THE Government of Barbados has announced that it can no longer afford to provide free education for all qualified for admission to the University of the West Indies (UWI). Instead, it will pay 80 per cent of the cost.
This is a reflection of the fiscal crisis in which the country is engulfed and the continuous escalation of the cost of tertiary education.
Barbados owes the UWI, Cave Hill campus, over US$100 million, with little prospect of paying off this sum, and has correctly decided to stop accumulating further debt to the institution.
As such, the Barbadian Government cannot be faulted for its financial pragmatism. In any case, no government is obliged to provide free education, inclusive of university education.
Free education is a desirable public investment, however, it should be provided by the State to the extent possible.
The decision in Bridgetown needs not result in fewer Barbadian students attending the UWI.
The UWI has not sufficiently addressed the issue of the cost of the education it provides and the financial solvency and viability of the institution.
In the past, the UWI has raised its fees, borrowed with government guarantees and pressed the impecunious governments of the region to increase their subventions. It has also sought to increase revenue by increasing the number of students while restraining the salaries of academic staff.
One solution to the problem could be to reduce the cost of a degree by offering more courses or whole degrees via the Internet. This could also be a means of increasing the number of students at no additional cost of infrastructure while reaching the global market and earning foreign exchange.
There is a huge untapped market in the diaspora for courses with Caribbean content, eg history, literature, music, tropical medicine, marine biology, tourism, regional integration, and climate change in small-island developing states.
Use of the Internet would more efficiently service the natural primary catchment of the region where distance is a problem, especially among small isolated islands and the cost savings can be enormous.
Most universities, among them MIT, Oxford, Cambridge, and Harvard, are now offering more courses on the Internet, while many institutions, including the World Bank, provide short courses via the Internet.
At some universities, courses on campus have gone virtually paperless with reading assignments and papers being submitted via the Internet and many lectures are delivered by interactive Internet forms ranging from email chats to teleconferencing.
Using the library no longer a physical activity, it is at the click of a mouse. The Open University (OU) in Britain, the pioneering institution of higher learning, now has almost 200,000 students interacting online.
The UWI does offer some distance teaching, but not enough. The financial crunch, which is not confined to Barbados, can provide the impetus for this long overdue change. The crisis is not a problem; it is an opportunity which should not be wasted.