DR GABRIELLE JAMELA HOSEIN
IN RECENTLY announced changes to the GATE programme, undergraduate degrees will remain subsidised to an extent determined by a means test. Post-graduate degrees have been substantially defunded for future students.
Regarding reduction of tertiary education subsidies, and the increased availability of loans, the effects are well-documented in the US, which made this switch in the 1980s and has since witnessed skyrocketing student debt and family indebtedness; resilient labour market inequality by class, race and gender; and exacerbated economic slowdown.
In her prescient book, Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism, Melinda Cooper describes student debt as a “lucrative interest-bearing asset in global securities markets.” It works for both governments and banks. The first can still assert that tertiary education is accessible to all despite shifting from free access to university, whether rich and poor. The second can profit from state policy to replace or supplement public funding with private deficit spending.
As Cooper puts it, “Instead of the government going into deficit to spend on public services…the individual consumer would go into debt to purchase these same services.” Fiscal austerity and credit abundance are being presented hand in hand, and as the national economy continues to contract, this is a policy direction that we can anticipate.
It will be interesting to see if tertiary education loans increase. One could argue that families are responsible for their children’s education, but one could just as well argue that decades of corruption and mismanagement have wasted billions of dollars that should have been available for investment in education as a public good and economic stimulus strategy (though, for us in the Caribbean, this is undermined by emigration and “brain drain”).
Some families will be able to afford their children’s tertiary education, and even post-graduate degrees. Low- to middle-income students will likely hit a qualification barrier if they cannot afford (rising) tuition and other costs. In reality, most students cannot qualify for a loan on their own so that student debt becomes a familial and intergenerational obligation.
Additionally, Cooper notes, “a student with no assets or savings is more likely to have to defer, refinance, or default on a loan, accumulating a much longer temporal burden of interest payments than the student who can pay on schedule.” Alternatively, for TT, where for decades women have graduated from university in higher numbers and yet on average earn lower incomes, loan repayments could be a higher portion of monthly wages, acting as a form of regressive taxation.
Cooper describes this as a way that “private credit markets…perform democratic inclusion without disturbing the economic structures of private family wealth.” Simply put, in repaying loans, with interest, poor families will spend more on education than wealthier ones who have less need for additional funds and greater capacity to repay.
The government analysis that led to the recent GATE reforms isn’t clear. Is the expectation that students will turn to vocational training, the labour market, or other options? This makes me wonder whether the Government forecasted the effects of the recent GATE reform, and has a macro plan in relation to those effects.
That macro plan should differentiate the student population affected by class, age and gender. For example, at UWI, 63 per cent of students are women, 37 per cent are men. This means that GATE has been an irreplaceable source of public investment in women, who are the main sex seeking both undergraduate and post-graduate qualifications (except in engineering), principally to improve their chances in the economy.
The majority of UWI students are also 18-24, and young women in this age group have the highest rates of unemployment, possibly because they are deferring employment for education in order to improve their chances beyond low-waged retail, service and clerical jobs where women remain clustered. Since 2015, enrolment has been dropping in all faculties except for law and science and technology, suggesting the economic downturn has already been making an impact. So, it’s a perfect storm out there for students – increased unemployment and decreased access to higher education. What choices do we expect them to make?
This is an example of how austerity measures have feminised impacts, and so too may be education-related increases in private-debt. At the same time, public-debt financed vanity projects, such as the port in Toco, and other construction stimulus plans, will disproportionately benefit men as they comprise 80 per cent of that sector. I’ve been calling for gender responsive budgeting, which makes visible such inequitable costs and benefits of gender-blind fiscal policy, for precisely this reason.
Diary of a mothering worker