A special Cabinet meeting will be held Wednesday to review the controversial task force report on the Government Assistance for Tuition Expenses Programme (Gate) and decide on the future Gate format, Education Minister Anthony Garcia has confirmed.
Garcia spoke yesterday following hint of the meeting by OPM spokesman Stuart Young at last week's post-Cabinet media briefing.
The meeting is being held a day before Prime Minister Keith Rowley proceeds on vacation.
As a result of his departure date, Rowley will not be present for the weekly Cabinet meeting on Thursday. However, he'll be present for the special August 3 Cabinet meeting to consider the Gate report.
Following Young's announcement last week, sources said Wednesday's meeting will likely have to take a decision on the Gate system at this time since schools and the university's vacation will end shortly and a decision will have to be in hand in time for students accessing tertiary education particularly, to be able to make their arrangements.
Gate was introduced by the Patrick Manning government in 2004. Over 190,000 people have benefitted from it so far at a cost of $5.5 billion. Some $650m was allocated for 2016 Gate.
Government made it clear in the 2016 Budget that "a revised Gate programme will be announced in time for the start of the new school term with the aim of conserving expenditure and to ensure better alignment with the country's development means." Government stated it was forced to evaluate the programme and hinted funding would be granted on a needs basis.
In March, Government appointed a 16-member task force headed by management consultant Errol Simms to review Gate including tuition expenditure. The task force was mandated to report in July. Two weeks ago the completed report was leaked after being presented to Cabinet three days earlier. It was revealed the task force had recommended that University of the West Indies (UWI) students–now benefitting from the free Gate tertiary education system–could have to pay a third of their fees from this term while postgraduate students may have to pay their full fees.
The report also recommended that if tertiary institutions are not accredited by the Accreditation Council of T&T, by next year, funding will halt. UWI students have spoken against cuts in the programme and funding aspects.
Garcia subsequently sought to allay fears indicating that the task force recommendations were not final and still had to be considered by Cabinet.
Asked yesterday about Wednesday's special Cabinet session, Garcia said the meeting will be to obtain a government position on Gate since so far "all that has been said are mere recommendations from the task force."
"All Cabinet members have been studying the recommendations and everyone will be giving input at the meeting and we're hoping to get consensus on the way forward," Garcia said.
Last week, Government sources had indicated there is a "lot of waste and mismanagement" in Gate. They pointed to "people doing four and five degrees when Gate was never intended for that." They also said schools which are not accredited are in the programme.
Those sources projected that cleaning up of the "waste and mismanagement" will get going soon, likely this year.
But prior to Wednesday's special deliberations on the report, they were unable to say if the report's payment recommendation would be accepted by Cabinet for this year, or if for instance, students would have to pay more for tuition from next year, rather than this year. Or if an alternative to affecting tuition costs would be worked out.
Yesterday former Planning minister, now Opposition MP Bhoe Tewarie–former UWI principal–who spoke ahead of Wednesday's meeting agreed "there's room for addressing the quality" assurance aspect of Gate. But he didn't agree there was justification for an increase in tuition cost.
He said Government has to be concerned about sustainable funding for the target they set for tertiary education achievements "and that target can only be set in the role they see higher education play in development."
"It's a known fact the government alone cannot sustain the funding required for an expansion of tertiary education. So on the basis of the targets set, they must indicate what government is prepared to fund–how much–and work with key stakeholders to determine alternative sources of funding that would ensure merit is applied in the system and ensure no one who qualified for admission and who doesn't have the money will be denied education."
Asked if Gate in its present form was financially feasible. Tewarie agreed there are things that need to be changed.
"There's room for addressing matters like duplication and for ensuring the education funded by the state is quality education. Duplication/waste arises when people do multiple degrees–human resources as well as management at the same level–and government pays for all this."
"We (PP) started tightening Gate and setting up committees to review it. The 2015 expenditure was significantly less than 2014's, because there's room to manage Gate more effectively and to avoid duplication and wastage. Between 2004 and 2011, it was much worse than what it was in 2012 and onwards."