50 Shades of GATE: Beyond Party Politics and Ole Talk

“And when you trust your television
What you get is what you got
Cause when they own the information, oh
They can bend it all they want”
– John Mayer, Waiting on the World to Change

We would not be having this discussion on GATE today, if government wastage over the past ten years were not so high. We would not be easy to “settle” for a politically expedient solution, a short cut to reengineering GATE as a sustainable education programme that reduces poverty and emancipates minds, if administration after administration monitored, evaluated and intervened in the programme as was outlined in its establishment.

Already, student and youth leaders with narrow political ambitions have clung onto the low political hanging fruit and claim the deferred changes for 2017 academic year as a victory. What I cannot settle for is a weakening of our democracy by limiting public debate and participation with inadequate information and consultation in a hard economic period. Austerity and recession do not trump democracy and people power. No report and no information do not produce the type of student and education we say we want and demand in Trinidad and Tobago.


Multiple messages and Communication Errors

According to the Post-Cabinet Press Briefing on the 3rd August 2016, it was announced, “Where the household income is above $20,000.00 per month students will be required to pay 50% of tuition fees”. However, hours later at a PNM Party Group Meeting in the Port-of-Spain area, acting Attorney General Minister Stuart Young shared that it was in situations where household income is above $30,000.00 per month students will be required to pay 50% of tuition fees. While this position offers greater relief to lower-middle class families it is a classic example of the major communication problem of the sitting government on the handling of the GATE review – miscommunication at the Cabinet Press Conference or miscommunication by a Cabinet Minister in a party forum. It also highlights the gap between what Ministers decide, what Ministers say, what the Media reports, what the public knows and what they public therefore, come to believe.

It is easy to write off activists who are cautious about government changes to GATE or those who struggle to defend the continuity the (old) funding facility as “unreasonable.” Such critics place greater faith in the government’s decisions and wisdom over the public’s demand for more information. Also, this view throws the burden of proof on people who have little information to make a decision on a matter in which the government has not sufficiently rationalized and democratized. What we must push back against is a politics of withdrawal in an economic recession where we invent “strong leaders” to hammer through public decision making because our democracy is weak and our institutions are not responsive.

“Waiting” on the Report

The greatest point offered by the student mobilization effort was building a chorus for a popular demand of the GATE Task Force Report (2016). On the13th July, it was reported that the 70-page GATE Task Force Report would be submitted to Cabinet on the 14th July and the nation “could expect answers within two weeks.” To date, the report has not been made public for popular education and debate. The Minister of Education, Anthony Garcia has not communicated anything on the status of the report thus far. 5th August 2016, the Guardian newspaper in an interview with Minister Stuart Young reported, “ Young could not say if Government would be making the Task Force report public.” The only forum where representatives of the State came face-to-face with the public on GATE, this year, was at a PNM-based professional organisation, The Heleconia Foundation, led by PNM Senator Mike Coppin on the 28th July 2016 with a presentation by Minister Dr. Lovell Francis. While I commend Dr. Francis for making himself available for public criticism, he did not advance any government positions on the matter that were not already made public. The question and answer segment of the programme had questions directed to the Minister one after the other, well after the expected the finish time. Many of the attendees were also in solidarity with the position of the UWI Socialist Student Conference (UWI SSC). For this reason, Senator Coppin’s full endorsement of the changes to GATE are very interesting because they not only do not reflect the mood of the forum he convened, it does not even account for some of the considerations offered by the panelists and his Foundation membership.

Composition of the Task Force and the Myth of Consultation

In March, it was reported that a GATE Task Force was appointed to submit a report to the Education Ministry by July 2016. The Task Force was comprised of two (2) consultants, seven (7) state representatives, two (2) University representatives, four (4) civil society representatives (of which three (3) are private sector NGOs) and one (1) student representative. The composition of the Task Force is not only anti-student, it suggests the framework upon which the terms of reference for the task force was set up – matching and measuring education in relations to the market. No student leader or civil society organsiation concerned about education would want to be present at such an unevenly balanced Task Force. If there was a commission on Capital Development and the Private Sector, can you imagine a committee that included only one (1) representative of business? If not in that case, then why should it be in ours? Moreover, the Task Force was convened to review GATE, what is abundantly clear now is that it was meant to assess the wastages in the system but also propose to the government where “cuts” can be made. While this intervention was necessary and should have occurred many years ago, a more engaging and fulfilling study on ‘the feasibility of funding quality higher education in Trinidad and Tobago’ may have developed a stronger basis for popular support and commitment.

