Tuesday, April 23, 2024

To fee, or not to fee?


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IN THE DEBATE over the introduction of tuition fees for Barbadian students at the University of the West Indies (UWI), it is instructive to take a step back to look at the global and historical framework for free education.

Earlier this month, Stanford University, an Ivy League school in California, announced that tuition would be free for any students whose family earns less than US$120 000 per year. If the student’s family earns less than US$65 000 per year, tuition, room and board will be covered.

In 2014, the German government made all university tuition free to national and international students. Senator Dorothee Stapelfeldt went so far as to call tuition fees “socially unjust” because “they particularly discourage young people who do not have a traditional academic family background from taking up studies”.

There is a growing movement of institutions and governments which realise that in a technology driven world, it is necessary to have an educated and skilled workforce for their societies to compete on a global scale. But you cannot create that workforce if tertiary education is seen as unattainable for a majority of your population. 

In today’s workforce individuals cannot realistically expect to get a job without some form of tertiary education. A college or university degree(s) is the pinnacle achievement at this level.  In the past, nepotism, professional connections or work experience were all that was necessary to get a job. Nowadays, especially in the global job market, individuals may find themselves in a Catch-22 situation. Even entry level positions are seeking applicants with work experience. But a degree is often required to access that experience.

From a historical perspective, we need to be reminded of the pioneering spirit that was responsible for the implementation of free education in Barbados. In the early 1800s, Barbados became the first Caribbean colony to provide publicly funded primary education. However, it was mainly children of the white colonists who were the beneficiaries (Greenwood, Robert and Hamber, Shirley: Emancipation to Emigration. MacMillan Caribbean, 2003).

It was not until the 1960s, when Errol Barrow and the newly-elected government realised that education would be the key to building our society and economy in the post-colonial period, that this subsidy was extended to all Barbadians regardless of race or class.

A taxation system was implemented which remains one of the highest in the Caribbean. Its justification was that it allowed Barbadians to be provided with a host of social and health services, and free public education from the primary through tertiary levels. It was these benefits that allowed us to build our infrastructure and a prosperous middle and upper class that made us the envy of the Caribbean. It also allowed us to be recognised internationally as a small country that “punched above its weight”. 

That is why as a country with a population that is 92 per cent black, this tuition debate hits on a particular social nerve. Education is the tool of social mobility that has historically been denied to the majority of this population. For our leaders, many of who benefited from a free UWI education, to now turn around and deny future generations this option is both ironic and distressing. Perhaps they have forgotten that less than a century ago, 92 per cent of us were barely deemed deserving of a primary school education. 

While debate is good, the issue of financing UWI still needs to be addressed. After all, Stanford has a large endowment and while Germany too has one of the highest taxation rates of OECD countries, its economy is also faring better than ours.  There is one question that lingers, though: If our taxation rate remains the same, even as educational and social services have been decreased, where is that money now going?  

In talks about our economic recovery, the focus has mainly been about securing private sector and/or international funding to rebuild our tourism industry. As agriculture and manufacturing decline, we need to focus more on the revamping of our entire education system. In this regard, we should seek funding to implement STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) programmes from the primary through tertiary levels, so we are giving our youth a relevant education for today’s national, regional and global job markets.

Spanish, French and Portuguese are the other main languages in this hemisphere and Chinese (Mandarin) is the most widely spoken language in the world. We should therefore also look to implement language programmes at all levels to ensure that all students become multilingual.

Funding and reforming our tourism infrastructure is short-term thinking. Strengthening our education system and ensuring that all students, regardless of socio-economic status, have access to it, is long-term planning.



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