Trinidad and Tobago is on the brink of feeling the full impact of being led by a Government without a plan.
When the Government announced a GATE task force, the mandate included a review of the programme’s policy guidelines, towards reducing the overall cost of funding and to set criteria for the eligibility of programmes and institutions. While routine reviews of government initiatives should be the norm, and we should know if we are getting value for money, these should be done in the context of a wider national development policy. But this Rowley led administration has no policy, so they continuously try to justify their poor decision making by scaring the population.
The approach by this Administration has been flawed from the on-set. The mandate given to the task force was to reduce cost not to increase value for money. These are two fundamentally different outlooks on the programme. If this Government truly had taken a people-centred approach, they would have tried to find ways to make GATE a more effective tool in their diversification plans. But it is evident that no such plan exists, so they go on an arbitrary cost cutting exercise.
They have spent the last 10 months bemoaning the falling oil and gas prices. This was the reality since 2014, and any logical administration, would have known that we could not depend on these commodities forever. If they were not prepared to govern in a time of economic challenges they should not have put themselves on the ballot. What we need at this time is innovation, now more than ever we need to invest in our intellectual capacity; we need a population capable of changing our single commodity dependency.
The reasoning behind cutting the GATE programme has been that of changing economic circumstances. But is this really a sufficient justification? GATE, which built on the dollar for dollar programme, was based on the principle that public’s purse would best be spent investing in human capital. Has this Government concluded that our citizens are no longer a worthwhile investment?
Has the Government taken into consideration alternative models of funding free education? Have they looked at the Finnish model of setting operational and qualitative targets while working with institutions to determine what resources would be necessary? Have they considered more stringent monitoring and evaluation of the programme? The Government seems unwilling and unable to make the programme work but rather have chosen to take the laziest and ultimately destructive approach.
Countries like Norway and Sweden, who have invested heavily in their education system, consistently top the international lists for the highest standards of living and productivity. Free education should not be seen as burden on society, as this Government seems to think, but rather as an avenue for progress.
As Government continues its ad-hoc approach to policy making the population is left wonder when will this nightmare end? Were the positive externalities of free education weighed against the opportunity cost of government assisted education? The country is only being told about the cost and the state of the economy, but what would happen to Trinidad and Tobago if large sections of society are priced out of higher education? What would be the impact on the middle class, who maybe in theory can afford tertiary education for their children, but in reality cannot because of the increasing cost of living? The middle class would be disproportionately affected by the intended actions of the Government, leading to further inequalities in society.
The Government must publish the full report submitted by the taskforce. The population must demand the details as this government cannot be trusted. They have become known for being stingy with the details; the Finance Minister only explained the drawdown from HSF in the wake of mounting public pressure. And now the public must band together again and insist that this be discussed in a transparent manner. We must not be content to simply hear the recommendations of the taskforce, but we must know what informed their conclusions.
As it stands, food and gas prices have gone up, the health care system is in shambles, and now the Government is getting ready to strike a deadly blow to our future. Dr. Eric Williams once told the nation that their future lies in its schoolbags, a bag that Dr. Rowley is now prepared to treat as a disposable commodity.
Free education is based on a policy that a number of social ills can be cured through educating your citizens. If the programme is not preforming at its optimal standard then taskforce’s mandate should have been to assess solutions to the shortcomings, to measure its impact and provide some judgment on its efficacy and not simply to find ways to cut cost. They announced several revenue increasing measures, including expanding VAT, but are we seeing how this money is being spent? We have not had a single initiative by this Government aimed at sustainable development. The actions of the Government show their inability to think long term and to plan for the future.
Member of Parliament for Naparima