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Jamaica will not prosper

…with education as a low priority

CANUTE THOMPSON

Sunday, November 03, 2019

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The academic staff at the University of Technology, Jamaica (UTech) has been on strike for over a week to back demands that the Government fulfils its legal obligation and pay them retroactive sums owed. According to a report carried in the Jamaica Observer on Thursday, October 31, 2019, the public relations officer of academic staff association, Patrick Harley, said they were in a wait-and-see mode with no plans to return to the classroom without their demands being met as set out in the 2015/17 heads of agreement.

Under this agreement the employees should receive payments in three tranches of retroactive salaries, but only one was received (in July) and the second portion, due in October, was not received. The lecturers have been reported as saying that they will not return to work until a concrete commitment is given about the outstanding payment.

In a later development, it was reported in the Jamaica Observer on Friday November 1, 2019 that Karl Samuda, the Cabinet minister overseeing the Ministry of Education since March of this year, has placed a proposal on the table for paying $400 million of the amounts owed. No timeline for the payment was stated in the report, and the staff had reportedly not yet seen the offer. The situation remained uncertain at the time of writing.

Abandonment of education

It is now almost eight months since the removal of Ruel Reid as senator and minister of education, and to date, even despite his arrest and charge, the prime minister has not yet appointed a minister for this important portfolio. The non-appointment of a minister for this portfolio, which is the most important in the development of a country, shows, without a doubt, how low a priority it is on the Government's list of priorities.

This virtual abandonment of education is also evidenced in the silence of the prime minister on the crisis at UTech and his failure to step in and act decisively to end the strike. This failure by a prime minister to show up when there is a crisis is probably without precedent, but is consistent with Holness's declared principles.

It is alleged that the founder of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), the late Sir Alexander Bustamante, had said “education cyaan nyam”, and in the by-election in Portland Eastern earlier this year, that argument was central, and the candidate who had pledged to make education a priority lost. Prime Minister Holness' silence and inaction in the UTech matter is therefore not surprising.

The prime minister's silence on the UTech crisis, as de jure minister of education, is also part of the broader backwardness of the Government concerning higher education, and fits the narrative “education cyaan nyam”. This backward approach to education is also seen in the foolish idea the Government has that a flurry of construction activity will grow the economy. While construction can provide stimulus for short-term economic growth, it does not, without the skills to provide services over the long term, result in sustainable economic development, and that is where the Government has its marbles all mixed up.

Ribbon-cutting prime minister

It will be recalled that a few weeks ago, when signing the contract for the south coast highway, the prime minister declared that the only time the country would hear from him is when he is signing a contract or cutting a ribbon for a newly built facility. He declared that he intends to be known as the prime minister to have built the most houses and developed most of the country's infrastructure. That ambition, indeed that pre-occupation, tells us clearly where the Holness's heart is. So since the crisis at UTech does not have frills, and there are no bells and whistles, he is loudly silent.

Holness' s confusion on the relationship between economic development and education seems rooted in a policy of the Administration. UTech is not the only higher education institution that the Holness Government has treated in this manner. Speaking in the Senate on Friday, October 11, 2019, minister without portfolio in the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation Pearnel Charles Jr stated that the shortfall (outstanding amounts owed) in grants which The University of the West Indies (UWI) expected from the Government should not be regarded as a debt which the Government is expected to pay, as the funding is a “contribution”. In other words, The UWI should not treat this money as receivables. This policy position sets a new low for the value placed on education by the Government led by Andrew Holness and reinforces the apparent JLP notion that “education cyaan nyam”.

Ministry of Economic Development needed

It is exceedingly instructive that the name which the prime minister chose for his portfolio is “economic growth and job creation”. Rather than making economic growth a portfolio, the focus should be “economic development”. Incidentally, it has been shown that on both the growth and job creation fronts the prime minister (as minister of economic growth and job creation) and the Government have performed badly. Growth has not reached two per cent in any year, even though five per cent was boastfully promised, and the quality of jobs created have been low-end and short-term, for the most part.

The Government's misunderstanding of the factors which drive economic growth, and those peculiar to the Jamaican economy, was evidenced recently when both former Minister of Finance Audley Shaw, and one of the many ministers without portfolio in the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation Daryl Vaz declared that unless the Planning Institute of Jamaica found that the economy grew by 10 per cent the assessment methodology was wrong.

The confusion over how economic growth happens is thus reflected in the structure of the ministry, its name, and the utterances of members of the Cabinet. The genie has long been out of the bottle on how to achieve and sustain economic growth. The answer lies in laying the foundations for economic development which is founded in the quality of the education system and measured by the number of high school and tertiary graduates who are creating (not necessarily finding) jobs.

A country's economy cannot experience real and sustained economic growth if tertiary education is not a priority and the attitude to the UTech lecturers and the decision to treat debts to The UWI as non-obligatory contributions.

A scanning of the Internet will show that many emerging and growing economies have a Ministry of Economic Development. The list includes the Republic of Maldives, Italy (where that portfolio also covers artificial intelligence), the Ontario province of Canada (which has growth after development), Russia, New Zealand, Ukraine, Belize, Kosovo, to name a few. In each of these countries, higher education is central. Searches of “Ministry of Economic Growth” return one result, Jamaica. We have our marbles wrong.

One of the big questions we are yet to tackle is how we finance higher education and create access to ensure that a significant percentage of high school graduates enter tertiary education. We have literally danced around this issue. But no one can have confidence that the Holness Administration is eager to address this matter. More anon.

Dr. Canute Thompson is chair of the People's National Party's Policy Commission, as well as head of the Caribbean Centre for Educational Planning and lecturer in the School of Education, and co-founder and chief consultant for the Caribbean Leadership Re-Imagination Initiative, at The University of the West Indies, Mona. He is also author of four books and several articles on leadership. Send comments to the Observer or canutethompson1@gmail.com.


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