BRIDGETOWN, Barbados, (CMC) — Prime Minister Freundel Stuart has defended the decision of his Government to no longer pay tuition fees for nationals studying at the University of the West Indies (UWI), saying that free tertiary education was never intended to last forever.
Stuart told legislators that his administration wanted nationals to understand that the new policy is being implemented in an effort to ensure the economic stability of the island.
"The Government is doing the best it could and people are simply being asked to contribute to their own development," Stuart said as he made his contribution to the budget debate. He described the new tuition policy as "the most contentious of the budget measures".
Finance and Economic Affairs Minister Chris Sinckler, in his 2013-14 budget presentation on Tuesday, said that effective 2014, Barbadian students pursuing studies at the university's three campuses will be required to pay their own tuition fees, while the Government continues to fund economic costs.
Sinckler said the tuition fees range from BDS$5, 625 to BDS$65,000 and that the new policy would reduce the transfer to UWI by an estimated BDS$42 million or US$21 million a year.
"The Government of Barbados recognises that access to education at all levels has been a key factor in the success of Barbados as a society and an economy," Sinckler said, adding that the administration "remains committed to, and fully supportive of, the continued growth and development of UWI Cave Hill and increased access to tertiary education for Barbadians".
Opposition Leader Mia Mottley has criticised the policy, saying "education has done more for us as a country than bauxite has done for Jamaica.
"Education has done more for us as a country than oil in gas for Trinidad. Education has done more for us as country than gold and diamonds has done for Guyana, and I make bold to say so to the people of this country tonight because one of the reasons that we across parties have celebrated the fact that Barbados in the human development index is regarded a leading developing country in the world is because of the continuous investment in our people.
"I am saying to you, sir, that this region, the Caribbean region, has the lowest tertiary education enrolment. We have a tertiary education deficit. Instead of seeing an expansion of students across the university system we would be at risk now of seeing a reduction from Barbados".
She said that a Barbados Labour Party (BLP) Government would reverse the decision to charge tuition fees to university students.
On Thursday, the Clement Payne Movement (CPM) called for a referendum on free university education.
In a statement, CPM president David Comissiong said no government has the right to "dismantle the Barbadian system of free university education at UWI without first obtaining the approval of the Barbadian people through a national vote in a referendum".
But Prime Minister Stuart said that "as far back as 1968, Barbados' first prime minister, Errol Barrow, who introduced free tertiary education, had indicated that the full extent of Government's contribution to the university could not last forever".
Stuart said it is rather shameful that the impression has been given that the facility of free tertiary education is a facility intended for all time and that his Government has now betrayed Barrow and should be ashamed that one of the pillars of their philosophy has now collapsed.
"All that is happening is we are facing reality; a reality that Errol Barrow in 1968, 45 years ago, pointed to and a reality that has now come to full maturity."
Stuart, who has completed three degrees at UWI at taxpayers' expense, stressed that those who could not manage the costs would be assisted through the Government's Student Revolving Loan Fund.
"What we are saying is the costs have become so prohibitive and the contribution to the university is so disproportionate in contrast with contributions to other tertiary institutions that some balance has to be restored and that balance is best restored by the government continuing to carry the bulk of the burden but asking students, in controlled circumstances, to carry a little of that burden."