Closing GATE on opportunity: The problem with the PNM’s education reform

In my previous pieces, I often referred to George Orwell’s 1984. Indeed in this country maintaining sanity is a Sisyphean task. Your concept of reality is questioned on a daily basis.

Just when you think you have your wits about you, your grasp on reality is challenged and you spend your day chipping to David Rudder’s “Madness”.

Photo: Quote from George Orwell's 1984.
Photo: Quote from George Orwell’s 1984.

“How can I help seeing what is in front of my eyes? Two and two are four.”

“Sometimes, Winston. Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane.”

If you have read 1984 you know that Winston eventually saw whatever he was told to see. This is the state of our politics and it is the relationship between the parties and their members.

So what do I see? I see those who had given the sternest of warnings to the Kamla Persad-Bissessar UNC administration to leave GATE alone in the 2014 budget, are now admiring the reforms to GATE by the Keith Rowley PNM administration in 2016.

Be reminded that the dip in [oil] prices began in 2014 and all predictions were for a continued decline. So it was as justified then as it now or, conversely, just as unjustifiable then as it is now.

Let me also state that I find it extremely worrisome that the government has refused calls to make the report of the review committee a public document.

A few facts about GATE before I delve into the reforms which have been announced.

Photo: Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley. (Copyright News.Gov.TT)
Photo: Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley.
(Copyright News.Gov.TT)

The largest variation in the allocation of GATE occurs in the budget for 2006/2007. The allocation moves from TTD 179.6 million to TTD 472.7 million: an increase of 263%.

Furthermore, the allocation increases have not been due only to expansion but also to increases in the cost of tuition at various institutions. This is not the first adjustment to GATE.

According to the Joint Select Committee Report (Tenth Report of the Joint Select Committee on Ministries, Statutory Authorities and State Enterprises [Group 2]) the following points are noted:

GATE Clearance Policy

The GATE Clearance Policy was introduced in January 2008 by the Funding and Grants Administration Division for students in approved private tertiary institutions. The policy was instituted to reduce potential abuses of the GATE programme.

The GATE Clearance Policy assesses students’ eligibility for GATE funding with due consideration to the following:

Photo: Education Minister Anthony Garcia.
Photo: Education Minister Anthony Garcia.
  1. Completion of prior GATE approved programme;
  2. Completion of relevant examinations;
  3. Maintenance of minimum academic performance standards for progression within programmes;
  4. Not pursuing more than one GATE approved programme at a time.

A report already exists on areas of wastage. There were recommendations and the report includes recovered funds from implementation of some recommendations. Yet the allocation to the programme continued to increase every year from 2012.

So, how exactly, were we monitoring the impact of the adjustments in 2012? Is it that there was no leakage and wastage was only a myth?

The country needs to know why in spite of these changes the programme continued to hemorrhage funds. Otherwise there is no guarantee that the current measures will result in reduced expenditure either.

The report goes on to state that with respect to students studying at the St George’s University (SGU), none of those GATE approved students have completed their studies to date, as this programme was only extended to students at this University in the year 2009 and therefore, the issue of these students returning to Trinidad and Tobago after studies has not arisen.

Photo: University of the West Indies' St Augustine campus.
Photo: University of the West Indies’ St Augustine campus.

One of the measures is that funding for medical students at the St Georges University will no longer be supported. Education minister Anthony Garcia said that this was done because it was one of the most expensive programmes and also, based on studies, the enrollment figures were “very low”.

This is confusing on two counts. First, have we had an opportunity to consider the contribution of these students since the last report and second, what percentage of the overall funding goes to these students?

So let’s get into my two cents now.

While it is laudable that the changes do not affect those currently enrolled, the fact is that they will be subjected to the adjustment next year. They should be allowed to complete the programmes.

The income caps as pre-qualifiers for means testing demonstrates that this measure was not data driven. I agree that those who can afford should pay but a middle income family making over 10K will not automatically have means to self-finance and more so if there is more than one person in the home pursuing higher education.

Additionally it assumes that the person doing the studying is the child. If there is a means test, then do a means test that is based on equity not equality.

This is also retrograde as we are promoting debt through loans rather than savings. We need to do a lot more research into student loan crises in other countries. There are major challenges with persons who have taken loans they cannot afford to repay given underemployment and other factors.

Too old for school? No way! That's so old-school. Courtesy: alamosbasement on flikr
Too old for school? No way! That’s so old-school.
Courtesy: alamosbasement on flikr

There are a few issues that I have with the proposal to cap the accessibility age at 50. Firstly it discriminates based on age. All our development reports have shown an aging population—so much so that there are concrete discussions about raising the retirement age.

Because of the way pensions work, a lot of people continue to educate themselves to improve their employment pension. A higher final salary means higher pension. This will immediately put less pressure on the old age grant scheme.

We also have to consider that there are many people who sacrifice for their children and begin their own studies a lot later in life. We are punishing them for their sacrifices and that is wrong.

In the absence of a clear national development plan which includes concrete diversification parameters it is misleading to claim that decisions are being made based on an “alignment with the country’s development needs.”

Funding education is not about freeness and dependency. It is a capital investment for development. In the absence of a development road map there is no real discussion about appropriation of capital investment.

My fundamental issue is that we ought to see education as a public good and not a commodity to be bought and sold. In the case of the latter classification, those who have more will have better opportunities.

No country for older students. (Courtesy: Meg/Flickr)
No country for older students.
(Courtesy: Meg/Flickr)

Then again our entire education system thrives on marginalization so I shouldn’t be surprised that we see these changes as reasonable.

Are changes required? Absolutely. Arrest the hemorrhaging, get the real annual expenditure then attempt to make cutbacks if necessary but as usual it’s the cart before the horse.

