Thu | Aug 17, 2017

Letter of the Day | Bad precedent or moral imperative?

Published:Saturday | May 6, 2017 | 5:00 AM

THE EDITOR, Sir:

Principal of the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies, Professor Archibald McDonald, is headlined in The Gleaner of May 2, 2017, as saying, it is 'Bad precedent' for the Government to keep on bailing out students in arrears. This was in reference to more than 300 final-semester students being barred from examinations for inability to settle outstanding fees with the university.

Failure to sit the examination this semester would mean that these students will have to find fees for another semester after finding the amount to settle this debt if they are ever to graduate. Failure to graduate means, apart from the psychological impact, a loss of the investment up to this point.

I do not think that the principal could think that all these students from across the university have the money and are playing Russian roulette.

It must be that he is so fixated on the plight of his institution that he has failed to look in the other mirror. A look in that other mirror would remind him that many of our young people face joblessness; extremely high and rising cost of tertiary education; stringent conditions, including finding acceptable guarantors for student loans; and little prospect of future employment without a sound tertiary education. Add to that the challenge to a talented youngster on our streets day after day with nothing to do.

Many of us of yesteryear faced difficult conditions, but they do not compare. I was before the period of free tertiary or secondary education. But it was possible for me to make a responsible decision to enter and live at the UWI, Mona, after one year working as a college-trained teacher. How was that possible? First, the fees, including the cost of living at Irvine Hall, were not terrifying.

Second, I was able to work in another department of government during the summer holiday and put aside the approximately 160 pounds sterling - my three months' teacher's salary - towards my university fees.

Third, I was confident that I would teach at least three evenings per week to cover my out-of-pocket expenses. And, fourth, I was confident that opportunities for holiday work and evening teaching would be available for my three years. These opportunities were not only in the public sector. I actually landed a job as management trainee at the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce at the end of my second year. I worked for four months in the summer and one month at the Christmas break and was paid at the graduate level.

 

NO CONNECTION

 

I was not a special student, and as a St Elizabeth boy, I had no connection into the system. These were real possibilities available to any student. Add to those the high probability of employment on completion and we can see why ambitious students could venture. Professor McDonald and others had it even better than I did.

I have said all of that to say that we should be a little more chastened when we speak about the young, ambitious students of today.

We must be careful of our concerns about moral hazards. The overwhelming majority of us made good use of our opportunities and the overwhelming majority of these youths will, if given similar opportunities.

It might be the case that the Government cannot afford free tertiary education for all, but it should be a desirable objective, especially for that large segment that cannot afford it. It should be a responsibility of the private sector to help fund those who they look to help make their business profitable in the years to come. It should be the responsibility of all of us to recognise that being in an educational institution is a good alternative to being on the street or in a prison. The latter two are much more costly to us as a society.

BYRON BLAKE

Former Ambassador to CARICOM