Politics unfolds events from multiple positions and not straight lights. On the 25th June, the UWI Guild of Students hosted a “GATE Consultation” as the deadline for the submission of the report neared (mid-July) in an attempt to break with the top-down closed-door boardroom of the Task Force. The Task Force was not required to submit these inputs in its original constitution. Interestingly, in an unsurprising twist of events, the government now references the student consultation that was submitted by the UWI Guild President as a consultative measure that was included into the findings of the Report. A ‘save face’ strategy at the student level has been now co-opted by the government for their ‘save face’ approach in order to legitimize the Report by claiming it included some degree of consultation. While members of the Task Force may not be at liberty to discuss the contents of the Report, it was the duty of student leadership to make demands on the government to publish the report in order to inform students about the framework upon which Cabinet would be making decisions.

GATE Task Force:

– Mr. Errol Simms, Chairperson
– Theresa Davidson, Director of Funding and Grants, Ministry of Education
– Neville Niles, education research specialist;
– Dr. Gaylene Holdup, Scholarship and Advanced Training Division, Ministry of Education
– Two (2) Finance Ministry representatives
– Planning and Development Ministry representative
– Labour and Small Enterprise Ministry representative
– Tobago House of Assembly (THA) representative
– Dr Rolph Balgobin, T&T Manufacturers’ Association

– Natasha Subhero, T&T Chamber of Industry and Commerce
– Richard Saunders, campus registrar, UWI St Augustine Campus
– Dr. Ruby Alleyne, Vice-President, Quality Assurance, UTT
– Dr. Harrison Guy, Human Resource Association of T&T
– Folade Mutota, Women’s Institute for Alternative Development (WINA)
– Makesi Peters, President, UWI Guild of Students

Cost of GATE and Cuts

If you believe that education is “free” at any level then you are an enemy to your own cause, wherever you may stand on the GATE matter. Education is a tremendously expensive service managed by the State to protect the welfare of the citizenry.

2005 102, 193, 273 103, 193, 273
2006 179, 689, 121 281, 882, 394
2007 472, 771, 454 754, 653, 848
2008 501, 783, 052 1,256,436,900
2009 574,913,141 1,831,350,041
2010 584,699,646 2,416,049,687
2011 624,997,024 3,041,046,711
2012 757,641,662 3,798,688,373
2013 726,535,523 4,525,223,896
2014 638,353,301 5,163,577,197
2015 699,884,477 5,863,461,674
TOTAL 5,863,461,674  

What has not been discussed enough in public is that GATE does not include University funding alone, it funds many applicants of the wide number of Tertiary Level Institutes of Trinidad and Tobago that includes public, regional and private institutions. The private institutions include the College of Ultrasound Studies, Bordercom International Tertiary Academy, Academy of Motor Mechanics Ltd. for example, academic and vocational post-secondary training is covered under the programme. For this reason, the overwhelming critique of academia and university student performances may invisibilise the diverse population of those accessing GATE.

The costs of GATE and breakdowns of the information institution by institution have only begun being circulated in the media in the past week. What we do not know as a public is how do the decisions address the issue of the sustainability of GATE. Were the cuts rationalized or was a budgetary cap instituted and reduction measures followed? This is of serious concern when a social programme of this magnitude has been reviewed and decided upon before the reading of the National Budget for the new fiscal year. The political ends of ‘cuts’ to GATE may have been met but the value end of the programme may suffer.

Philosophy of Education

Michael Manley, in The Politics of Change: A Jamaican Testament (1974), wrote “Every developing society must aim at free, compulsory, universal education as its highest national priority…. Right at the outset it is necessary to clarify a philosophical question about education which cannot be left unanswered.” (138) Manley is no doubt making a case for broader primary and secondary school education access to the poor and marginalized here. But he introduces an element, which is often ignored in the public discourses on GATE, he recognizes a “philosophy of education.” Words such as “return on investment”, “economic benefits”, “and wealth creation” and the neoliberal likes fit into a logic of capital that starves the instrisic value of education to a people.

