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Do not shut the GATE on the deserving

Monday, November 30, 2015

The reduced national revenue has intensified calls for the revision of the GATE (Government Assistance for Tuition Expenses) program. Presently it provides funding for 100% of and 50% of the tuition fees for approved undergraduate and post-graduate programmes respectively. Various opinions have emanated from many parties. 

These include retaining the programme as is, allowing only the deserving to access it, sharing the cost like in the former “Dollar for Dollar” program and a scholarship programme like HELP (Higher Education Loan Program). In light of the present economic situation, some action must be taken but it should be done only after careful deliberations. 

Trinidad and Tobago has exceeded its stated target of achieving a 65% penetration in tertiary education. This in itself should be reason enough to pause and to review the tertiary education policy, not in isolation but with regard to the manpower requirements to drive the economic development of the nation. 

There are of course more granular issues like the quality, relevance and impact of the education itself. It would also worthwhile to examine the issues of social attitude and response to free education from “nursery to tertiary”.

One may be very uncharitable and postulate that the entire education system has become a holding system for children and adults as there are no real penalties for just drifting along the educational stream. This view would lend itself naturally to calls for a return to a system in which only the motivated and “bright” qualified have access to tertiary education. To put it explicitly; an elitist one, like in the past where generally, the “bright” ones obtained A Levels (CAPE now) went to university. 

That however, represents a view at one end of the spectrum. At the other end of the spectrum are those who are also bright and motivated but face very real and difficult social and economic/financial hurdles that either delay or prevent them from achieving their potential. They represent a significant cohort. The opening of access for them was and is necessary and must be continued. Unfortunately in between these two are those who are along for the “free ride”. They miss lectures, do not do assignments, miss exams and couldn’t care a hoot about their academic performance.

They also constitute a significant cohort and are the ones who need to be critically examined in any revision of GATE. There tens of millions worldwide, who desperately seek a chance to obtain an education. Here, it would seem that the population has been spoilt with freeness. It must come to an end.  The tertiary education policy must be based on performance driven funding. 

Central to good performance is attendance to lectures. Both UWI and UTT are in-residence universities. In fact, both their regulations and that of GATE stipulate a 75%/80% attendance. It would appear that this rule observed more in the breach than in the norm. Maybe, serious thought should be given to focusing on on-line education. 

This could certainly reduce the need for expensive physical infrastructure.

Clearly, now is the time to have a relook and revision of the country’s entire education system. Increasing access can only make sense if students are genuinely motivated to educate themselves. At the tertiary level, the first step in revising the GATE program is to raise the achievement bar. Any failure should result in decreased funding and a more than a stipulated maximum must result in suspension of funding.

The latter may then be eligible to apply for a student loan, repayable, in full, over a defined period upon graduation. Those who have accessed the GATE program and graduated should also be required to pay back a percentage of their earnings for a specified period to help sustain the program for future generations.

Non graduation should result in full repayment. University education should be accessible to all citizens who are who are qualified and desirous of so doing. The funding of this however, must be prescribed by adherence to acceptable academic performance.


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