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To Cut or Not To Cut College Subsidies in the Bahamas?

Education, democracy and societal priorities are being called into question as Bahamian bloggers address the government's recent decision to reduce the subsidy it provides to the College of The Bahamas. A week ago, Rick Lowe, writing at Weblog Bahamas, explained why he thought the cut was a good idea:

In case we're not looking, the country is now in debt to the tune of approximately $5 billion.

Assuming our total population is 350,000, that's $14,285 per person.

If we divide it among a working population of say 150,000. That's about $33,000 each.

These numbers are astounding and worsening with each passing year, so something has to be done.

Sure it sounds cold hearted, but either the government starts to find ways to cut back expenditures or we all might have a much higher price to pay. Cyprus comes to mind.

Still, he was a bit sceptical as to whether the government would actually follow through:

The question is, will government stick to its guns and cut back in other places or is this the typical political trial balloon?

Another thing the government should do is pass a Constitutional Amendment restricting deficits and borrowing and a balanced budget.

It seems just a short while ago that most people had to work to pay their way through college. Today we take it for granted our way should be subsidised.

Where did we go wrong?

The post caused an emotional reaction on the blog's Facebook page; Lowe defended his position in a follow-up post:

Subsidies must be paid for. Either by COB creating their own revenue stream through studies etc or by everyone paying more taxes. The Government borrowing money to subsidise at the expense of future generations is unsustainable.

The concentrated benefits (COB students in this case) and dispersed costs among all citizens, is simply unfair to the general public that is on the hook for the taxes.

What prevents like minded people (people that see the value in education, COB Alumni etc) starting a fund to donate to COB to help pay for the needy students? Seems to me that would be a better way?

A day later, Blogworld posted a link to a press statement by The College of The Bahamas Union of Students, making the point that “the press in general has focused on one small part of the document”, [the union's foiled protest on Parliament over the issue] but that the bigger picture is “the value we place on the young adults in our society who have chosen to educate themselves at home, and the value we place on their place in our so-called democracy.”

The blogger, Nicolette Bethel, highlighted some of the key points of the statements that particularly stood out for her; in another post, she quoted from an article which suggests that “the thing being made in a university is humanity…what universities, at least the public-supported ones, are mandated to make or to help to make is human beings in the fullest sense of those words — not just trained workers or knowledgeable citizens but responsible heirs and members of human culture.”

Finally, she wrote a post about her take on the issue, examining the situation from the perspective of the student body:

Over the past several weeks, the College of The Bahamas Union of Students has worked tirelessly to resist the college’s proposal to raise fees in response to proposed government cutbacks in subvention.

Their work has included attempts to meet or speak with senior administration, with the college council, with the minister of education, and with the minister of state for finance. Their most recent press release may be found here; I encourage those people who may be quick to dismiss the students for their passion to read it, as it will show you another side of them, and may encourage us to treat them with the respect that is due to adults who are legitimately questioning their rights to participate in our democracy and their place in our society.

Bethel continued:

I will be the first person to say that, given the fact that our society has decided that the only education offered freely to its citizens is that which stops at the secondary level, I am not opposed to the principle of raising tuition. Here are my reasons.

In the beginning, the government was the primary subsidizer of tertiary-level education. Fees were never non-existent, but until 1998, they were a mere $25 per credit hour. The result was the persistent underfunding of the institution.

In 1998, recognizing the move to university and the development of bachelor’s degree courses, the college raised tuition over the course of three years from the $25 per credit hour to the present $100 per credit hour for lower-level (100-200) courses, and $150 per credit hour for upper-level (300-400) courses.

No other increases in tuition have been applied since 2000. Students today still study for the same cost as students in 2000, but the purchasing power of the Bahamian dollar today is worth only 80¢ of the 2000 dollar. The tuition increase originally proposed by the college administration (from $100 to $120 per credit hour) can be seen as merely making up for that lost revenue. But that is not all. Not only does the 2013 Bahamian dollar buy 20% less than the 2000 dollar, what students get for that price is considerably more than what students got in 2000. Tuition for the college has not increased in that time, but what is provided to the students has consistently been expanded over the past 13 years.

She went on to explain:

I can see the rationale behind the increase. All things being equal, I would even support it, even though I am theoretically persuaded by arguments that tertiary level education is worth being fully subsidised by our government. My pragmatic perspective in this country at this point in time recognizes that our culture, so heavily influenced by the USA, tends to devalue those things that we do not pay for; on the contrary, the more we pay for something here in The Bahamas, the more we tend to respect it.

That said, however, I do not support the principle of raising incidental fees in an attempt to recover costs.

Why?

In the first place, student amenities at the college are sub-standard, even with all the improvements; in the same period of time, although the investment in tuition and the quality of education has improved, changes in student life have been mixed.

In the second place, the pervading attitude towards students on campus appears to be that they are a necessary evil—or, to use more gentle language, that they are simply overgrown, misbehaving high-schoolers who should be seen and not heard, and who should be deferential to their elders, accepting of whatever treatment is meted out to them, unquestioning of inefficiencies, and uncritical of mediocrity. Unlike the quality of the education provided at the College (which is, against all odds, high—and some of the best value for money in the hemisphere), the quality of student (and faculty) life is low. To ask students to pay additional fees without addressing these shortcomings is asking a bit much.

Blogworld added:

I said…that all things being equal, I would support an increase in tuition fees. For example, if that increase was linked to the College’s full and legal transition to university status, I would have no quarrel with the proposal. But it is not. It is a desperate move on the part of a college administration faced with drastic and untenable cuts to its subvention to find ways to maintain the services currently being offered.

So to me, the real question is whether or not The Bahamas as a whole, and its representative, the government, sees any real value in Bahamian tertiary-level education.

As many have said before me, there is something fundamentally visionless and absurd about the government’s proposed reduction of the COB subvention. While the government itself is faced with the need to reduce its own expenditure by the 25%-over-two-years that it is passing onto its agencies, it is not making those cuts across the board; certain agencies have been deemed to be exempt. That the College of The Bahamas, poised by promise on the verge of the university status that the government has yet to grant it, is not also exempt speaks volumes to the place of the intellect in Bahamian society, and to the real commitment of the government to Bahamian university education.

She finally came to this conclusion:

These facts, together with the relative lack of outrage about the government’s proposal to cut COB’s subvention, suggest that the Bahamian government, together with the society that supports it, does not in fact take the idea of Bahamian higher education seriously at all. What the College of The Bahamas is being asked to do, at the same time as it is being moved to university status, is to cut just under $6.25 million from its current budget over the next 2 years. This is to be done ‘without any reduction in quality and level of services to the public’.

Sleight of hand and double-speak aside, what the government has just demanded the college do is carry water in a sieve. Do I object to the raising of fees for tertiary education? In principle, no. But when this is the only way in which the services currently provided can hope to be maintained, I am left with grave and serious questions about the proposal indeed.

In an interesting twist, another blogger at Weblog Bahamas agreed:

The PLP Government is wrong to cut funding to the College of The Bahamas for several reasons (including…the fact that the Prime Minister said as recently as last month that they would do nothing to ‘compromise education'). I will focus on what I believe is the most important reason: the proven impact of public spending on education on a country's economic growth.

In The Bahamas, we are saddled with a host of challenges, not the least of which is our declining educational standards, steadily weakening workforce and loss of skills. This is not the time to take funding away from our only tertiary institution.

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