Alternatives to tuition fees

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

Yesterday we brought you part one of an interview with University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus Guild of Students’ President Damani Parris on the ongoing public discussion about the institution of tuition fees for university students from 2014.

When we ended, Parris had given some alternatives to the policy Government was implementing. We continue his interview with Latoya Burnham on that question.

Q: Apart from the previous proposals you had made, were there any other suggestions of options that the students would find more favourable to an across the board institution of fees?

A: Another of the suggestions was that we would support a gradual increase in terms of increments, as is currently executed by the university; an increase in fees and an increase in student responsibility at the University of the West Indies, which is one of the critical policy positions that we had disagreed with the Government on. Our problem was that this policy was too swift and too imposing on the student body who did not have time to plan for it. What we believe is that a gradual increase to a particular cap of course of the responsibilities to the student body would be acceptable to most students here and why we think a gradual increase is necessary is that it would begin to put into the public’s mind that a certain amount of contribution would be required by UWI as a student coming here in two years. You can save for that and perhaps a greater increase would be required by a student coming here in five years.

Five years is significant enough for down the road and persons can again save for that. Perhaps 10 years from now we can have an appreciation for the fact that students would require a greater contribution to their education, which a student’s mother or father who has to think about education 10 years down the road can actually consider and accomplish as a means of developing that student.

What our rationalisation was that the reality is that there are very few students that would not be able to through this gradually increasing policy, save enough money to meet that criteria if it was of course within a reasonable price bracket. What we also maintin was that once the student was actually able to make that contribution to their education; that given the graduations that we would have seen students would have been effectively able to plan financially for such an activity and therefore would have been much more comfortable with sustaining themselves and the parents would probably have been more comfortable with sustaining them against that backdrop.

What we of course recommend was that the amount would be due to the Government’s financial position and against that backdrop the student would be responsible for greater and greater responsibilities of the actual fee to be paid by the student body. Once the Barbadian culture changes to the point where one has to save to go to school, then we understand a little bit more of why that is important and what we can do to ensure that we effectively prepare ourselves for such a situation.

What we are also recommending is an idea of an educational tax. What we very much like is the idea of perhaps taxing graduates and privately owned businesses as a means of making a contribution to the University of the West Indies in a more sustained consistent way – something that was also seen in the Beckles Report in terms of the businesses. What I like about the idea of taxing graduates was that it was a group of persons who would have benefitted from the system as a way of giving back to that system from less of a wholistic community way in which the entire community contributes to education whether or not they benefit from it at university or not. To those graduates especially that would leave here and go seek employment elsewhere, having that commitment to contribute a certain amount of their salary back to the university as a way of providing that the resources of UWI would be required to develop. I think that was an extremely sustainable way of going about ensuring that the university had the resources it required. I am sure wholistically, that once this graduate tax went directly to a fund that could be accessed by the university, that the university would actually benefit tremendously from the alumni that it actually has currently, many of whom are working not just in Barbados but throughout the region and who would make this direct contribution as a means of putting measures in place for those future generations. It could only benefit the university against the backdrop that the university is going towards research and development and those things require resources that cannot simply be provided by a government.

Therefore we needed a more wholistic and widened bracketed approach that could capture investment and money into the university so that the university can develop more along the lines of where it needs to go in terms of becoming more sustainable and developing things that actually assist the region in solving its problems, practical solutions, perhaps developing solar panels and all these things and having the resources and monies to do so in a reliable way, so that there can be a wider and more sustained advancement of the university model and the Barbadian model. Those were very important suggestions that we had made to the Government.

One of the recommendations we had made that I am most proud of was the human resource priority index. We are yet as a country to identify what are the human development needs of the country. Yet we send students to the university of the West Indies to be educated, without an idea as to what exactly is the human resource requirements that the country will need in five or 10 years. What is the direction that the country is trying to go into? Are we, have we charted a path and in the absence of such a charted path it is difficult to determine exactly where we need to spend the most of our resources and exactly where we need to concentrate the most of our student body. While this is often thrown around that we need to develop science and technology. That is well, fine and good, but how many of the university’s graduates in science and technology become employed after leaving the UWI? How many of them can use their first degrees to go into research and development? Therefore it is against such a backdrop that we must ask the question, are we really sure that our human resources are being developed in areas that we need them most? And if they are not, should we not develop a programme that ensures that that happens and that is extremely important.

Therefore I am suggesting that we need to move into a situation where we, of course, take care of our human resource development needs and prioritise those needs so that we can maximise and continue to be competitive in this global market.

