have access to. So it was a situation where some five per cent of the people at the time, held more than 95 per cent of the wealth of the country. The question we must ask ourselves is, has this situation so significantly changed, is the wealth of the country so significantly held by the majority of the country that we can move away from a situation where we need to pay for community education together; and if that is the case why do we still have communities and poverty in areas we are still trying to tackle. Can we not still say there are impoverished and poor families in this country who still cannot afford to pay for university education for their sons and daughters and if that is the case, I would like to submit that if we still have those problem areas, if we still have sufficient of those persons, if our middle case is still by and large a fake middle class that is a few paychecks away from poverty, what are we going to do by suggesting tertiary education no longer be free? Are we not undermining the very structure of the system that we have worked so hard to design? I think these are the situations we must analyse when we say it is time to remove “free education”.

This community paid for education has served us well in the past. What I would also like to submit is that we have reduced our expenditure on education by about eight to nine per cent on the initial agreement, whereas 25 per cent of our budget was to be spent on education, some 17 per cent currently is expended. So the taxpayers need to ask if we are not going to pay for community paid education, if we are not going to invest heavily in community paid for health care, then where is the money and taxes that we have going, because those were the two fundamental rights we had guaranteed. And if we are no longer in pursuit of those things, what model are we pursing and is it the best model for our development.

Q: What are the options though? Some members of the public also say that instead of fighting the inevitable introduction of fees, the Guild should be utilising its efforts in finding funding/financing sources like scholarships, grants, loans and such for students. How do you respond to that?

A: I respond to that with this simple statement – it is easier for the Guild to, in the interest of its Barbadian population of students of approximately 6,500 to 7,000 to fight against a policy that would erode away almost all of those persons, than for the guild to launch a platform or proposal to attempt to find funding and financing, individually for each of those 6,500 to 7,000. The Guild simply does not have the resources to deploy, to attempt to convince financiers, not only here but across the Caribbean region and perhaps the wider world that it is within their interest that they begin to educate students at the University of the West Indies. There is simply no way that we are going to be able to in the comprehensive manner that we would be required, to save everybody that needs to be saved. The problem that the Guild has is that it cannot support, or not oppose a policy that can so fundamentally undermine everything that it has represented and worked for up to this point. Therefore if we do not fight against this policy, it would have been a betrayal of the students who elected us to fight for their interest in dark times.

I for one will not be betraying the sacred vow I made to the students about representation. Here in the Guild of Students we take representation very seriously and we understand we have a responsibility to our public to ensure they are well-represented and that their interests are well-looked after because unfortunately or fortunately for the student body, we will be held to account and our conscience will bother us if we as a Guild council fail to represent the interest of the student body who have elected us wholeheartedly while maintaining a responsible outlook for the country and the environment that we are in.

So the Guild has to be responsible against the backdrop of also representing its public. We have to consult with our public, and after consultation we have to advise our public, but our public must be the priority and must be critically involved in every step of our decision-making process and I think that is extremely important for any democratically elected government.

Q: Government has said in the Budget that between 2007 and 2008 the annual contribution required from them to fund UWI education increased from $79.3 million to $120.5 million and the fee introduction was an attempt to reduce Government’s fee by an estimated $42m a year. If not a fee introduction, given what government has said about the reality of the cost of education, what is the Guild suggesting? What are the options available to the country?

A: First I think it is important that we put this entire fee structure in context. The University of the West Indies did not wave a magic wand and dramatically introduce $40million in fees overnight. The University of the West Indies increased its costs because of an increase in operational costs, you must understand that, and that increase in operational costs of course must be put into more careful context. So we must ask ourselves, what changed between 2006/2007 and 2007/2008. I think that is an interesting conversation we must have. First of all there was a significant expansion in the number of buildings on this campus, an expansion that was created and promoted under permission by the same Government of Barbados who have recommended that the expansion of the university was necessary in order to facilitate the students of the Barbadian and regional public that so demanded tertiary education.