The design of GATE in the Vision 2020 strategy and policy was pegged against a controversial development objective and an unclearly defined notion of a “knowledge society.” However, lack of monitoring, poor data collection and political changes to the design of GATE established in 2004 created a political patronage machine for general elections for years. This is why there is a loud voice against the “gimme gimme culture” of GATE, which is seen as a political patronage programme more than a poverty reduction and education strategy. Dr. Terrence Farrell in The Underachieving Society: Development Strategy and Policy in Trinidad and Tobago 1958-2008 (2012), illustrates the failures of the State to execute Vision 2020 in the framework of its original mandate. He adds, “ Vision 2020 became more of a slogan than a plan in implementation…Far from being an exercise in charting the long-term future of the country, Vision 2020 ended as an exercise in futility.” The Vision 2020 document is no longer the guiding policy document for the current PNM Administration, however, the manner in which the “evaluation” to GATE was made have shown that there is little learned from the lesson of the past.

What is valuable cannot always be monetized. What is valuable is valuable. Education is valuable to the person and the development of society.
Questions to the Minister(s) of Education

1. Why was it the government’s approach to changing GATE one that had an anti-student Taskforce, no publication of their findings, no consultative requirements and a Cabinet decision three weeks before the beginning of the academic year?

2. What are the implications for making decisions to GATE prior to the reading of the national budget in terms of public participation and debate?

3. While a means test sounds good on paper. The implementation of such criteria raises a number of concerns:

– Is the government prepared to justify why this approach was taken which has fundamentally changed the orientation of GATE?

– Why was an income-based means test approach emphasised and not a merit based approach based on the GPA system? On the 4th August 2016, it was reported that the government recovered $100 million for the period 2007-2014 for students who failed to meet GATE contractual requirements. Again, we are given decisions without a rationale from the government.

– Does the means test define income as household income which includes the home of the GATE applicant?

– If household income is defined as one which includes parents and the applicant as a person in that home. Does this make assumptions about the type of home and structures people come from? How do we count families with multiple dependents? More importantly, does this make assumptions about the interpersonal relations in the home – the relationship between parents and young adults?

– in good faith, means test systems help the most vulnerable but what is the process of this means test? How will the government guarantee by putting in measures that this system does not further deepen the political patronage that exists with social programmes?

– A means test also runs the risk of welfarising education. More and more on Facebook and in public debate I see discussion about which group and what group is worthy of GATE. How do we create a system that does not turn classes against each other? In the means test tiered system, are we really including the economic realities of lower middle class homes who on paper represent a very good income earning situation but often have little disposable income in spite of their productivity and economic contribution?

US College Model: Welcome to the Caribbean

I am afraid that the language of the Cabinet decision on GATE reeks of American-style university management. In that model, loan ceilings are raised because student debt is seen as normal, the encouragement of philanthropy by the private sector becomes a convenient strategy for state withdrawal from long terms investments, and education is not about culture, liberation, personal growth, it is about jobs. At some local universities, contracts are being designed on the length of an academic year and not the calendar year.

A national discussion on the possibility of caps on tuition fees are more important than ever because they are expected to rise within this academic year. Which means 25% or 50% of what your degree costs when you matriculated may have a very different cost after your first academic year. The UWI SSC is advocating this in order to prevent students increasingly paying more and more for tuition even when they are sponsored part of the fees. A number of persons say that the “changes are not too bad”. My default position is different. I do not expect the worst from government; I expect them and challenge them always to do better.

Bringing political pleasure by hurting democracy? That is 50 Shades of GATE

This “evaluation” and “review” process has done more to discourage students by “thinking three times” before they apply for higher education than build a culture of informed decision making and responsibility when persons think about the possibilities of education and their future.

An economic recession demands hard decisions on national budgets. A cut to social spending without addressing institutional accountability is neoliberalism 101. We value the self-reliance and hard work of generations of Caribbean people who studied hard and saved to access education – something that they valued very highly. At the same time, we are not willing to sacrifice our philosophy of education that maintained its open and democratic character. If we sacrifice this, we are taking away our sweat and steps on progress.

In whatever way I can, I will continue to encourage a different conversation on GATE and spend a year sensitizing and mobilizing students around sustainable and quality public education. Let us not turn against our people in this moment of hardship, we feel the pain. Let us turn our eyes to greater state accountability and the democratization of information and decision making to make the walk a little better.

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