Q: There wasn’t as large a turn-out for the protest march through the streets of the City, is that a sign that while students might be uncomfortable with the situation they are not willing to speak out or that they are willing to let a few do the “talking and walking” for them?

A: As a representative of the students I would reflect that I think it is neither. What I think the Barbadian public definitely has to understand about my student body is that there is a significant element of fear, stricken throughout the student body. The student body is convinced that the political directorate is going to victimise, pressure and immobilise any movement against this policy through the most tremendous of forces. I fear that my student body has a somewhat irrational fear of its government in the fact that it thinks its government has the resources and the capabilities of destroying each and every one of them individually over the fact that it will not have support in this matter. There is a significant element of this fear throughout the UWI at this time.

There are many, many students of this university who think as soon as they begin to protest they will lose their jobs, their employment will be threatened, that their livelihoods will be threatened and that their grandparents and parents pension cheques will cease. They expect that the government will do whatever is necessary to force them into a situation where they cannot exist because they did not support a policy that will lead to their destruction, and that element of fear is both concerning and symptomatic to me of a greater problem that we have, which unfortunately the government is not afraid of its people, but its people are very afraid of its government and that has very serious implications for our democracy but of course that is the statement of a political scientist. At the end of the day I think the university student body will move and that small group of students that we have seen can only grow larger because the university student body is not at all pleased with this situation.

One only has to only listen or walk with me on a daily basis to hear the utter displeasure which is stated by the majority of students on this issue, to hear the fears of the part-time students who have children who are coming to the university at the same time as them. One only has to engage the average student to see tears running down their faces as they express how they will not be able to advance themselves socially and how they have been placed under a glass ceiling that will surely lead to the destruction of the Barbadian model and to the destruction of the Barbadian way of life and it is against such a backdrop that I can be convinced as the leader of these students that things must at some point reach that boiling point and judging from the temperature that there is in my community now, that boiling point might be reached very soon. I cannot say that it will be reached tomorrow. I cannot say that it will be reached next week, but there will be a critical turning point in this country where we will see the student body of UWI rise up against this issue.

Q: You started a petition almost a month ago, what is the state of that petition that was being circulation from the town hall meeting? Where is it at now?

A: We continue to gather signatures for the petition but I think that the petition idea has now more or less matured. We will now move to a state where we will actually be addressing the petition to the relevant persons as the petition has stated. We will be taking the actually petitions and putting them to the task that we had originally wanted them to. It has been a bit difficult attempting to gather the petition from all the various persons that would have had the petition, but as they begin to trickle in, slowly we are hoping to be able to deliver those petitions to the relevant authorities about the general attitude from the public about this particular situation. We are hopeful that it will cause quite a few persons to raise a few eyebrows because we are assured that we have several thousand signatures at this point. So we are very sure that though there was significant fear in signing this petition, we are pretty sure that it was a somewhat better indication of the level and the degree of concern that is being expressed by the public about this particular fee issue that we simply must understand.

Q: I have heard supporters of the Guild recommending more marches. You have your petition out there, you’ve done your first protest; what is the next step for the Guild?

A: The Guild has to address the critical issues that it has. It has to address this critical issue, and therefore the next step of the guild will be to sit down and determine how best do we address such a critical issue, responsibly, while maintaining the interest of the entire student body without compromising that same student body and while remaining conscious of the national commitments we have to the student body and the public of society. We have to understand that as a guild council we exist as part of a society that is going through rough times. Therefore whatever we request must be tempered within the fact and the idea that these are not perfect economic times and this is not a drastic policy reversal done by the government perhaps as an attack on the student body that they just did not seem to like this particular year, but that this is tempered against a more national or wider problem of an economic crisis. That being said, the guild must continue to explore its options and we must of course escalate our action if we do not receive a response from the Government of Barbados on a matter that is critical to the development of Barbados and to the interest group that we represent, the students. So the guild’s next step will be informed by all of these dynamics and of course the public will be informed at the appropriate time.

Q: The Principal of the Cave Hill Campus, Sir Hilary Beckles made some statements over the weekend that would seem to support to some extent the position that the Guild has taken, that the “social contract” devised by Errol Barrow should not be broken at this time with regard to the provision of free tertiary education. How do you respond to that?

A: The Guild has been pleased by the principal’s statements and we hope that the public will take with some measure of authority the words of this wise and noble historian who perhaps much better than us, understands the context of the situation that we are dealing with, especially tempered against the fact that Professor Beckles was around in the time of Errol Barrow, unlike many of the students here at the University of the West Indies today.

