How Arthur feels about UWI students who must go for lack of fees
Unreasonable and draconian!
That’s how former Prime Minister Owen Arthur today dismissed Government’s new tuition payment policy that takes effect in September for students attending the University of the West Indies.
Arthur is especially worried about the impact of the policy on those students who would have signed up for study before the changes were announced. However, he also believes there’s need for a general review of the policy, not only in terms of its impact on students, but the university’s and Barbados’ development on a whole.
He spoke in an exclusive interview with Barbados TODAY earlier this afternoon.
Mr Arthur, as you are well aware, the Government is moving full steam ahead with its plan to introduce tuition payments by September, even as officials at Cave Hill are now reporting that students are dropping out at a worrying rate, and that there is a drastic decline in those seeking enrolment this year. What’s your position in this raging public debate?
ARTHUR: I believe that this is a Barbadian tragedy, and that this could become one of the turning points in the development of Barbados –– which sees Barbados becoming just another one-pace pony in the developing world.
We have been different historically from other countries on the sustained strength of our investment in education, because we are now living in a more knowledge-based global economy, in which this significant investment is more important than ever before.
I am not absolutely sure if the Government has thought through fully what it is proposing to do [in terms of tuition payments], and if all of the terms have been defined with clarity, nor am I clear how the Government intends to apply the new rules, but the behaviour of Government has to withstand the test of reasonableness, and that test of reasonableness means that if the Government decides to do something affecting a citizen, its impact and its effects can’t be whimsical.
But I’m sure the Government would argue that a year is more than enough notice, since the actual policy was announced in the Budget of last August.
ARTHUR: In this matter, I think the Government is guided by fiscal issues . . . . It does not always seem to be guided by the impact on the individual, and whether that impact is reasonable.
Especially, I am concerned about the well-being of those who would have started courses at the Universty of the West Indies under one policy and one set of expectations, and now find themselves exposed to a radically different set of policies, without being clear about how they are, in their personal capacities, to accommodate those new policies. I think that whatever the Government does from a fiscal point of view, it really should allow those who are about to finish their university degrees to finish under the rules under which they started.
And, if new rules are to be brought to bear, it really should be applied to people who are about to enter, who could then decide if they can enter or not enter. But it is very heartbreaking to imagine that a person would have started a university degree course with certain expectations and, now that the finish line is within shouting distance, they can’t finish!
So how would you have the Government deal with such students?
ARTHUR: At least, make the accommodation to let people who are about to finish, finish.
I don’t think that would break the Treasury; but it would allow people to get their lives in order; and then you can deal with the matter.
But what about those students from poor families who are now looking to come in? Wouldn’t an accommodation also have to be made for them? And therefore where does the accommodating stop?
ARTHUR: My position on this teritiary education was expressed long ago when I said that Barbados needed to have two things. One, a higher education training levy to pay for it, because I still believe that we need to invest in higher education, and also, as a Minister of Finance, I would have introduced a registered Education Savings Plan that allows only the withholding tax on interest on such plans. I believe parents should be allowed to save for their children’s education and get the contribution in full.
I am one of those Barbadians who benefited from higher education. I like to tell students that in the late 1960s when I went to the Cave Hill Campus, the last bus to Speightstown came a certain hour, and I didn’t have books and I had to use the [Public] Library. And, many nights I had to walk from Cave Hill [in St Michael] to Rose Hill [in St Peter].
But I had no difficulty, because I felt then I was walking out of poverty, and there are still a lot of Barbadians who need that helping hand. And, having myself profited from the society which invested in my tertiary education, I feel very disinclined to kick down that ladder by which I climbed.
Whatever else we do, I still feel the country must find a way to invest in tertiary education.
From a national consideration, I am also of the view that while fiscal considerations are driving the Government, other strategic considerations apply.
Sounds all nice and good, but we know better than anyone that we are talking here about a Government that is faced with a high fiscal deficit.
ARTHUR: Our biggest deficit is not the fiscal deficit, nor the balance of payments deficit. It is the tertiary education output deficit. Other countries are pressing ahead to close theirs; we are going in the wrong direction where that is concerned.
The Cave Hill Campus is perhaps the single biggest earner of foreign exchange of any enterprise in Barbados. We have to see it not just as an educational institution; we have to see it from its many-faceted development perspectives. And I would love to see the Cave Hill Campus develop to be the township that it was really intended to be. It’s impact on Barbados would be bigger than Sandals, Sandy Lane –– all of them!
