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Saturday, December 07, 2013
Trinidad & Tobago Guardian Online
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Education, education, education
I still owe the UK government £15,000. At the current rate of interest I hope to clear the debt by the time I’m 57 and approaching retirement.
I’ve been paying back my student loan for six years. When I graduated from university I had amassed £18,000. Not for tuition fees, for living costs, so I could eat, pay rent and use public transport. It still wasn’t enough.
I rented out two rooms in my house to pay the mortgage but even that subsidy wasn’t enough to live and study in London.
I worked part-time during term-time and full-time during every holiday.
On completing my education and getting a job, monthly payments began to be deducted from my salary alongside tax, national insurance and pension. There is no escape. Moving to T&T is not a permanent solution.
The truth is, philosophically, I don’t see it as a hardship, more a fact of life, an additional tax. Education tax.
What I got for my money was the three best years of my life and a first-class honours degree in anthropology from UCL (University College, London). The people I met, experiences I shared, professors I learned from, books I read, were all priceless.
But there’s no getting away from the fact that student debt can feel like a millstone around young people’s necks.
In 2011, the British coalition government allowed universities to raise tuition fees to £9,000 a year. Added to the £20,000 loans needed to survive, the average UK student will be leaving university with £50,000 of debt and fewer jobs available to begin paying it back.
UK university fees for overseas students are, frankly, astronomical. Which makes it all the more amazing that the T&T government grants scholarships for students to study abroad, paying all their fees, living costs, books and winter clothes.
The situation in Britain means only those with rich parents will be comfortable choosing an academic route into adult life. Those from lower economic rungs will find it daunting at best, unmanageable at worst. Black British children will almost certainly become increasingly deprived of education.
I suppose what impresses me most about education in T&T, leaving aside state patronage, is how much better children fare here compared to children of Caribbean origin in the UK.
In Britain, black children are at the bottom of the school achievement tables, below all other ethnic groups. I relayed this fact to a Trini, who was shocked to hear it, but in Britain it’s taken as a given that black schoolchildren do not achieve. The historical reasons are too complex to discuss here.
Asian children have historically done better. Traditional Asian parents are unmovable on the subject of working hard at school. The stereotype is that Asian parents want their children to become doctors. Indeed, a disproportional number of Asian men and women of my generation are now doctors. Their parents or grandparents migrated from the sub-continent, opened corner shops, worked long, monotonous hours saving money to invest in their children.
But amongst British Caribbeans, the importance of education is not a traditional family value.
With that backdrop, when I came to T&T I did not expect to find such high standards of intellectualism. This is one of the world’s most educated countries—a fact people back home will find it hard to get their heads around given our assumptions of Caribbean literacy, or rather illiteracy.
T&T has not lost the principles of education instilled during the colonial era. Rather it has developed those principles and added to them. A focus on Caribbean Studies means children learn their history, whereas British history is becoming lost to younger generations.
Parents retain and disseminate values here. I sense the respect and importance attached to being educated. The fastidiousness of detail in written and spoken language, the application of facts and theory. The prestige attached to schools, the pride people take in their alma mater, the love they have for their teachers. It’s very Goodbye, Mr Chips. Some schools begin at 7.25 am—that’s some level of dedication. People aren’t sticking when it comes to learning.
Above all, the fiscal, practical fact is: Education is completely free from the age of five until finishing university—you can even get a Masters funded. And scholarships are given to the brightest to study abroad.
It’s an increasingly rare thing. The list of countries with free education systems shortens all the time. It is not something to be taken lightly.
Education ought to be a right, not a privilege. But in the UK, ever since Tony Blair called for "education, education, education" in his Labour Party manifesto speech before the 1997 election then promptly introduced charging for universities, things have gone downhill.
The T&T government diverts so much of the money it gets from energy into funding education it makes Britain look quite backwards by comparison. Maybe if Britain had a smaller army, like here, it would stop spending so much on weapons and wars and more on the things that really matter.
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