Accessible education and politics

Michael Burke

Thursday, January 19, 2012

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Opposition leader Andrew Holness says that he would like to see the government continue free education. The new education minister Deacon Ronnie Thwaites is reported to have said that in his own opinion, anyone who can afford to pay fees should pay. There was also a news report that the Jamaica Teachers' Association plans to resist any attempt at stopping free education.

On the one hand, I believe in accessible education, and free tuition should be the ideal. On the other hand, school principals and bursars have complained about not having sufficient maintenance funds because of free education.

It was Norman Washington Manley who began the process of free education with the Common Entrance Examination of 1957. This was when Jamaica Labour Party politicians told the voters, "Saltfish is better than education." At the same time, many of the elite who were of the opinion that high school education should be only for the privileged drew further away from Norman Manley and the People's National Party.

The Jamaica Labour Party came to power in 1962. With the help of a World Bank loan, the JLP government was able to build all over the island what were then called junior secondary schools. Today they are all called high schools.

It was Michael Manley who announced on May 2, 1973 that as of September that year the government would be "embarking upon a system of free education in Jamaica". Free education, as announced by Michael Manley, extended to the Jamaican students at the University of the West Indies and to all tertiary institutions owned by the government.

Once again the privileged thought that this was a sign that the class system to which they believed they had a divine right was collapsing. The PNP was pilloried as a party of mismanagement and hair-brained schemes, and it was argued that Jamaica could not afford free education.

It was Edward Seaga as prime minister and minister of finance in the JLP government of the 1980s who introduced the education tax. He also introduced the cess at the University of the West Indies. At the time, meetings were held with university students and they were told that it was the responsible thing to do and many UWI students agreed.

At the time, Wilmot Perkins stated on radio his firm belief that students should pay for their education and had some multi-syllable words to describe Michael Manley for instituting totally free education in the first place.

When Michael Manley led the PNP back to power in 1989, Wilmot Perkins, who then hosted Hotline, questioned Manley on RJR. Perkins asked Michael Manley if he would be reintroducing free education at the university level and continuing with free education at the secondary level as he had done in 1973. Manley said that there was new thinking on the matter and those who could pay should do so and not be a burden on the budget and the economy.

Later in the 1990s the PNP government introduced cost-sharing in education while Burchell Whiteman was minister of education. At the beginning of each term Whiteman and later his successor Maxine Henry-Wilson reminded school principals on radio at the start of every term that no student should be turned away because they did not pay fees.

In other words, education remained free and accessible at the primary and secondary levels as it had been from 1973 even through so-called cost-sharing. In the JLP's election manifesto of 2002, mention was made of the re-introduction of free education. The JLP lost the election in 2002 as the PNP won four consecutive terms. But was this the same JLP that initially said that salt fish was better than education in the 1950s and said in the 1970s that free education was an act of gross mismanagement?

Was this the same JLP that would later boast, through Audley Shaw in the election debates of December 2011, that the JLP introduced free education? Is it the leader of the JLP who today is issuing a warning to a PNP government not to turn back free education? Ever since the days of PJ Patterson as PNP president and prime minister, the tendency of the PNP has been not to answer verbal attacks during election time if they know that they have the winning formula to be elected to power.

But my major concern is that uncorrected falsehoods lead to an inaccurate way of conveying history. Students should be taught the role of national hero, Norman Manley, in initiating accessible high school education.

This year 2012 is the 75th anniversary of Jamaica Welfare, founded by Norman Manley in 1937. One aspect of Jamaica Welfare was the Adult Literacy Programme with its theme, "Each one teach one". It was later broadened by Michael Manley and called the Jamaican Movement for the Advancement of Literacy (JAMAL).

In this the year of the 50th jubilee of Jamaica's political independence, let us make an effort to teach our young people the truth of Jamaica's history and not some exaggerations fabricated for political purposes.

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