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The Education Revolution and debt

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Fri Nov 21, 2014

Editor: The legacy of the ruling Unity Labour Party (ULP) government and in particular, Prime Minister Dr the Hon Ralph Gonsalves will be centrally linked to the gains made in education in St Vincent and the Grenadines. The oft articulated policy: “Education for All Living and Production” has undoubtedly transformed the educational landscape. It is uncontested that the educational system was in a state of crisis pre-2001. St Vincent and the Grenadines lagged behind its neighbours on many indicators, including enrolment, literacy, completion rate, etc.{{more}}

However, like any other policy, the famed “education revolution” has occasioned unintended consequences that may impact in a negative way, the story told a decade from now, unless clinical intervention is made to arrest the situation. Put another way, the ambitious plant improvement, implementation of universal pre-school, primary and secondary education, increased enrolment at tertiary institutions, one laptop per child initiative and a system manned by more qualified teachers than hitherto masks a cesspit of a system at its knees crumbling silently.

Education and Debt

As more and more young Vincentians pursue university education in record-breaking numbers, those who find themselves without a scholarship or tuition support return upon completion of their studies with loans in excess of eighty thousand dollars ($80,000). Immediately, they face a growing crisis of poor job opportunities in both public and private sectors, declining wages, and a higher cost of living than before they left. Those in the public service in particular, who have advanced themselves academically, return to their substantial positions in grades that no longer match their qualification and experience, a ‘freeze’ on allowances and transfers and the same public service malaise.

The Facebook generation maybe better educated and qualified, but little beyond the natural progression of material wealth evidences that they are relatively better off. Many go to the workplace burdened on a daily basis by the economic trap of education. Those without a job succumb to the old saying ‘crappo smoke yo pipe.’ Everyone knows that a government cannot provide a job for every active job seeker; however, nothing within our educational design enables a graduate or skilled person to pursue meaningful entrepreneurial activity. The old plantation type financial system offers little hope to children of the working class who were not privileged with property.

As a developing nation, our country must continue to pursue the expansion of education as a means, even in its purest form, to have a much more literate population and to bring about the level of economic and developmental changes that only an educated workforce can generate. However, policy proposals must undergo 360 degrees analysis. It is not enough to be concerned with raw numbers and year on year growth; administrators must address immediately the cries of many students. An article on forbes.com detailing the effect of the US student loan debt crisis succinctly argues, “What this means is that we are spawning a generation whose debt loads are already so high that they will be forced to forego the consumption necessary to create demand and employment for the rest of us – and consumers are the true job creators. We need them to spend the money that makes entrepreneurial activity profitable, but what sort of expenditures can we expect from a recent graduate who already faces the equivalent of a house payment?”

St Vincent and the Grenadines missed the boat on ‘free’ education when it was in vogue, but better can be done to assist recent graduates. The Support for Education and Training (SET) programme on paper is commendable, but the sour case of deserving recipients being overlooked is too commonplace throughout our society. We have already lost many of our best and brightest, including island scholars who have not returned home to contribute to national development, so we must afford those the opportunity who wish to serve a fair chance.

On the policy side, the student loan committee in particular should approve applications that are targeted to the country’s development needs and critical areas. A job audit should be conducted and results published, detailing areas of labour shortage. The Ministry of Education should work with the University of the West Indies to expand the range of courses that are offered through distance education and encourage more students to pursue their first year of studies at home as part of loan conditions.

A more holistic approach to educational redesigning and a much more noteworthy ‘revolution’ would be to engender an entrepreneurial culture, beginning in the primary school system. The government should set up ‘business zones’ where start-ups can be encouraged, coupled with promotion of incentives for home-grown enterprises. Sometimes we copy success stories of other countries, but sell ourselves short when we fail to tackle the issues beneath the surface.

When Sparrow many years ago sang ‘go to school and learn well, without an education you’re better off dead,’ he did not envision that loan-backed education may be sending the new generation to the grave much faster.

Adaiah Providence-Culzac

Cemsvg@gmail.com

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