There is an exquisite Jamaican saying: “When dog have money, him buy cheese.” That is most applicable to our national spending on tertiary education. The expression means we recklessly purchase unnecessary items when we get excess funds.
Hosein R and Tewarie B (2007) saw this recklessness concerning our tertiary education (from 1997 onwards) and its financing as due to the “resource curse”. But it is more a populist chain reaction response by our politicians; by 2016, we were spending $650 million annually!
We may have covered it with fancy words, but winning elections was the objective. In so doing, we reduced the quality of the education offered while keeping the class system firmly in place.
In introducing the Dollar for Dollar programme in July 2001, Prime Minister Basdeo Panday said: “… the governing party of the country gave the undertaking that, if re-elected, the Government would match citizens, Dollar for Dollar, on the cost of tertiary education.
“[…] It is projected that some 24,000 persons will benefit from the generous contribution of the Dollar for Dollar education plan initially…”
He went further:
“Our mission is to transform Trinidad and Tobago into the Jewel of the Americas by mobilising the diverse talents of our population and the natural resources of our country, so that ours will be a knowledge-based society with a globally competitive, technologically driven and diversified economy that will sustain full employment, equal opportunity, growing prosperity, a secure life and the highest standard of living for all our citizens.”
He claimed: “…the introduction of the Dollar for Dollar Education Plan underscores beyond any doubt that there is indeed a revolution in education that is helping to transform Trinidad and Tobago into an intelligent nation, moving inexorably to developed country standards and status within this decade.”
The reality turned out to be different:
“An analysis of students’ living standards showed that the Dollar for Dollar programme permitted some students who were able to finance themselves (to) carry the luxury of using the government subsidy for consumption. It did not promote social equity.” (Tewarie, Franklin and Hosein, 2004).
Our politicians, following the advice of some academics, recklessly spent our oil largesse, simultaneously minimising Costaatt’s role as a community college and giving money to privileged students.
Despite the high-sounding Vision 2020 document—which advocated the importance of developing “a highly-skilled, well-educated people aspiring to a local culture of excellence that is driven by equal access to learning opportunities” requiring a “needs-based financial support system”—the final 2007 GATE design recklessly ignored that recommendation.
By November 2011, then Minister Fazal Karim said TT$1.7 billion was spent over 10 years by the government in assisting students enrolling at state institutions like the University of the West Indies. Another TT$1.3 billion was spent helping students access education in private schools.
Was this a wise use of our money?
The ten-year period extends from 2001, when the Dollar for Dollar programme was introduced (and went into GATE in 2004) to 2011. The number of people enrolling in the GATE programme jumped from 14,366 in 2005 to 55,017 in 2001.
The Minister disclosed that many students did not adhere to their contractual obligations.
What was missed was the number of students hopping from course to course at the expense of the Treasury.
All our politicians talked about tying the effort to the labour market, yet that was not done. We still lack the necessary data about the needs of that market. We, therefore, will continue to have unemployed graduates.
Why is it beneficial to have a research university?
While a core function of universities has been teaching, applied science or research universities drive innovation and entrepreneurial ideas. A research university links with business and creates opportunities to stimulate required economic growth.
Universities are significant in providing fertile knowledge-intensive environments and links to government subsidies to promote enterprise innovation. In this context, we can grieve the unfulfilled dream of Tamana InTech Park or recognise the international and groundbreaking contributions of Professor St Clair King, now of Ixanos Ltd, and Dr Kim Mallalieu, the longstanding Telecommunications Authority of Trinidad and Tobago deputy board chairman.
Visionless, Trinidad got this result:
“By the mid-1990s, the financial situation had improved, and a new era of building and general expansion began, funded in part by massive loans from the IDB, as well as subventions and capital grants from the national government.
“[…] Many new programmes, undergraduate and postgraduate, were introduced in this period, and some departments or programmes were seriously stretched to accommodate the rapidly rising enrolments.” (Brereton, January 2021).
Hosein and Tewarie (2007) cited a first-year foundational class as having 900 students. When we put the quality of output from our secondary schools in this context, can we understand why there will be struggles to achieve high research standards?
While UWI St Augustine took over 54 years to get to a student body of 8,000 students, enrolment at the institution had reached 17,000 by 2021. It is this challenge that The UWI leadership failed to confront.
They apparently had neither stature nor vision to conceptualise or implement what the institution should be and how it would fit into the broader educational system.
Was the UWI leadership, local and regional, so enthralled with power that they could not head off the pending mess? How did they agree to the shifting of the objective of being a premier research university to just educating poorly the mass of ambitious young people?
There appears to have been no recognition of the impact of massification—an expansion in the number of students and a dramatic increase in the number and kinds of academic institutions.
Increasingly complex environments require more sophisticated universities. Traditional academic governance typically leaves major decisions in the hands of senior professors. But things have changed.
The new complex educational situation requires increased accountability—not only for the expenditure of funds but also for student achievement and faculty productivity. To attract international recognition, the university must emphasise citations (a proxy for excellence).
It is interesting to check this marker for the UWI professorial group compared to another research university. Throughout the entire period, there seemed to be neither the time nor the resources to consider new approaches to educating students or serving society.
There is a need to reconcile the bureaucracy and the community of scholars. Managing the political demands of the regional governments is an important task.
These realities may sometimes appear contradictory yet require reconciliation: this absence results in Dr Keith Rowley’s weeping over the loss of applied sciences.
In this setting, the private sector tertiary institutions rose to be the undisputed winners. They mushroomed under the GATE regime: they got 75% of what The UWI got in subventions. The UWI floundered.
The for-profit institutions deliver questionable education, often through ‘franchises’, and many students do not complete their degrees or acquired qualifications on paper which do not match the skills claimed by these programs. An unholy mess created by political choices!
With lax oversight by the Accreditation Body, these private institutions created an industry of low-quality programs offered at high costs. They capitalise on increasing enrolment and the revenue they derive from GATE.
The inadequate quality of their graduates leads to no improvement in their job chances. The national economy does not benefit, while The UWI morphed into a fossilised institution. Research and advancements in its Library system (the heart of modern research universities) go a-begging.
Libraries are not only repositories of books and journals, but they organise scholarly materials for effective use. In the digital world, access to journals has exploded, and students are not limited in their search. Can our Alma Jordan library effectively serve this burgeoning student body?
How, then, can The UWI create applied research or innovative breakthroughs?
Without a leader who enjoys the confidence of the governments and the wisdom to build bridges with the labour market and business communities while prodding for change in the scholarly community, Dr Rowley’s lament will remain. Is the structure of leadership fit for purpose?
The money allocated to tertiary education will continue to be transferred into private pockets and propping up the academic elite, even as the nation becomes less prepared to face the impact of globalisation.
The UWI and the private sector must create an entrepreneurial and innovative ecosystem for the national good. Politicians cannot lead this effort. Will we change our ways?
(Disclosure: I am a UWI graduate. I was the Managing Director of the privately owned Bermudez Group Ltd, chaired by Robert Bermudez, the incumbent Chancellor. He has had no input in this column.)
Editor’s Note: Click HERE to read Part One of a two-part series by Noble Philip on The UWI.