It [the university] has to be the place where we also have the link to the global technological society. I don’t believe that decisions in relation to it should be based only on narrow fiscal issues, but on broader development issues; and this is a time when the country should be talking through this matter in the fullest way.
The Government’s decisions are too narrowly based on fiscal issues. I believe we are going to make a fundamental mistake here. You can rationalize access to the university at Cave Hill Campus, you can find new ways of funding it, but the draconian approach to leave people stranded is something that I could not possibly support.
But you are not saying that students should not be made to pay anything for their education?
ARTHUR: Well, what I’m saying for sure is that we have to rationalize it and find new ways of funding it. I have always supported the notion of a higher education training levy. I have said that over and over again, and I feel that people like myself, who have benefited from the society’s investment in our capacity to be what we are, should be called upon to make a contribution to those who now need to benefit from it.
There was a study done that had suggested how we should rationalize it and find new ways of funding it. Students already make a contribution to their education; so it is not entirely free. [I say] rationalize it; but I don’t think you should strand those who are in the system under an old policy. That cannot stand the test of reasonableness!
A student, who is just about to finish, who entered the programme under one set of rules, just can’t be expected to be stranded by a new set of rules!
So you are not talking about a full repeal of the new tuition fees payment policy that officially takes effect this September?
ARTHUR: I really feel that those who are about to finish should be allowed to finish under the old rules.
But you are not opposed to tuition payment by freshmen?
ARTHUR: I strongly support the view that there should be a higher education training levy, and I said so on the floor of Parliament, because I think that Barbados’ most important investment is in its human capital, and that we have not yet reached the stage where our tertiary education deficit is so small that we can leave it just to private individuals alone.
The first thing that we should do is to find the resources to educate our people and to meet with their health care needs. Those are the two most important things.
But Minister of Education Ronald Jones has been adamant that there is no need for anyone to drop out of university, and he has been busy putting in place bursaries, and beefing up the Student Revolving Loan Scheme to accommodate both continuing and new students? Isn’t this adequate enough?
Arthur: Look, in the world that we live in, Barbados needs to continue the investment in the development of the skills necessary. That is what our development has been based on, and it is going to become more and more crucial. What you also need to do is to rationalize what is being taught at the University of the West Indies, because some of the things being taught are not necessary for our development.
But we have to continue to make that public investment in the training of our people at the tertiary level. That is what differentiates us and that is what has differentiated us in the past. If we stop that, we are going to reduce our odds; we are going to make it more difficult to sustain our development. This matter therefore is not only a fiscal matter, although there are fiscal solutions that must be tried. It is also a developmental matter.
I am prepared, as a former graduate, to contribute to a higher education levy to enable especially those children who come from poor backgrounds to be able to contemplate going to university.
What I am telling you is also based on the agony of those in my constituency who now have to face it. My consituency assistant –– and I hope she doesn’t mind my talking about it –– is from a family in upper St Peter. Her son is about to finish a degree as a vet, and believe me, the family, of course, was looking forward to having somebody in the family become a vet.
I mean, consider the pride. But they don’t know how they are going to send back the student to finish that last year; and the society can’t do those things to people. It is unreasonable!
Prime Minister Freundel Stuart has also weighed in on the current debate. In fact, I put to you the same question he posed at the Democratic Labour Party’s recent conference: “Does the state . . . owe the same duty to the graduates of secondary and tertiary institutions, living in modern housing with water-borne facilities, driving one of the $113,000 motor cars on our roads, and in generally steady white collar or blue collar employment, as it owed to the man or woman [of 1938] wending his or her way to the canefields, or to the farm with broad-rimmed hat, crocus bag tied around the waist and a hoe or fork across the shoulder, having just left a modest chattel house without running water and often on rented land?”
ARTHUR: If Prime Minister Stuart is saying that there should be means testing about the provision of tertiary education by Government and funding by Government, and if he doesn’t feel that the Government should provide funding for persons of a particular income bracket, but only for persons of another bracket, then perhaps he should put that clearly on the table, devoid of the classist type of things that he is talking about.
Public expenditures will continue to be rationed in the future; and if the Government is saying there is going to be need to introduce means testing, say that with clarity. But I think that is what he is trying to say: that the person who is from a poor background needs to have access to these services [and] those from an upper background have to be able to fend for themselves.
If that is the Government’s position, say so!