A flashback to Michael Manley's free education system
Former JamaicaPrime MinisterMichael Manley
Beneficiaries hail programme as successful, despite upper-class objections

Education is often seen as the great equaliser, in which people from low-income families can enter career fields that would have otherwise been impossible.

For thousands of Jamaicans on May 2, 1973 when the country's fourth Prime Minister Michael Manley introduced the free education initiative, this was the ticket many financially-challenged people were waiting for to create a better life for themselves and their families.

The programme included free secondary education in all grant-aided secondary schools and free education for qualified Jamaicans to enter a tertiary institution.

One such person, medical practitioner and consultant surgeon Dr Ray Fraser, told the Jamaica Observer that he is forever grateful for the opportunity to attend The University of West Indies under Manley's initiative.

“In those days, my mother couldn't afford it at all. Two of us went to university at the time. She was a single mother; my father had died years before. So, free education came in for us and for many Jamaicans at the most appropriate time,” he said.

Fraser continued: “It allowed students from the rural, innercity [and] the lower class to enter university and those people who were given free education in the 1970s, they were the ones who eventually became the backbone, even now, of the economy. I mean, doctors, lawyers, heads of corporations, all of those people were trained in the 1970s and were beneficiaries of free education. So it had a positive effect.”

Explaining that he is a Manchester native by birth, but moved to Kingston and attended Kingston College, Dr Fraser stated that while it was a bit daunting when he just started university, it was also thrilling because of the different Caribbean cultures he was introduced to.

“The university at the time was a great melting pot, it was a time when you had social awareness. It was a time when you had youngsters identifying themselves ideologically and philosophically. I remember meeting, for the first time, students from the other Caribbean islands and discussing culture [and] politics,” he noted.

Stating that the only way the country was able to move forward was to have an educated population, Fraser said, “You have to train your people to get the maximum out of them. The more you educate them the better the whole development of the society.”

Partly funded by earnings from the freshly-introduced bauxite levy, the programme was staunchly opposed by members of the upper class, who believed Manley was grossly mismanaging the economy, thinking the prime minister had become a communist.

Therefore, in 1980 the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) won the general election and in 1986 they announced a cess on university students, eventually ending the free education programme.

Another individual who benefited from the policy was New York paralegal Howard DaCosta. DaCosta told the Sunday Observer that if free education wasn't an option, he would've likely taken out a loan to attend the College of Arts Science and Technology (CAST), now known as the University of Technology, Jamaica.

“Whether or not it was free, I would've gone. I would've made some arrangements because that was the underline precept that I would go. Firstly, I lived in Clarendon with my family, my father had died some years ago and so [my mother] was bringing us up by herself. The other brother had already gone to college, to Mico and had already graduated and was working. It was just a natural progression that I would've gone to college as well,” DaCosta stated, adding that he studied telecommunications, and worked in Jamaica for over five years before emigrating.

Arguing that free education at the tertiary level should be reconsidered, DaCosta proposed that the Government should also provide affordable loans and grants for struggling students.

“It is important because the impact on it [economy] going forward, it's a generational thing. It boasts the economy, boasts productivity,” he told the Sunday Observer.

However, Dr Fraser does not believe that the same free education system that Manley had started would be easy to accomplish in today's economy.

“To have a wholesale free education as it was back then, it is going to be very challenging now. At the same time it was very appropriate, it did its job. It allowed a significant number of bright, intelligent Jamaicans to move forward, who themselves contributed to nation-building,” Dr Fraser said.

FRASER... the university at the time was a great melting pot
BY CANDICE HAUGHTON Staff reporter haughtonc@jamaicaobserver.com

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