Monday, April 15, 2024

WHAT MATTERS MOST: UWI and the economy


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It has been admitted by none other than Prime Minister Freundel Stuart that the Government has abandoned its democratic socialist agenda of yesteryear and is now only interested in balancing the economic data.

This constitutes a paradigm shift from the once hailed importance of the society and its elevation above the economy, just four years ago.  

This abandonment is exemplified in the decision by the Government to make students pay a part of their tuition fee at the University of the West Indies (UWI), which has severe short- and long-term implications for the Barbados economy and the society. In the short term, it raises the unemployment rate and in the long term it reduces the country’s global competitiveness. In between these two extreme economic outcomes, it compromises the hopes and aspirations of many Barbadians.  

It is estimated that just over 80 per cent of UWI students are from working class families. Furthermore, the campus has the largest Caribbean flavour among all campuses in the region along with the highest international enrolment.

Until now, in every sense, the UWI model fitted the economic and social development plan of Barbados. It provided opportunities for the less privileged, it earned foreign exchange for the economy and it provided substantial employment.  

The fee decision has already taken its toll on the UWI: registration is expected to decline by 25 to 30 per cent for new students while close to 1 000 continuing students will not return. In addition, the Government still owes UWI approximately $200 million and is not making any attempt to pay piecemeal.  

Over the years, primarily in response to a Government policy that requires greater academic qualification for promotion by the civil servants, the campus has become more of a part-time university, which has driven up its costs substantially.

It is not fully appreciated that the UWI produces students for the Government directly and indirectly, therefore it is not receiving a subvention but payment for the production costs.

The growth in UWI registration was always under Government’s control; if it wanted to, then the numbers could have been controlled. To give the impression that the growth of student registration went unnoticed by the Government is simply deceitful. The UWI is being used as a scapegoat for the Government’s fiscal incompetence.

The growth in enrolment had to be facilitated by access to more physical space which inspired a vibrant programme of capital works at the campus. The investment was accommodated by some private endowments, borrowing to build the Faculty of Medicine and the use of income generated from commercial ventures to accommodate post-graduate studies. The latter two have propped up the campus.  

Every year for the last three decades, over 3 000 students leave secondary schools in Barbados, of which about a third go on to tertiary level educational institutions. When students populate these institutions, they are counted as persons at school and therefore not included in the labour force.

This year, the persons who are not able to go to the UWI will be counted as part of the labour force which will increase the unemployment rate. Given that females account for the majority of UWI students, it means that the unemployment rate for females will rise even faster.

Since the Faculty of Social Sciences has the largest enrolment, it is expected that the fee decision will affect it most; and up ahead, the negative impact would be more severe.

The impression given that the UWI employed Barbadians for the sake of doing so, is hypocritical. It is known that some seven years ago, the workers’ representative made it clear that the temporary workers at the campus, some of whom were there for well over a decade, deserved to receive the benefits of a more settled contract. This was honoured with the attendant costs being brought to book.  

In addition, the UWI staff has not had a salary increase since 2006/07. In the absence of the facts, it is easy to suggest that “there is no war against UWI”, but the Government’s actions are suggesting otherwise. In fact, the war has gone beyond the hill into the plains of poverty with immediate dramatic effect.

The change in Government’s investment policy at the UWI will have economic effects on the unemployment rate, the higher per capita cost of university education and the competiveness of the campus.

The longer term effects are even more devastating as the change impacts on the country’s economic growth and social development prospects.   

• Dr Clyde Mascoll is an economist and Opposition Barbados Labour Party adviser on the economy.


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