Tertiary education is enormously expensive to fund.  While some fortunate older universities in the Western world might receive endowments from wealthy alumni from time to time, or in the case of the UK, might own property which allows them to earn a bit of extra income, the vast bulk of funding for tertiary institutions derives from tuition fees and state subventions.

The cost of maintaining universities has risen everywhere over the years, and in places like the UK, for example, the matter of tuition fees and the accompanying student loans are highly contentious issues.  It is generally thought that Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn’s promise to abolish tuition fees during the 2017 UK general election campaign, for example, played a major role in his party’s good showing in that poll. And now Prime Minister Theresa May, her mind finally disengaged from Brexit, is suggesting that her successor should reduce university fees.

The University of Guyana is in no better a position than its more generously endowed counterparts elsewhere – in fact, it is in a far worse one.  Like them, it needs to pay staff well in order to attract the kind of talent which would help secure its reputation; it needs to maintain infrastructure and provide specialised research installations such as laboratories together with technological facilities of an international standard; and it needs to ensure that the library and other services are of a sufficient calibre to support the fields in which the university offers courses, among other things.

UG has many problems of a variegated nature which need to be addressed, but its single largest challenge is that of finance. Without money, it simply cannot function at the level a university needs to. Over the years, reams have been written about its deteriorating infrastructure, the lack of seating for students, the appalling sanitary facilities, the absence of acceptable laboratories, the want of the latest academic reading material in the library, and the herds of cows, which at one time mistook the campus grounds for a pasture, to name a few. Periodically, when money was temporarily available, something would be put right, but in an overall sense, the university, for many years, did not have the kind of funding which would allow it to engage in sustained maintenance.

More recently, a modern Student Social Complex has been constructed and the George Walcott Lecture Theatre and the Small Lecture Theatre air-conditioned, according to UG’s public relations office. There are now new bathrooms in the large lecture theatre, as well as new PA systems in the lecture halls and fans in the classrooms, to list a few improvements. This does not mean, however, that the university has suddenly become the beneficiary of some kind of mammoth donation, since it still cannot pay its academic staff anything close to competitive rates. Yet, as said earlier, without quality teaching, an important element in building an institution’s reputation, a university will never rise above the mediocre – or worse. That said, even in UG’s darkest days, there have always been departments which have boasted lecturers of some standing.

As indicated earlier too, there are effectively only two ways at the present time for the university to get more money – the state and tuition fees.  Where the first of these is concerned, the government did increase its subvention two years ago by something close to 20%, but this was still 35% lower than what UG had requested. The institution’s management then turned to the matter of tuition and administrative fees, the former of which were increased for three academic years starting in 2017/2018 with 15% for continuing students and 18% for new students, and 10% for each of the subsequent years. Administrative rates covering a wide range of services were also not spared, attracting substantial increases in some instances, and instituting payments in others which had formerly been free. Unsurprisingly, these were met with opposition from the student body which said it had not been consulted.

The problem is, of course, that this is a low-wage economy and a large number of students do not come from the kind of affluent circumstances which makes the fees required easy to find. If they cannot afford them, their only recourse is to the loan system, which, while facilitating their education, also burdens them with a large debt to pay off after they leave. The students said that before tuition fees were raised, the university should improve standards and facilities.

While this appears a reasonable demand, as it is, fees represent only a small proportion of what it costs to put an undergraduate through university, and so a kind of Catch-22 situation is created. Most of the shortfall in UG’s budget consequently, would have to be made good by the government, which up to now has not regarded the institution as a priority in terms of its financial attention. Perhaps there were a few raised eyebrows, therefore, when last week Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo said, “President David Granger and I are looking at the possibility of abolishing fees at the University of Guyana in our second term in office.”

Whether they will return for a second term is not something which anyone knows at the moment, but one must assume that they are working out the arithmetic of following this course of action should they indeed find themselves in government again. Mr Nagamootoo went on to say that education plays a pivotal role in shaping a country’s future, both economically and socially, and we reported him as giving the assurance that government was working to bridge the gaps wherever they may exist.

The issue, of course, is not whether it is desirable to abolish fees, or whether education has a pivotal role, but whether financially speaking it is possible to go the fee elimination route without reducing academic and physical standards even further at the institution.  Will it be the case that they intend just to make good the deficit after fees are swept away, but do not intend to substantially increase the overall budget at UG to allow it to function more as it should? Or is this another example of the wishful thinking syndrome, i.e. that the oil bonanza will take care of the fees? Even presuming that our world will be transformed by oil, the benefits will not be felt straightaway.

In the end, whichever party is in government will have to decide whether or not it wants a university of at least the standing of UWI, and if it does, whether they can afford it. A university cannot be done on the cheap.

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