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COLUMN – A tragedy –– this cut in free UWI education

fighting goliathThe Democratic Labour Party (DLP) has just celebrated its 60th anniversary. And for more than 58 of those 60 years of existence the DLP championed the virtues of “free education” from the primary to the university level, and declaimed that anyone or any institution that was opposed to “free education” was an enemy of the masses of the people.

Indeed, as recently as the general election campaign of 2013, Prime Minister Freundel Stuart and his DLP colleagues travelled the length and breadth of Barbados accusing the Barbados Labour Party of being hostile to free university education, and assuring Barbadians that a vote for the DLP was a vote to preserve free education.

Furthermore, so strong was the DLP’s traditional promotion of its commitment to free university education, that –– as Prime Minister Stuart himself has confirmed –– in 1994, Barbados’ foremost university level educator Sir Hilary Beckles went
so far as to mount the DLP platforms and to extol the virtues of the then “free university education-loving DLP”.

It is noteworthy that Sir Hilary’s 1994 foray into partisan politics for the purpose of supporting the then “free university education-loving DLP” evoked no censure or chastisement from either the DLP or the BLP.

Yet –– lo and behold –– now that the DLP has, in a most unprincipled manner, changed its position on free university education, the said Sir Hilary finds himself publicly vilified and excoriated by the maximum leader of the DLP for, in effect, doing nothing more than what he had done on the DLP platforms in 1994: namely, upholding the gospel of free university education that the said DLP had preached for over 58 years!

Quite frankly, I was appalled to read Prime Minister Stuart’s verbal assault on Sir Hilary. For essentially doing nothing more than holding fast to the long-standing DLP position on free university education, Sir Hilary was described as being an “incurable egotist” who had displayed “bad, bad manners” and who had acted in a most “disrespectful”, “ungracious” and “indecent” manner.

Needless to say, there was something very ugly and disturbing about such a trenchant and personal Prime Ministerial attack.

No doubt, if Sir Hilary had made similar pro-free university education comments a mere two years ago –– at the time of the DLP’s 2013 “free education”–based general election campaign –– he would have been warmly embraced by Stuart and his DLP colleagues. But now that the facile and politically unprincipled DLP directorate has changed its mind on free university education, it is apparently “open season” on Sir Hilary for daring to continue to believe in and publicly espouse commitment to the old, noble principle.

Of course, Prime Minister Stuart will seek to justify his attack by claiming that it was linked to the fact that Sir Hilary’s comments emanated from a man who occupies the exalted office of vice-chancellor of the University of the West Indies. But there can be no excuse for the personal nature of the attack; and most ordinary citizens of our country will conclude that if it could happen to the highly placed Sir Hilary, it could happen to any citizen who happens to find himself in opposition to the DLP establishment on any particular issue.

And let me say for the record that there is something wrong –– tragically wrong –– with a political culture in which citizens are reduced to trepidation about the likelihood of facing personal attack from the political establishment simply because they happen to find themselves on the opposing side of a policy issue. And if that is where Messrs Stuart and company are intent on taking our country, that would surely be tragic.

But let it be known that an even greater tragedy has already befallen us in relation to this matter –– a tragedy that far too many of us seem to be unaware of; a tragedy that has truly dire implications for our nation.

The tragedy I am referring to is that the DLP’s new policy of charging tuition fees for tertiary level education at the University of the West Indies has resulted in some 4,200 Barbadians not being able to avail themselves of university education!

We Barbadians need to pause and to reflect very deeply and profoundly on this cold hard fact. Let me repeat it: the UWI administration has revealed that since the new fee paying structure was imposed on Barbadians, the roll of Barbadian students in the UWI system has declined by some 4,200 men and women. And you can be assured that these 4,200 persons are all members of the broad Barbadian working and lower middle classes who simply do not possess the financial wherewithal to pay the new fees.

So, for the supposed purpose of saving $42 million a year –– in a Government budget that is well in excess of $3 billion (3,000 millions of dollars) –– our Government is now depriving over 4,000 of our needy sons and daughters of accessing university education. This is truly unbelievable –– and tragic!

It is education that has brought Barbados thus far on its developmental journey, and, although Messrs Stuart, Jones and their Cabinet colleagues are too blind to see it, it is education that will have to get us out of the deep economic trough that the mindless and visionless political leadership of the past decade has placed us in.

It is also education that will have to help us repair the ruptured social, cultural and psychological fabric that is now manifesting
in widespread (and growing) crime and violence in our society.

If Barbados is to be saved, it will have to be through an “Education Revolution”. Admittedly, such an “Education Revolution” will call for profound reform in the structure of our current system of education and in the content of our curriculum. But even as we brainstorm the precise nature of those reforms, one thing is absolutely certain, and it is that we will have to maintain
or even increase the access of our people to university education.

Thus, any policy that causes Barbados to lose 4,200 university level students is just plain wrong and is taking our country in a direction that is diametrically opposite to the direction that we need to go in.

Truly, the late great Errol Walton Barrow, T.T. Lewis, Wynter Crawford and Sir James Tudor must all be rolling in their graves!

(David Comissiong, an attorney-at law, is president of the Clement Payne Movement.)

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