The aim of education should be to teach us rather how to think, than what to think — rather to improve our minds, so as to enable us to think for ourselves, than to load the memory with thoughts of other men.
– Bill Beattie (18th Century Scottish physician and poet).
There appears to be pockets of acceptance in Barbados that education, broadly defined, has been a key agent of personal and national development. This sentiment is manifested both at the micro and macro levels of the society. Beginning in the 1950s with Cabinet Government under Premier Grantley Adams and the Barbados Labour Party (BLP) and, continuing through most of the last 50 years, Barbados saw the expansion of basic primary and secondary education, and the growth of tertiary and vocational education.
Education has proven to be the springboard for the development of human capacity in Barbados. Barbadians rightfully place a premium on education as a liberator, empowerment tool, and vehicle for upward social mobility. From the cane-fields to the boardrooms, and from the butchers’ stalls to the classrooms, a skilled workforce emerged, thereby, contributing to the modernisation process in Barbados. Progressively, education allowed for the exercise of personal freedom to be better expressed in a social democratic society.
Incidentally, Barbados’ Ambassador to CARICOM Robert ‘Bobby’ Morris, who is a Democratic Labour Party (DLP) stalwart, former trade union representative, and historian recently contends that “education is the most important thing we [Barbadians] have to focus on in the next 50 years as it has been our main focus for the past 50 years.” This assertion should be a wake-up call for some in our midst.
New enrolment at the University of the West Indies is not encouraging. There is a perilous drop since the ‘desperate’ but ill-conceived turn which saw the provision of ‘free’ tertiary education for our nation’s people being stopped. Affordability is now a cause for major concern and it is very likely that many of our youth could become lost. The country’s education system is at this time in need of vital reforms and transitions for the next stage of development. The work to be done must be implemented with the type of innovations and pragmatism necessary for progressing Barbados through the next 50 years as Ambassador Morris would have suggested.
Some of the political elites have kicked away the socio-economic ladder upon which Barbadians made good their escapes from the bowels of poverty and the belly of want. How could a political party be so backward and devoid of ingenuity to prefer abandoning the project of ‘free’ tertiary education, particularly, when the outcome of education can be used to rekindle economic growth? Did the DLP not envision that free education can be fittingly deployed as a market lever or economic tool with the means to improve economic growth and mitigate increasing poverty? Dr. David Browne, only a few years ago, assuredly stated that: “Free education provided the mechanism by which hundreds of families got on the social escalator out of poverty to economic progress and enfranchisement.”
The fact is that Barbados experienced virtual stagnation and very minimal economic growth over the last eight years. Hence, it is incomprehensible why the DLP government under Prime Minister Freundel Stuart would fail the population by pulling the education mat from under the poor? Today’s youth and the underemployed rely on ‘free’ education for their escape from deviance. It becomes more reprehensible that the very DLP government could have in 2014 so savagely ripped the heart out of our youth and gutted life-long learners wanting to access ‘free’ tertiary education. The current DLP alarmingly displays lack of empathetic appreciation for Barbados’ history of social and economic development.
As a maturing nation, Barbadians ought not to remain preoccupied with who will pay for the delivery of quality free education, and who must benefit as a result of the national sacrifices, without fully exploring all possible options. The DLP’s focus remain blinded by the contaminated thinking that has also done damage to the very idea of higher education being instrumental for achieving economic growth and bringing prosperity to all. Stuart’s deafening silence and abject refusal to present a clear vision for Barbados happens to be the obscurity not allowing visibility beyond the permissible term limit.
Certainly, and up to at least 2013, education was understood across the political divide as making a necessary contribution, in concert with other factors, to the success of national efforts to boost productivity, competitiveness and economic growth. Education has been paramount in setting the framework for civility and stability within Barbados, creating access and opportunities for a population emerging out of the grips of colonial exploitation and underdevelopment.
Education policies since Barbados attained independence in 1966 were driven by leadership that was cognisant of the island’s limitations, but aware of the enormous benefits that could be reaped from having a universally educated society. Persons like the Right Excellent Errol Barrow, ‘Tom’ Adams, and Owen Arthur among others were confident that investments in human capital would become even more important, as Barbados lifted the entirety of its population. Education plies to the societal development of capability and is readily relished when there is the gravitas of people empowerment.
Access to free education has, through its various avenues, reduced the incidence of poverty and fostered prosperity in Barbados. The imposition of tuition fees placed a roadblock before the potential students and their struggling parents. The DLP’s implementation of tuition fees, coming during a period when the country was already gasping under several austerity measures, is proving counterproductive.
Why would the political elites close their eyes to facts, and be adamant that the government must mercilessly bleed the society with taxes while abandoning the free education project? The rash impulses by a fumbling DLP, known to be critical of opponents and blind to the potential gains of education, will no doubt cloud out the voices of the advocates. This crop of policymakers and technocrats will remain dismissive of the investment, seeing only the financial and social costs which they readily insist are burdens on the treasury.
No one doubts that financing tertiary education is expensive and rising; but Barbados has been willing to make the huge sacrifices at the personal and societal levels. The discussion must step outside the hallways of economic formulae and the constraints of accountants’ numbers. By way of history and something that we ought to be proud, the provision of ‘free education’ in Barbados overturned the colonial order. Education would have largely benefited the wealthy and privileged – defined not only by money but by race – prior to the likes of National Heroes Adams and Barrow.
Barbados has come a long way since independence, although it now seems that the country is stuck in reverse gear. For the most part of the last 50 years, increasing demand by potential students and private sector employers as well as successive governments for tertiary education graduates was a sure indicator that education does play a major role in effecting national development.
Sadly, the Prime Minister and Cabinet demonstrated little innovation; they announced rhetorical promises built around delayed bursaries. They rolled back years of national advance while manifesting the DLP’s antithetical stance to the fact that education remains the key for growth and rebuilding Barbados. It is crucial that ‘free’ education must once again occupy a central role in any new administration governing Barbados’ national development.
Barbadians can draw direct inference in terms of investment and sacrifice from the virtue of acquiring a quality education. Perhaps, now is the time for revisiting the nation’s collective notions on free education. Barbadians should make the necessary sacrifices so that our returns on investments are palatable to the paying society. Importantly, Barbados ought to recommit to the craft of shaping a thinking society. What inherently matters is not class, status, race, gender, or even the height of educational attainment, but the capacity to have an overwhelming majority of the population that can think and have fair accessibility to higher education.
(Dr. George C. Brathwaite is a researcher and political consultant, and up until recently, he was editor of Caribbean Times (Antigua). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org )