While I am not a defender of the university, I think it is extremely important that we examine the expansion of the UWI to that extent in terms of infrastructure. I think that is step one. Point two, there was an introduction of an entirely new faculty – the most expensive faculty on campus. The medical sciences faculty opened its doors in 2007 for the very first time. The Barbadian Government, I do believe, guarantees the medical faculty at this university a certain number of students per year, at the cost to the public of Barbados of $65,000 per year. If one is to therefore discuss an increase in fees, it must be looked at against the backdrop that I believe about 20 students, if not more, are guaranteed by the Barbadian Government to go to that faculty and then you have scholarship winners, etc, who are accommodated and who tend to go to the Faculty of Medical Sciences to pursue a doctoral degree. So I think it is important that we understand what that means. While I am not suggesting that the medical sciences students are to blame, and I want to make it exceedingly clear that I do fully support and wish to defend all students from any animosity that will be targeted toward them from the Government, the question must be asked and I think that is the question the Government has been avoiding – in the construction of a medical faculty at the Cave Hill Campus did we not perhaps make a slightly irresponsible move, in that it was slightly less expensive for us to educate students in medicine at the existing campuses with medical faculties. I think that is an extremely important question that we must ask ourselves and if indeed the Government is going to suggest that this dramatic jump came out of nowhere and the university somehow expanded ridiculously without consultation or discussion, then we must understand it against such a context.

Did the UWI not consult with you when it sought to construct a medical faculty here? If yes, then it was approved because it is impossible for them to be guaranteed a certain number of students unless consultation had occurred. Then, what has the government done since to address the critical issue of this wholistic expansion in terms of did the government ever say that it needed the cost of the university to come down? Did the government ever enter careful and concerted discussion about the fact that it could not continue to fund the students of the university during this recession? Did the government ever, at any point in time, indicate to the finance and general purposes committee meetings, to the council meetings or any other meetings of the university which they all attend and I see them at, that we were going to find ourselves in a serious fiscal situation if we did not keep up our payments to the UWI? The answer to this has been holistically no.

What has instead happen is that the Government has instead, even after university prodding, allowed the debt to continue to mount up without making any structural adjustments to their ability to service it. At no point did the government enter any discussions with the university about the fact that the government was clearly struggling to service this debt and it was therefore irresponsible of the government to suggest that the university had somehow victimised it, when at no point in time did they ever express that they were in trouble, or that they had thought they would be unable to keep up payments. At no point did they attempt to put preventative measures in place to prevent the debt from continuing to increase.

What the government instead did was it sat and it waited and allowed the debt to mount up and it waited, and it essentially did nothing to address the fact that there was a separation between what apparently the government was going to be able to pay and what the university was going to require from the government in order to educate the numbers that were at the university.

Such a situation could have been addressed by the most natural of economic ways. One could have reduced the numbers at the university; a programme of expansion at the sixth form level and the Barbados Community College could have done tremendous work to do that; a cap at the University of the West Indies as a temporary measure could have been understood by the majority of the public; a redesigning of the community education programme would have done wonders especially if it was adopted to be fashioned after the Trinidad GATE [Government Assistance for Tuition Expenses] model which is an impressive model to look at because of the fact that it addresses critical situations like the fact that the government will not pay for pass degrees. One has to simply do better than just pass. Yet the Government of Barbados continues to promote an ideology, where though it could address situations of persons coming to university “wasting time”, and it has a waste time policy as well which it simply refuses to enforce, yet it complains about the fact that there are university students wasting time when the government passed a policy to prevent it then refused to enforce the policy, then one wonders why the bills at the university are escalating out of control. So we must ask why exactly has this policy not been enforced. Is this against the background of political convenience. These are critical questions.

Therefore it is against this backdrop that we have to ask ourselves, has the government done all it possibly could have to avoid putting itself in this position. Then, after not doing all that it could have to put itself in this position, has the government sought to consult with the relevant authorities to see how best it could have avoided this situation first and if the answer is no to both, then we have to ask how effective has the Government of Barbados been in addressing an education issue that requires a delicate scalpel to remove the cancer, and I suggest it is as effective as a doctor who walks into an operating room with a collins [cutlass] to do surgery and I fear that is why the patient might be killed.

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