Jamaica is by far my second favourite island in the Caribbean. More than two decades ago when I first visited the country there were four things that stood out for me: its natural beauty, its culture, how much the people reminded me of T&T nationals and how much potential the country had to be a powerhouse economically; if only it was prepared to take the right decisions.
Since then PJ Patterson won his third term in office and retired, Jamaica had its first female Prime Minister, Bruce Golding came out of the wilderness and became Prime Minister, only to be felled by the Dudus Coke imbroglio, Sister P came back to power and now Andrew Holness is into his second term, having won by a landslide.
Holness victory came on the back of infighting among the comrades in the People’s National Party but more importantly the labourites had benefited from one of the best performing economies in the Caribbean.
Jamaicans had finally stayed the course so that they may one day eat turkey instead of eating John Crow (corbeaux).
You see there is a Jamaican saying that goes like this; “If you can’t get turkey then you have to satisfy with John Crow.”
It is a suggestion that you have to settle for second best if you are unable to achieve your goals or if you cant get what you want you have to settle for that which looks closest to it.
When the government announced that it was making further cuts to the GATE programme and was ending its support for post-graduate studies across the board, because of financial constraints, I was flummoxed since this is the same administration that this year increased spending on the make-work programme, CEPEP.
The Minister of Education Dr Nyan Gadsby-Dolly announced that the government had also cut by 75 per cent the number of national scholarships as it tries to save money.
You see this government clearly does not see education as an investment in the future of the country. For sure there was a need to reform the GATE programme, to ensure it aligned with the nation’s needs,to support STEM and Data Science and limit the preponderance of humanities. Notice I said limit and not eliminate.
If the government saw education as an investment then it would see as a priority the building of a knowledge-based society and the development of the country’s human capital.
Already we have seen that enrolment in tertiary institutions is down arising from the last change to GATE. This is not some figment of the imagination of those who don’t support the government’s narrative, that people are gaming the system or can afford to pay to go to school or are using it to get degrees for getting a degree sake. Yes some of that exist but the UWI has seen an almost 25 per cent fall in enrolment. That means fewer people will be able to critically contribute to T&T’s development at a time when a knowledge-based society is so important.
What could be government’s strategic objective to reduce the number of people enrolling and attaining tertiary and post graduate degrees? What could be the benefit of the measure to save $100million annually in a $50 billion budget? A saving of 0.05 percent of the national budget? Is it that we must be prepared as a country to settle into the future to eat John Crow?
I know there are supporters of the government who would also say that there were many who did post-graduate work without government support, that there are scholarships etc, that there is a need to break the dependency syndrome that exist even in GATE because having gotten an undergrad degree you should work and pay your way.
To those I say perhaps you should consider the average earnings for people entering the workforce with a first degree and the cost of those post graduate programme and tie that back to the cost of living and work out the possibility of young professionals paying for post graduate degrees.
I also invite them to consider what it will take to do a full-time PHD programme as opposed to part time and the difference in the timeframe.
I also say to those who support this measure that when the Agriculture Minister Clarence Rambharath and I were growing up in Enid Village, Rio Claro, for a time we did not have paved roads, but we still went to school and studied, the roads were eventually paved and no one wants to return to those days. Some things represent progress, plain and simple.
Economics are about choices, all governments have choices, but when your government chooses make-work programmes over education, as the Prime Minister is fond of saying, them is people to watch.
This is the classic case of penny smart and pound foolish. But we ought not be surprised because we have seen this play out in the last Rowley administration when a decision was taken to ground the Air Guard helicopter fleet because it was too expensive to maintain, in the process the government decimated the Air Guard as the pilots left to maintain their license requirement and the already porous borders, remained even more open. They then complained that illegal immigration was responsible for the second COVID-19 spike and the lock down that has all but crippled businesses was again brought into effect. We now see in the budget plans to buy another helicopter for the Air Guard to patrol the entire country, again the government wants us to settle for John Crow.
We must have a strategy for the country, for our strategic objectives and in case the administration and importantly the rest of the country are not seeing it, there is structural change happening to the global economy that has only been hastened by the COVID-19 crisis.
On Monday, the country’s largest natural gas producer BPTT started sending home employees. The company will cut 25 percent of its local workforce. That is 100 well paying jobs gone.
The retrenchment at BPTT may have meant little if it was simply a case of the company reacting to cyclically low prices. This is not the case. It is a response to a structural change at the company which has placed its bets that the future is in renewables and that natural gas is but a bridge into the future and not the future. In other words BPTT that produces half of the country’s natural gas is saying that the future is not in natural gas.
Imagine the state of this economy if oil and natural gas are not commodities of real value. BPTT is expecting this to be a reality in the next 30 years. For those like Dr Rowley who have fewer years ahead of them than behind them, thirty years may seem a long way off, but for those who are entering University, or those who are hoping to do post- graduate studies now and have had the rug pulled from under them, they will still be here in a world that may not see the value of oil and gas anymore. In other words there is unlikely to be any turkey for them to eat, only John Crow.
I have spend considerable time over the last six months and column space urging government and the country as a whole to see that these are dangerous times for T&T, to recognise that we have already lost more than a decade, perhaps two decades and we have to decide now what the future will look like if we do nothing and what we want the future to look like, and it is that gap which has to be closed by requisite policy. It also requires constant monitoring and feedback.
We have seen Proman announcing that it is constructing the largest green methanol plant in the world in Europe. Proman which has so much invested in this country and yet the National Energy, which is responsible for attracting heavy industrial projects and has an entire department dedicated to it, could not bring such a project home.
Before cutting GATE the government should tell us what has been the cost of loss making TTT to the treasury, what is the cost of the myriad of state enterprises that it continues to support, that are not critical to the development of the country.
I wonder what would the father of the nation Dr Eric Williams think of this PNM government which sees cutting education as a priority over make work programmes.
Surely the population and future generations deserve better than John Crow.