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Canute Thompson | Neo-liberalism, populism, and educational policy

Published:Sunday | June 26, 2016 | 12:00 AM
Canute Thompson
The International Monetary Fund headquarters building in Washington, DC.

One of the critiques made of the People's National Party (PNP) administration of 2012-2016 is that it slavishly followed the International Monetary Fund's (IMF) neo-liberal prescriptions. This view has been expressed by veteran journalist Ian Boyne, as well as some in both the PNP and the governing Jamaica Labour Party.

Boyne, like others, is of the view that the PNP's defeat in the February 25 election resulted, in part, from its commitment to neo-liberal policies. At the same time, he has suggested that the current administration be commended for being bold in veering from the IMF's strict neo-liberal agenda. The removal of auxiliary fees is hailed as one such bold move.

Aspiring PNP president, Peter Bunting, in contrast to Boyne, contends that the current policy position of the Government in abandoning auxiliary fees amounts to populism. This populism, Bunting suggests, runs the risk of placing struggling schools at even greater disadvantage, thereby hurting the education system more than it is helping, and in the long run could undermine national development. Bunting, like former Education Minister Ronald Thwaites, argues that the current policy could also serve to reinforce a freeness mentality which Jamaica can ill afford.

Amid this debate, the Ministry of Education has been seeking to refine and clarify the policy of 'non-mandatory auxiliary fees'.




It may be helpful to remind ourselves of the essential features of neo-liberalism and populism. Neo-liberalism is an economic theory that has its roots in a doctrine of the IMF, World Bank and other multilateral funding agencies that claim that economic growth in developing countries is best achieved through liberal tax policies, small government, and a market-driven, versus highly regulated, economy.

This doctrine was a feature of the economic policies of the United Kingdom and United States under Thatcher and Reagan, and its advocates defended it with the label TINA (meaning, 'There Is No Alternative'). Other derivatives, or consequences, of the neo-liberal agenda are pension reform, removal of farm subsidies, and an orientation towards user fees.

Populist strategies are employed to appeal to the masses and involve the use of unorthodox measures designed to respond to the economic stress being experienced by the 'working classes'.

To the extent that neo-liberal and populist ideologies result in contrasting socio-economic arrangements, I suggest that the first question is, how is the decision made as to which approach to adopt for a country, and, in this case, Jamaica?



In the 1970s, the Manley administration introduced a populist educational policy of free education. This policy Manley defended as being necessary to correct the social imbalances of the previous decades and to build local capacity for true self-governance and economic development. Thus education was free up to the tertiary level. Things began to change when a cess was imposed on tertiary level education under the Seaga administration in 1985 and further in the Manley-Patterson era of the 1990s to 2000s when cost-sharing was introduced at the secondary level. The Seaga administration introduced the neo-liberal structural adjustment in the 1980s, reflecting the Reagan influence, and this continued into the 1990s when the Patterson administration said ta-ta to the IMF.

Thus, while free education up to the tertiary level might have been the appropriate approach in the 1970s and '80s, that response could not be sustained because of the impact of global economic conditions. There were some critics of the Government of the 1990s and early 2000s who would point to 'Little Barbados', which continued to provide free education up to the tertiary level for almost three decades after Jamaica had begun to charge a fee. But the global economic realities that took their toll, and the government of Barbados ceased covering tertiary education in 2013.

The fact that populist interventions have been found to be unsustainable does not mean that neo-liberal interventions are inherently more sustainable, or are better. The focus in deciding on policy must include the circumstances in a country at a given time.

It is highly instructive to note that while the USA and the UK were preaching the neo-liberal doctrine, several countries did not adopt that approach. Among the countries that did not adopt the neo-liberal solution are countries that have remained in the top 10 performing economies, namely Switzerland, Singapore, Germany, the Netherlands, Japan, and Finland. But their continued positive performance is not evidence that either neo-liberal or populist approaches are inherently good or bad, but that the conditions of a country at a given time are the key determining factors in deciding on an approach.

Thus, ultimately, the question of what educational policy is right for Jamaica, at any given time, must be answered with reference to what the prevailing conditions are. I contend that free education was the necessary and correct response in the 1970s.

The imposition of the cess on tertiary education in the 1980s was understandable, having regard to the impact of structural adjustment, which also resulted in major challenges for secondary and primary schools, which suffered from serious underfunding.

Given the setbacks experienced by the education sector in the 1980s, it became necessary to seek to ameliorate the challenges of the 1990s, and thus cost-sharing was a reasonable response. I am of the view that in 2016, Jamaica, having not yet fully recovered from the contraction of the economy in the mid-2000s, which resulted in part from the global economic recession, and given the need to continue to strengthen the education sector, is not able to afford to fully fund secondary education.

Thus, I submit, that the neo-liberal approach of user (auxiliary) fees for secondary education would be more appropriate at this time.

- Dr Canute Thompson is a lecturer in educational policy, planning and leadership at the School of Education, UWI. His books include 'Locating the Epicentre of Effective (Educational) Leadership in the 21st Century'.

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