Tuesday, April 23, 2024

PEOPLE & THINGS: An overqualified society?


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Although our Minister of Education would prefer us not to persist with discussions of this nature, it is important that we consider several unintended consequences of the imposition of tuition fees at the University of the West Indies (UWI).

During the couse of last week I had occasion to chat with one student who decided to put his education “on hold” on account of the imposition of these fees. His response to my suggestion that he should try to finish anyway he could was met with a simple and interesting response which I can find no difficulty with. He stated that since the busary situation was less than clear, he faced the prospect of a loan which made little sense as there was no guarantee that his enhanced qualifications would make it easier for him to secure a well-paid job that would enable him to service this loan.

This logic highlights the fact that Barbados now has an obvious “oversupply” of graduates or better yet, a comparatively higher proportion of graduates than most small island developing states.  

As such Barbados has more recently experienced a phenomenon which is more common in developed societies where several of the people who occupy entry-level positions in various organisaitons hold Bachelor’s and in some instances master’s degrees which are, strictly speaking, not “needed”.

I have and continue to support these types of policies that make it possible for the average bank clerk, nurse or policeman to have a university degree (or two) since I feel that education is never wasted. I have for convenience identified these as persons who do not “need” a degree, but recognise that these well qualified persons will at some stage make use of their education and this can only benefit our society.

There are, however, other implications, some of which have already emerged in the public service where a department is led by a person who has no degree but presides over several persons who are qualified at the bachelor’s and master’s levels. An extreme example of this situation presented itself at the UWI several years ago when one enterprising secreatry secured a PhD and opted to continue in her non-academic staff posting in a department where more than one of her academic colleagues had no PhD.

Although this type of scenario is often problematic from the perspective of the management of human resources, it need not be if people understand their role in the fulfilment of the organisation’s mission. The more relevant issue is the extent to which UWI’s student roll is made up of students who do not reasonably expect to move quickly into any professional category and can therefore be said not to “need” a degree.

Such persons are a volatile commodity in an educational crisis such as this since they will react exactly as this young man mentioned above has and withdraw. There is of course a societal cost associated with his withdrawal, but there is also a personal cost to his current and future family. Moreover, there is a direct cost to the university where the academic community comprises a large number of such students since the institution can easily lose “critical mass” which jeopardises its existence.

As both a student and lecturer I was acutely aware of the fact that most persons pursuing political science saw it as a stepping stone, but I viewed this situation as an opportunity and not a threat.  

The reality is that once an academic door is opened, it can lead to an entirely new and exciting world and this is the best argument that one can mount in support of this approach to tertiary education.

Not surprisingly, preliminary data has suggested that programmes in the humanities and social sciences have been hardest hit by the imposition of fees.

Such programmes attract large numbers of students who do not “need” degrees especially since many are already employed in roles that do not demand a degree. They exploited available opportunities largely because these were inexpensive and one could therefore earn a first and second degree and “put it down” until an opportunity presented itself.

In the case of younger people who are yet to join the work force, many of them are pursuing degrees because they can’t find work and the concept of a degree to “put down” makes sense if the cost is minimal.

The imposition of tuition fees is therefore a “game changer” for such persons who will now have to consider the relative benefit of a degree which will not enhance the likelihood employment in the short term, but will increase their debt burden in the short term.

It is bad enough that individuals across Barbados will agonise over such decisions, but it is even more unfortunate that this society will not appreciate the negative impact of this policy shift for many years to come.

• Peter W. Wickham is a political consultant and a director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES).


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