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Education Month –– proudly celebrating?

guest-verdun-1This month being Education Month, at many levels within the educational system there are celebrations. However, I think it my duty to remind this country that university education has ceased to be an option for many Barbadians.

Some three quarters of the students who were studying at the Cave Hill Campus have had to abandon their studies owing to the inability to afford the new costs. Additionally, Barbadian applicants for university study at Cave Hill are now at an all-time low. A cursory glance around the campus reveals a new face, one that is largely not Barbadian.

Whilst we welcome our foreign comrades, both international and regional, the lack of Barbadian students has far-reaching implications for the state.

One of the main concerns is future developmental planning. The majority of the current Barbadian students at university are the types more likely to seek opportunities abroad in cosmopolitan countries, or in family businesses, and so on.

Will Barbados in the near future lower the educational and expertise requirements for those who will head critical institutions, and those who will staff them in the general manner? Or will the country simply be satisfied to have only a minute pool from which to choose?

It was just over a decade or so that many who held positions based on experience alone, had to be retrained or were replaced with university-educated persons. Will that process be proven to be unnecessary if the country is able to return from whence it came? Or perhaps the Government will be satisfied to hire from abroad, which in the fundamental sense is not an issue?

It is an issue, however, if Barbados is unable to export comparable numbers of educated persons. Barbados, just like many other Caribbean islands, depends on millions of dollars in remittances to enhance its economy. Thus, whilst many are critical of the fact that many are freely educated and eventually take up opportunities abroad, this is an industry that has been viable to the development of this nation.

Barbadian graduates can commandeer greater salaries in full-time positions requiring a university degree, than as a seasonal general worker on an exchange programme picking fruits. Higher education is therefore more likely
to result in greater remittances.

Then there is the question of governance in a mature democracy. To the progressive-minded, the current system has many inadequacies. Even in an environment with free university education, a large segment of the populace does not have sufficient understanding of governance or democracy, to enable them to grasp that their involvement should extend beyond a vote every four years, or unquestioning support of a political party.    

A larger population, therefore, with limited education can only further exacerbate the failures of the post-colonial Barbadian state, unless some other medium takes the place of formal education.   

The inherent argument here is not that people without a university education are incapable of understanding democracy and development, nor is it that everyone with a university education does for that matter. The argument is that Barbados will in the future require more people with university level training and expertise to be able to help implement and develop new ideas in this neoliberal time and space, and to represent the nation at the international level.

From the time of Barbados’ birth as an Independent nation, university-educated persons helped to guide the ideological framework that was to shape the sociopolitical and socio-economic realities. It has been these same types of personalities who predominantly continued to build on the work started
by our forefathers.

Unfortunately, it is these same types who, of recent, have limited access to university education to aspiring persons from lower and middle class socio-economic backgrounds.  This change in policy can best be described as a reversal of the correction of a historical wrong, and represents an ideological failure at the highest level, where it matters most.   With the current focus on reparations, it should be noted that for people who have been displaced, disempowered and dispossessed, these actions reflect that segments of Barbadian society would rather destroy the progress made, which in itself remains limited, than to continue to make further gains.   

This brings into question the level of importance on the issue of reparations to those at the leadership of the state. There is a shared ideological position between the concept of free university education and the idea of reparations, since providing education free of cost to individuals helps to repair historical dispossession, and empowers the segments of society better placed to critically address issues of people of similar background.

The practice throughout the history of Barbados has been for people to rise to prominence through their access to education, and as a result create change at the levels of policymaking, aimed at constructing processes for easier access by those coming after.

Research has shown the links between education and socio-economic and societal ills, such as crime and poverty. These are issues that are currently affecting the nation at a seemingly higher rate, although I hesitate to state the causes without empirical analysis.  A cursory glance would suggest that it fits neatly with the higher levels of desperation and hopelessness, resulting from fewer opportunities for youth, coupled with the higher cost of living.   

Barbadian leaders should recognize that apart from those persons who had to withdraw from Cave Hill, many others who were aiming to attend would now have to postpone or abandon such dreams. To boot, many in the generations to follow, seeing the hardships in their households and by extension their communities, may not even consider higher education as optional, given their space in time.

The age-old insult of working harder is not enough to change these realities, since no one within any society works
as hard as its poor.   

Thus, for Education Month, Barbadians should focus on educators, success stories, that one person who made it against the odds, and the physical development of educational institutions; but they must also reflect on this new university access policy from the point of view of what it means for the modern Barbadian state.

Barbadians must demand of the leadership an answer to the question of options, instead of uncritically accepting the position that “there is no alternative”.

There are many issues within a society on which there will be and should be differing opinions. But the question of free access to education at all levels is not an issue on which there should be widespread disagreement –– not if there is genuine interest in continuing to build Barbados.

One may disagree with methodology, or with what education should entail, or on the implementing of changes to aid current challenges. But the fundamental action of educating citizens of one of the smallest of small island developing nations, with its history of slavery, colonization and imperialism, a country that has used education to “punch above its weight” in the absence of other viable resources, should see its leaders in agreement that free access to university education transcends narrow economic arguments and remains in the collective best interest of Barbados.

(Ayo Ololara is the chairperson of the Access To Education Committee of the Barbados National Council
of the United Nations DecadeOf African Peoples.)

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