BRIDGETOWN, Barbados (CMC) — The Clement Payne Movement (CPM) yesterday called for a referendum on free university education after the Barbados government earlier this week announced that it will no longer pay tuition fees for nationals studying at the University of the West Indies (UWI).
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".
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$42 million a year. One Barbados dollar is equivalent to US$.50.
"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 Freundel Stuart 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".
But Comissiong said that the ruling Democratic Labour Party (DLP) administration was "totally out of place" when it made the announcement "because the system of free university education at the UWI is one of the fundamental pillars of the very structure of the Barbadian nation".
He said no mandate had been given to the government by the Barbadian public "to make such a fundamental change to the very structure of our nation.
"Barbados has just gone through a General Election, and at no time during the course of that Election campaign did the Democratic Labour Party indicate to the Barbadian people that they were proposing to institute such a fundamental change to the structure of our nation.
"In fact, they did just the opposite -- they suggested that it was the (opposition) Barbados Labour Party that was threatening the social rights of the Barbadian people, and that a vote for the DLP would be a vote to preserve social rights such as the right to free education at UWI.
"Therefore, to come now and to seek to inflict such a major social change on the unsuspecting people of Barbados is an inexcusable act of political treachery. The Clement Payne Movement is therefore demanding that this matter be put to a nation-wide vote in a national referendum".
Opposition Leader Mia Mottley, responding to the budget presentation, was also critical of the government's position regarding the UWI.
"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 as 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 enrollment. 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 in the late 1990s both Jamaica and Trinidad had done what Barbados is now doing, but that Port of Spain reversed that decision "because of the experience that too many children from working-class backgrounds ...no longer could be seen applying to the University at St Augustine. St Augustine today is the biggest campus with 21,000 students."
She said that a Barbados Labour Party (BLP) government would reverse the decision to charge tuition fees to university students.
Comissiong said since the island attained political independence from Britain in 1966, nationals "have had two national Articles of faith" that have set them apart from all other Caribbean nations.
He said these are that the Barbados dollar should be permanently pegged to the US dollar at a ratio of two to one, and that the cost of educating the citizens of Barbados "should be borne by the entire society rather than being left on the shoulders of the individual student and his or her biological family".
"No Government is entitled to discard or change either one of these two Articles of faith without first getting the approval of the Barbadian people," Comissiong said, urging Prime Minister Stuart to "commit his government to subjecting their proposal to start requiring Barbadian students to pay the UWI's tuition fee to an up or down vote in a national referendum".