[Editor’s Note: Adam Raffoul, a young Trinidad & Tobago businessman, questions the wisdom and short-sightedness of the Trinidad and Tobago government to cut funding for tertiary education. Adequately funding education generally, especially at the tertiary level, is a major challenge for cash-strapped countries of the Caribbean, but failure to fund education threatens Caribbean future development. This discussion is worth having.]
T&T Government – Closing the GATE of Opportunity
On Friday November 13th the Ministry of Education announced sweeping changes to our tertiary education system. The government has announced that they will be cutting the number of annual scholarships from 400 to 100. They will create a national Bursary programme to help cushion the decrease in national scholarships. They will be discontinuing funding for postgraduate studies and barring students who already hold undergraduate and postgraduate degrees from accessing the Government Assistance for Tuition Expenses Programme (GATE) to retrain. Finally, they will be implementing means testing of all applicants for undergraduate programmes to access GATE with funding being dependent on your household income. These changes are significant to say the least. According to Budget 2021 documents the government hopes to cut funding for GATE from TT$435 million to TT$400 million, combined with additional funding cuts to the Scholarship Programme.
While I acknowledge the financial situation, our country finds itself in, and the fact that there is some wastage in the GATE programme, and the reality is that the government must now closely examine all of its expenditure, I must question the timing of these changes. Our country like many others around the world, is facing a major economic fallout from Covid-19, which further compounds the economic stagnation and decline we have faced since our economy peaked in 2008. Entire industries remain virtually closed, with those in hospitality and aviation for example, particularly hard hit. As a young businessman I have personally seen hundreds of applicants in the space of 24-48 hours for an entry level position my company posted, as people struggle to take any job available, to put food on the table.
Academic research suggests that during times of economic decline more people tend to go back to university either to do a postgraduate degree or change professions, with a new undergraduate degree, in the hope of getting a job. I therefore find the elimination of partial funding of postgraduate degrees and the elimination of funding to do a second undergraduate degree as mistimed. This will further increase the hardship many families are facing. Combined with the proposed liberalization of fuel prices, and proposed increase in water and electricity rates, I wonder if we will effectively be closing the gate on opportunities for many of our citizens, who seek to improve their academic qualifications in order to become more employable and also reach self-actualization.
I find it startling that the Ministry of Education, and by extension the cabinet, has made these unilateral decisions without public consultations, despite the fact the Ministry of Education has currently embarked on a host of public consultations inclusive of the Secondary Entrance Assessment (SEA), the Concordat, curricula reform, the role of Teaching Service Commissions, teacher training and development, blended learning and parental involvement in education.
Surely GATE, scholarships and higher education qualify to be on this list. I am sure as a public we can put our heads together and figure out wastage in our current funding of GATE. One example may be to increase the number of guidance counsellors in secondary schools, who can better advise students of potential careers, so that students don’t do a first degree and then realize partly through it, that it is not what they want to do as a career. Another suggestion is to publish a labour needs survey, so that students and their parents can make a decision on potential careers based on jobs available in the economy. We can even tie funding of postgraduate degrees to this need. Surely if the government is serious about diversification of our economy and the creation of a knowledge-based economy, don’t we need more postgraduates, who can produce academic research and collaborate with the private sector to create inventions and manufacture new products?
While I agree with the government cutting wastage, I must inquire what is the status of the implementation of procurement legislation? I cite a Trinidad and Tobago Express article entitled, “The Cost of Corruption in T&T, Delay in Proclaiming Procurement Act” dated January 14th, 2020 which states that proper procurement practices can save the country a conservative TT$5.2 billion a year lost to corruption or inefficiency. Surely this should be the first order of business for this new administration, given our financial constraints at this time.
I appeal to our Honourable Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley and our Honourable Minister of Education, Dr Nyan Gadsby Dolly, both PhD holders, to hold their hand on these changes to our tertiary education system and allow public consultations. Both of them know the value of education and the social mobility it provides. Both of them know that it will be our best and brightest, who will take us out of our current economic hardships and grow our economy. Let us work together as a nation, through public consultations to find solutions. We must not close this gate of opportunity to any of our citizens at this time. As our first Prime Minister, Dr. Eric Williams once said, “The future of our nation is in our children’s school bags.”