We always talk about the old adage “teach a man to fish”. Well, the reality is that we have to decide to either continuing paying for the fish or we pay for the lesson on fishing.

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About Akins Vidale

Akins Vidale
Akins Vidale lectures at the Cipriani College of Labour and Cooperative Studies and is a UWI graduate with a B.A. in History. He has served as the president of the Trinidad Youth Council and is the General Secretary of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions and NGOs (FITUN). Read his blog:

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  1. Warning: Undefined variable $userid in /www/wired868_759/public/wp-content/plugins/user-photo/user-photo.php on line 114

    In this part of the world there is hardly, if any form of innovation. All we produce is managers, not leaders. Let me explain the difference between the two. A manager just ‘manages’ the leader’s vision and makes sure it is executed as presented. A leader is the one with the vision and drive to create, promote and market a product. All the businesses we have is mostly what we buy from foreign and sell back to the public. This is why entrepreneurship never grows here in the Caribbean and other third world countries. So the cutting of GATE did not do much for innovation in the country because there wasn’t much to begin with. Don’t believe me ? Well then ask yourself how much local based businesses have a research and development department? ?

    • I believe entrepreneurship is stunted by the way our corporate world is set up and with the stumbling blocks in the way of people with ideas.
      Africa actually has a wave of entrepreneurs who are starting to come to fore, for instance.
      Wired868 started with the help of friends and family members and I’m pleased with our progress over the years. But imagine if we got even TT$500,000 seed capital?
      But you are not wrong when you say that there are very very few successful entrepreneurs here.

  2. Agreed “it is a capital investment for development” but is anyone including the Ministry of Education monitoring graduates since the introduction of the Gate programme having spent approximately $ 10 Billions taxpayers dollars within the last 10 years???? SMH..

  3. The student don’t have a problem with the changes, it’s the politicians and the nation deviders

  4. People nowadays seem to want freedom without responsibility. How many people “ab’used GATE and are yet to repay the State?

  5. Discrimination based on age?
    Yeah and? We discriminate on age all the time (voting, jobs in the military, jobs in the public service, drinking, taking SEA, insurance, learners permit, retirement age, getting a multi year contract at Chelsea)

  6. It would be really nice to hear what the investment over the last year’s has done to advance entrepreneurship so that today the cuts would not be neccessary in this one horse economy we are still hell bent trying to divide? Anybody??

    • I heard the MOE on the radio saying that they were adjusting the UTT programs to bring them back to the entrepreneurial direction that they moved away from. The original plan for UTT was to develop the entrepreneurial skills, according to him. I remember that the aim was to produce people who had technical skills that were needed in ‘industry’ but my memory on that subject may not be that good.

    • I agree with Lennox Osbourne have returns been more graduates dependent on government initiatives (OJT, Pilot Programs, etc) to be employed ?

    • It is practically useless to ever discuss what a politician is “going to do”. When he has a plan with specific details, then we can discuss that idea.
      Until then, it is just old talk.

    • funny what he said about not being able to assess st George graduates since at least 4 of my trinidad students from us based schools have all finished their program on the TT Gov dime and done their residency in NY hospitals.They are all in the US…and have NO intention of returning here. He needs to check his facts first..

    • He did make a comment about the St George’s grads staying in the US and not coming back to be of any benefit to TT.

    • He spoke of a previous report done on Gate, Kaluka Marshall. Those persons in the previous report should have graduated by now. He is questioning their status now. Are they contributing to our nation’s development or USA? Have we recovered the cost of tuition from those who have sought greener pastures to cut the wastage? Where is the data on these graduates? Why is the report not made public for us to support or challenge recommendations made based on verified data and not what we feel?

  7. The government is NOT obligated to finance tertiary education to citizens..

    • They should not be obligated to spend thousands of dollars on criminals in jail every month too…. don’t think so? So until the find the families of those in jail and make them pay a percentage of their monthly bill i will stand and say that they should fund tertiary education.

  8. A friend of mine told me that when they were small, they were poor. She saw her mother take a little money out of her household money and once a month, she would have her father take herself and her sisters to a museum, a show. She would stay home, so they could go. Her mother might not have completed secondary school, but I am sure the fine, creative mind that I see in my friend, together with the values that she holds, were in part nurtured by the exposure gained from this experience, the books that she read that were not only academic in nature etc. I am sure that there would have been a big difference in outcome if due to low resources, the money was used for food and clothes and strictly academic pursuits. Just a loose analogy for those who think that funding engineering and medicine, but not the humanities and social sciences is the way to go.

  9. The discipline of philosophy helps to instill habits of critical thinking. A philosophical statement about policies that are created and implemented speaks to core values around issues that are being implemented as policy and is often indicative of a thoughtful practitioner. It could help decision-makers come up with clearer and more consistent guidelines for their decisions and policies, and allow for better communication with stakeholders – communication, not dissemination of information. What exactly is the State’s philosophy of education? That it is solely for the purpose of replenishing the labour force in the pursuit of socioeconomic goals? What attributes should education contribute to the labour force? Technical skills directed only at the task at hand? I would love to know.

  10. Prior to GATE there was a joint scholarship between SGU and the government that started in 2004 (according to this, GATE for SGU started in 2009). It was awarded to at least 20 students a year (in my year, they tried to give it to everyone who was accepted to the university to study med and pre-med). At the time of this report (2013) we would have had SGU graduates in the healthcare system for at least 4 years – almost completing their 5 years of service to the government. I am interested to know how many SGU graduates are still in the country because we estimate at least half are abroad pursuing residency or other things without completing their years of service.

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