THAT education and training have yet again received the lion’s share of the budget is consistent with the Government’s approach to spending over the last four budgets.
One can hardly find fault with education as a priority.
However, the $6.8 billion allocation can also be seen as a tacit acknowledgement of the ongoing crisis within the education sector.
That crisis, birthed by the pandemic, has been aggravated by disparities in wealth, discontent and fatigue among teachers, anti-vaxxer sentiment among parents, infrastructural issues relating to technology and access, and archaic means of student assessment.
The simple fact remains that students learn better in classrooms. But another simple fact is the unfortunate and quite possibly avoidable situation in which crucial stakeholders have been ambivalent – if not hostile – towards the kinds of mandatory measures that would allow a wholesale return to physical classrooms.
Little wonder Finance Minister Colm Imbert made what could well turn out to be a watershed declaration for our country’s education system.
“Online education is here to stay,” the minister said.
His budget’s emphasis on digital transformation can perhaps be understood within this context, although there is a lot of room for Mr Imbert and the Government to spell out their plans in clear and coherent ways.
The minister also commended teachers and announced he had instructed the Chief Personnel Officer to start outstanding wage negotiations in 2022 with the relevant trade unions in the public service. The timeline for these negotiations has not been clearly set, but there could be implications for the education allocation in years, if not months, to come.
It is ironic that for one of the longest budget presentations in recent memory – delivered, too, while pandemic restrictions cut numbers within the Parliament chamber – key details were not spelled out.
One commentator on the Parliament broadcaster’s social media page remarked, “We know all of that, please stop the self-praise and get on with the budget!” Perhaps the Government, like students, is learning as it goes along.
Mr Imbert certainly had much ground to cover, including what further measures the Government might put in place to shift how education works given the perception that children are daily slipping through the cracks. Such insights might be difficult to glean in a short-term fiscal policy presentation, but the budget debate must furnish more concrete details.
The removal of VAT on all remaining computer hardware, software and peripherals, as well as on equipment used by the disabled, could have an impact in terms of accessibility within education, beyond laptops.
Many will have come away relieved that the dreaded “pain” which had been anticipated in this budget did not materialise.
But the unclear timelines in the presentation suggest coming to grips with this budget will be like a process of “hybrid” learning: some things read, something subsequently heard.