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Columns : The New Bahamian - Joseph Gaskins Last Updated: Feb 13, 2017 - 1:45:37 AM

Silencing the Lambs: Tuition Hikes, Cannibalism and The Power of Student Movements
By Joseph Gaskins
Apr 24, 2015 - 8:40:05 AM

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The College of the Bahamas’ (COB) Council may as well put the fava beans on to cook and pop a bottle of Chianti because it just leveled a grievous blow to the prospects of many young Bahamians.

If you haven’t heard, without the consultation of students, faculty or staff the council voted to increase tuition fees by 50% per credit for lower level courses and 30% for upper level courses. This represents an increase from $300 to $450 for 100/200 level courses and from $450 to $600 for 300 level courses and above.

Let’s put this tuition hike in its proper context. Last week, owner of the “Everlasting Gobstopper” of construction projects, Sarkis Izmirlian, suggested that the country’s education system was failing to produce qualified graduates. Khaalis Rolle, minister of state for foreign investments, seemed to agree, saying that the government couldn’t “opt out” of reforming this sector and that it had to move faster to enact this reform. Mr. Rolle suggested that this kind of reform could not be accomplished by the government alone but had to involve the input and commitment of the entire community. The college council, however, does not need that input.

That same week, the Tribune revealed that 50% of Bahamians seeking to register with the government’s job exchange program lacked basic language and math skills. Just a day before that the Tribune also reported that only “1% of the 19,000 public sector workers fall into the highly skilled/technical category.” This makes Winston Rolle’s assertion that, “Skills shortages among high school leavers have resulted in the Bahamas having ‘a pretty old workforce’ with an average age of 40,” all the more troubling. The Bahamas has literally become no country for young men.

Now, let’s take last weeks events and frame them with the overarching socio-economic trends we are experiencing in the Bahamas.

If you have been paying any attention at all to the economic inequality in this country you have probably realized that it is growing. The Gini Coefficient measures income inequality on a scale from 0 to 1, with 1 being the highest level of inequality. When Alison Lowe wrote her piece on growing inequality in the Bahamas in 2013 the Gini Coefficient was at 0.58. According to the United Nations Human Development Reports, the Gini Coefficient has risen to 0.789. Couple that with the research on crime which tells us that narrowing economic opportunity is driving the steady increase in criminality, while 68% of the inmates at Fox Hill Prison have between a 10th and 12th grade education only. This suggests that the opportunity to attain tertiary education may actually be a crime deterrent.

We live in a country where a shortage of skills has created a large subset of the citizenry that businesses claim are ineligible for employment, and we’re talking about mostly youth. The civil service has done its part to absorb some of these people but because of this skills deficit businesses are left to hire those who are older. Now with more expensive tertiary education combined with growing economic inequality, those who could possibly attain the skills to fill that deficit may no longer be able to afford it. And, with growing inequality and narrowing access to education driving young people toward a life of crime, we can expect this tuition hike to exacerbate young Bahamians’ struggle for a better life. What we’re experiencing is filicide on a national scale.

However, it’s even more obscene than that. Make no mistake about it—COB needs money. The total operating expenses for COB in 2014 was around $44.1 million while total revenues were only $42.1 million, leaving a $2 million dollar deficit. This is partially the effect of reductions in government subventions in 2013—the result of budget cuts because of increasing government debt. In fact, COB was asked to cut some $6.25 million from its budget over two years “without any reduction in quality and level of services to the public.” If the pictures of hand soap in large Wendy’s cups floating around on social media is any indication that has been difficult for the college to do.

As Dr. Nicolette Bethel has argued, given the history of tuition increases at COB, for a long time students have benefitted from the low cost of education, while the college expanded its resources and services. This new increase may bring tuition in line with the cost of operating COB but there is a fundamental question about how we as a society value an investment in the education our people.

The thing about investing in education is that like all investments you spend now to add value in the future. And since we’re talking about investment, only 11% of the Bahamian government’s budget for education goes to tertiary education. Compared to Jamaica’s 20%, Trinidad and Tobago’s 22% and Barbados’ 40%, government spending is lagging. COB, its faculty and students, add value to the Bahamian economy and that our government spends more per inmate in Fox Hill Prison than it does per student at COB should give us pause.

The truth is that the college has recognized for sometime that it needed to diversify its streams of revenue. Even before that there have been discussions about how inefficiencies at the college are creating substantial costs. How does an institution with a program focused on sustainability not take serious action to curtail its approximately $10,000 a day electricity costs?

Yet, none of these things are the fault of the students who will be enrolling this fall or the students who’ve come before them. What we are witnessing is the shifting of the cost of a lack of vision, innovation and decisive action by administration and political elites on our young people. The hopes and dreams of young Bahamians have become fodder for an unsustainable system—we are cannibalizing our young to maintain the status quo.

Can Bahamian youth do anything to resist the mounting pressures that threaten their future and that of the country?

When the government of the United Kingdom proposed increases to tuition across the country in 2010, almost 50,000 students and their allies, including university faculty and staff and labor unions, marched on Central London. They occupied university buildings, administration offices and political headquarters. Unfortunately because of the action of some protestors the movement was tarnished and the cuts were approved anyway.

If this discourages angry COB students they shouldn’t let it. I was a part of those protests and I can tell you that the student movement in the UK laid a foundation of solidarity and political awareness that shifted the composition of student unions throughout the country and feed the anti-austerity protests that came after it.

Student movements have historically led to massive social and political changes. Though culminating in violence, the strike and occupations of French students in May of 1968 represented a turning point in French history. In November of 1973 students at Athens Polytechnic went on strike and the events that followed put an end to unpopular policies of the government of the time and eventually led to a new democratic government. Columbia, Chile and Amsterdam are all modern day examples of student movements that are alive and powerful.

But this is not just a student issue; it is an issue of national importance. If it is the job of labor unions to protect workers then how will unions respond to policies that make it more difficult for laborers to equip themselves in a competitive job market? Nationalists and unionist alike cannot complain about an influx of foreign works while ignoring an increase in the cost of local tertiary education. Failing to see a connection between the two is a failure of purpose.

In the end, COB students must realize that it is their tuition that keeps the lights on, the water running and even provides the room in which the college council meets. This alone gives them more power than they can imagine. Moreover, a college is not just a grouping of academic building; it’s not just a campus. The college is a community built for their advancement and benefit. If there were ever a time to remind those who govern the college of these truths it would be now.

Joey Gaskins is a graduate of Ithaca College, Ithaca, NY with a BA in Politics. He was born in Grand Bahama Island, studied at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) where he attained his MSc in Race, Ethnicity and Post-Colonial Studies and begun a Doctoral Degree in Sociology.  Joey  lives in Nassau and is a former part-time lecturer at College of the Bahamas, restaurant owner and a principal at the communications and policy consulting firm, The Consortium Group (www.tcgbahamas.com).  You can reach him at  joseph@tcgbahamas.com



Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author in his/her private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of TheBahamasWeekly.com



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