As she settles into her new job as principal of The University of the West Indies, St Augustine, Professor Rose-Marie Belle Antoine has set herself the goal of ensuring access to tertiary education to all. In an interview with the T&T Guardian earlier this week, she expressed concern about the desire to close the higher education gap between the rich and poor.
This is a laudable ambition but one that is not easily achieved because Professor Belle Antoine has taken up the post at a time when the university is faced with funding challenges due to the reduced subvention of $517.1 million it has been getting from the Government.
For the approximately 16,000 students enrolled at the St Augustine campus, Government was spending $500 million and $200 million in Government Assistance for Tuition Expenses Programme (GATE) funding. That has now been cut by ten per cent.
To further complicate things, even as it struggles with that deficit, the institution is not being allowed to increase its tuition fees, which have remained the same for more than two decades. And it certainly does not help that there has been a decline in student enrolment because of changes made to the GATE.
For many years, GATE achieved the objective of making tertiary education affordable to all, covering 100 per cent of tuition fees for citizens enrolled at UWI, University of T&T (UTT), COSTAATT and several approved private institutions.
The programme did have an impact on the education landscape, as tertiary level enrolment increased significantly, from just seven per cent before its introduction to 42 per cent in 2010, then getting as high as 65 per cent.
At its peak, annual funding for the programme was as much as $800 million before it was cut down by half, to $400 million, due to the country’s tough economic circumstances.
Before GATE, there was Dollar for Dollar (DFD), an initiative introduced in 2001 which provided 50-percent funding. But that programme did not have the impact of GATE, which not only brought about an increase in the number of students receiving government funding for higher education, but also the number of institutions offering tertiary level programmes.
More than 225,000 students accessed GATE over the years, but fewer are now benefiting from it since the level of funding was reduced in 2020. GATE is available now for no more than one programme up to the undergraduate level and applications are subject to a mandatory means test.
But that is just one of the hurdles to be overcome in the quest to make tertiary education more accessible. There is also the concern that the goals of GATE were not aligned with the needs of the local labour market and that it does not provide safeguards against the brain drain which has been a longstanding challenge in this country.
Still, this country’s future prosperity depends on having an educated and skilled workforce and with the current GATE configuration, that objective looks slightly out of reach.
Professor Belle Antoine is right. The poor should not suffer the disadvantage of not being able to access higher learning.
Ways must therefore be found to finance tertiary education in a meaningful and inclusive way. One way of doing that is by adjusting GATE to support T&T’s sustainable development goals and close the educational gap.