We appreciate the fact that the principal shares our viewpoint and appreciate the fact that he has decided to make this statement to essentially support his students as they go through this difficult time. Of course it has [given] some fuel to the fire, so to speak, that we the student body did have a point when we took this position, and that it is responsible for us to continue to fight this fight against the backdrop that there are those persons, inclusive of our principal, but across the wider Barbados, who support the idea that as intellectuals we have a responsibility to protect the next generation of intellectuals and to invest in their education as is necessary and pragmatic point of our development.

So I find it necessary to continue to appreciate such statements from the university’s leadership. You would have heard comments from the Vice-Chancellor to this effect, not only our principal, and you must appreciate that the university and its lecturers will probably have this perspective, even if they may not publicly state it, because they have long understood the contribution that they will require to make to the development of our society here in Barbados and across the region, and I think that the University of the West Indies who has seen situations like this occur at Mona, who have seen situations like this occur at St. Augustine are unnerved by the prospect, yet again, of having to watch a situation like this occur at Cave Hill. Why I think they are especially unnerved is that the Barbadian model has long been one held to tightly by Barbadians as that unmovable force in the times of peril that irremovable pillar that props up the society. So I think there is a significant amount of fear surrounding the idea that the poster child for community paid for education would dispose of this idea in an economic crisis, especially against the backdrop that so many countries in the world, including Jamaica, America, the Trinidadian GATE model, these persons have moved towards or closer to a model that we are now moving away from. So it is always interesting when you see situations like that. It appears that Barbadians are moving essentially in an anti-development direction where the rest of the world has noted that a tremendous amount of our development is due to our education system and is moving towards such a system.

Why I think it is important that we also observe the cases of Trinidad and Jamaica is because of the significant outfalls that was suffered at both of those territorial campuses at the point where we moved away from this Barbadian model. Mona suffered tremendously from the collapse of that model and then to an extent, so did the Jamaican economy. The Jamaican economy is tremendously fragile and almost consistently suffers a brain drain from persons who do not see the need to stay in their country and give back because intellectuals do not seem to have a right of passage in Jamaica so to speak.

The Trinidadians saw a situation where there was a significant decline at the St. Augustine Campus, especially of the most vulnerable in their society. There was a situation where almost overnight there was a particular group of persons who could have been noticeably observed at the University of the West Indies St. Augustine Campus, and an almost complete absence of other groups. That caused the Trinidad government to reverse the policy almost instantaneously because they saw the critical effects that were of course being suffered by the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine Campus, and what would have been the critical situation that the St. Augustine public, which of course was the Trinidadian public, would have suffered from this outfall, and upon observing the critical nature of that situation, the Trinidadian government removed such a policy.

The question therefore is, after such wonderful Caribbean examples, why would the Government of Barbados think it is feasible and necessary to adopt the policy position almost verbatim that would have been adopted by persons previously in both territorial campuses, when the results of such a policy position have been so clearly and evidently documented already for all to see. It is not as if there are not two clear case studies of the situations that occur when you take such a policy. So the question must be asked, if we are now suggesting that it is a part of our model that we are now going to adopt a situation that has failed for everyone that has adopted it before, what makes us think that we can successfully implement this policy without these serious repercussions and has any research been done into our ability to implement them without these serious repercussions? If not, then the other critical question is why are we going down the slippery slope after watching two persons fall off.

It begs the question as to whether or not the Barbados Government has learnt from the experiences of others and I think that is an extremely important question in this context. It is our ability to learn and it is our ability to critically analyse these things, something that one acquires from wide and noble university education. It is our ability as a society to sit and critically discuss these issues against the backdrop that we have all of this evidence. That exactly presents us with the question as to why we would want to move in the other direction and what would be the justification for us to move in the other direction.

I think the point has to be made against the backdrop that the majority of the university population, understanding that this is not some place we want to do, could easily advise not to go in this direction if asked, with examples. The question is whether the Government had these examples and if they did not, yet again that presents the question, why has the university not been consulted about a matter that they themselves most critically understand. I think that as a final comment, both of those questions are answered that this discussion cannot advance much further. You see the government simply has to justify to its public, outside of simple financial terms, what critical thinking, research, understanding and rationalisation was done when this policy was put on the table and I think that as a student of political science, the Barbadian public are owed at least that as an answer, if nothing else. We are owned an explanation as to why our Barbadian Government is reneging on a policy position it has held for 50 year and I think no government can reasonably suggest that it does not owe an explanation to a public that has elected it about so critical a policy change issue. So I look forward to the response from the Government as soon as possible, especially on this critical issue as to how and why and what and when and all of these wonderful Ws that we learn when we are in primary school, so that we as a public, educated as we are, can make an informed decision.

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