Sunday, April 21, 2024

IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST: ‘F’ grade for bursary equation


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Today I approach this column with a larger than usual dose of caution since it involves a ministry and minister I have written about on a number of occasions.

I do not wish to give anyone the impression that I have any personal difficulty with Minister of Education Ronald Jones, but given the nature of our society today, it will be almost impossible for some not to attribute personal motive to me.

But I will have my say and let the chips fall where they may.

When it comes to the matter of the introduction of tuition fees for Barbadians at the University of the West Indies (UWI) and its impact on enrolment at the Cave Hill campus, we have had many months of guessing, speculating and projecting. We have had months of accusations, counter-attacks and some ugly political swiping.

We have had individuals expressing opinions, admittedly at times with great emotion, only to be countered with accusations that their positions were based on political agendas.

Then there was the one that seemed to have offended the political class the most – the suggestion that with a Parliament comprised largely of individuals who benefited from free tertiary education, some with more than one degree acquired in this manner, they were now kicking down the ladder on which they rose.

The introduction of tuition fees for Bajan UWI students has to go down in history as one of the hottest debates of our time. I suspect that when all is said and done, no small number of votes in the next election will be influenced by persons who feel hard done as a result of this policy, whether it is the student or the parent.

They may not want to hear it, but I believe the matter was handled badly from day one by the Freundel Stuart administration, and the decision of various spokesmen for the Government to go on the attack rather than try to walk Barbadians through the execution of their policy did not help.

But that’s the background. Today my issue is with the announcement by the Government two months ago, through Minister Jones, that Barbadians would be getting about 3 000 bursaries to assist those prospective students who could not help themselves.

If ever there was a case of what is now referred to as implementation deficit disorder, this is it. In fact, the whole matter has been handled so badly, one cannot help but wonder just how much of what the minister said at the time was what he wanted to see happen, as opposed to what he already had some carefully laid out plan for.

It is also interesting that the decline in enrolment at the Cave Hill campus is so close to the number of bursaries promised by the Government through the minister, although his announcement was as ambiguous as it is possible for a politician to be.

I would put my neck on the block, metaphorically speaking of course, and declare that up until Tuesday, September 9, 2014, no paper of any sort had been taken to Cabinet by the Minister of Education seeking agreement on bursaries for needy university students and would-be students.

So, is the matter so complicated that all the technical experts at the Elsie Payne Complex can’t come up with some kind of bursary scheme?

Is it that the Ministry of Finance has indicated it cannot fund any bursaries?

Is it that Minister Jones is doubtful that he will get the support of his Cabinet colleagues?

Or is there something else going on?

It is time for the minister to state clearly what is happening. While everyone speculated and hypothesised about what could possibly be the outcome of this radical change in national policy as it relates to tertiary education, some persons in authority kept suggesting it was wrong not to wait until the registration process was over.

Well, it is over now and the roll at UWI Cave Hill is about one-quarter smaller than it was last academic year. There is no need for speculation now, but we can’t hear from those who felt all Barbados was wrong to even express an opinion on the matter.

I believe it should also be said that for all the criticism of the administration of the Cave Hill campus, its principal Sir Hilary Beckles, and anyone else who dared to disagree with the policy change, Sir Hilary and his team saved the Government’s bacon.

While Minister Jones was waxing warm about his Government’s bursaries that are still to become reality, the administration of the campus was putting in place a payment plan to ease those who could not come up with the lump sum required.

My reading is that, based on the number of persons who responded only after the announcement of the monthly payment scheme, if it had not been put in place when it was, the roll of the campus today would have reflected a reduction closer to 50 per cent.

Just imagine if the folks at UWI had relied on the bursaries for revenue the way some prospective students clutched at it like drowning men grasping at straw.

But I am also curious about something else that has not been raised so far. When we talk about roll reduction, our references are always to Cave Hill. However, Government’s instruction on tuition fees related to all Barbadian students studying at any UWI campus. So has the number of Barbadians at Mona declined? Are there fewer Bajans registered at St Augustine this semester?

Whether or not they want to hear it, it can’t be denied at this point that the Government handled the whole UWI debt and commitment issue badly. There can be no doubt that its own stubbornness in the face of calls for caution, and its clear reluctance to entertain any alternative ideas, compounded the situation. There is no denying that promising and then failing to deliver a single bursary up to the start of school added to the anguish of many households.

And all the talk about the only alternative would have been to starve the hospital and shut down the Barbados Community College and Samuel Jackman Prescod Polytechnic is nothing more than hysteria-peddling nonsense by people who should know better.

Perhaps the best course of action now would be for Barbadians to put together enough funding to cover the tuition fees of the entire Cabinet and send them all back to Cave Hill for four years.


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