The return of education and training to the top of the allocations in the annual budget table is a welcomed indication of the prioritisation of this area of spending. It is also a tacit acknowledgement that government expenditure is best suited to areas where it can make a meaningful contribution to the long-term social and economic well-being of the nation. Education is important if we are to boost productivity and empower citizens to make a meaningful difference.
For the first time under the Dr Keith Rowley administration, the education allocation ($7.3 billion) exceeds the national security allocation ($6.2 billion). While overall spending is down, the education allocation is up marginally from last year’s ($7.2 billion). The shift comes amid acknowledgement by many in society that record levels of spending on national security have not yielded results at a fast enough pace.
In 2016, the allocation for national security was a massive $10.8 billion. The figure was said to be due to payments of billions of dollars for military vessels, taken on credit, and for full backpay for the protective services. By 2017, the allocation was $7.6 billion.
The last time education was at the head of the class was in 2015 under the Kamla Persad-Bissessar administration, when it was allocated $10.1 billion. Spending on education was consistently the top area of spending by Persad-Bissessar’s finance ministers. In the last budget presented by Patrick Manning when he held the finance portfolio, education was also the top area of spending — reflecting the fact that the prioritisation of our nation’s schools has been regarded across party lines as axiomatic.
And this is for good cause. Education allows individuals to reach their fullest potential and gives them important tools needed not only for the world of work but also in the management of everyday situations. Without improvements in education, we will be unable to bolster productivity levels. Critical thought and the encouragement of learning are also key to the empathy needed in a diverse and vibrant society.
Now that education occupies pride of place, attention will turn to the degree of transparency and value for money. While the current administration has been criticised in some quarters for cuts to spending, inclusive of the Government Assistance for Tuition Expenses Programme (GATE), the previous administration has also faced questions over efficiency of expenditure on specific projects.
Many now question GATE’s sustainability given the dire signals that are being sent about overall expenditure. This is a matter the Government will have to clarify.
But as will any form of State expenditure, all eyes will be on how funds are being used. Of particular concern to citizens is the lack of a robust public procurement system to prevent wastage and sleaze. The latest indication by Government is that it is awaiting the Office of the President’s appointment of a procurement regulator as well as readiness by the public service. All of it, however, is taking far too long.
And while successive governments have spent billions on education, there are clearly areas within our schools that call for further improvement. Education is not only about new buildings and state-of-the-art equipment (though these are important), it is also about functional systems. Ultimately, the education system should be serving our youth by supporting and enabling them. Is it doing this as well as it can?
A simple example: notwithstanding assurances of the filling of vacancies, there are persistent complaints for posts such as counsellors, as well as teachers trained in managing students with dyslexia.
Unless action is taken to give schools all the tools they need to serve, giving the lion’s share to the sector will be pointless.