Should taxpayers fund tertiary education? What is government’s role?

The following column is based on my participation in the online forum by the Trade and Economic Division of the Department of Economics, the University of the West Indies, St Augustine on the topic The Funding of Tertiary Level Education in Trinidad and Tobago:

My favourite quote about education is from the late Malcolm X who said: “Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare today.”  Our preparation for tomorrow requires that we spend some time collectively crafting our vision of tomorrow and garnering citizen buy-in to that shared vision.

Photo: University students

As a country, we have done well to provide free education at the primary and secondary levels. We have tripped up at the level of tertiary education because our politics requires that incoming regimes destroy the work of their predecessors even at great cost to taxpayers. So out went ‘Dollar for Dollar’ and in came ‘GATE’ (Government Assistance for Tuition Expenses Programme).

Twelve years and $6.46bn later, we are at a crossroad, asking the question should the government continue funding tertiary level education?

My position is clear: taxpayer investment in human development is more important than ferries, ports, buildings and any other vanity projects that distribute our wealth to a selected few. Education should continue to be free at the primary and secondary level because that is where we build citizens. At the tertiary level, there should be a means test with some arrangement for repayment at a future date.

Consideration of funding tertiary level education includes what has traditionally been described as the technical/vocational area. As we continue to figure out the post-Covid world and our shrinking economy, we will be forced to focus on repair and restoration.  This means a deeper focus on the range of skills needed and the organising and managing of how these skills are presented in the market.

The time has come for us as a society to recognise and appreciate the value and operations of electricians, mechanics, plumbers and other tradespeople so that we all can thrive.

Photo: A mechanic at work.

Whether or not we continue funding tertiary level education cannot be viewed as a standalone concept. It must be viewed under the umbrella question of what is likely to be the future needs of the country. In other words, where do we see ourselves and how will we get there as a people? In the absence of such a vision, decisions will continue to be made based on whims and fancies.

We have stumbled as a country in that we have not educated our people for citizenship. As island people, our disregard for the environment and for sustainable living is based mainly on our lack of understanding of our interdependence, and the fact that systems learning was not baked into the school curricula at any level.

If our education systems were successful, our citizens would not have to be told about protecting the environment. They would have understood it because the education system would have built-in concepts around sustainability and conservation.

When people are educated for citizenship, they understand how they are part of the whole of society and that they need to contribute economically and socially. Education leads to the overall improvement in decision-making and ultimately impacts the collective. The real work lies in redesigning our systems and processes to ensure not just the appearance of equality but the reality of equity and fairness.

Photo: A secondary school student at a Niherst event.

What we need now is social cohesion and a national commitment to improving the lives of all. Continued investment in education, which is planned, organised, implemented and monitored, will lead to the overall improvement of our country. We should be investing our scarce resources in improving the quality of our education product at all levels, thus ensuring that the product offering in ‘affluent’ schools is the same as in schools in struggling areas. Internet access should be equally available in Biche as in Belmont.

Perhaps internet providers can produce ‘student-only’ internet accounts that are heavily firewalled from adult content and tied to the student’s school ID. If we intend to enrich our human capital, our only option is to increase our investment in all our people at all levels of our society.

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