Author: Errol Miller
Most times we condemn partisan competition as divisive and negative because it is usually about looking after the party faithful without due consideration to fairness, ethics and the national good. Over the last several months there has been a rivalry between the Government and the Opposition concerning which is more committed to education and who came up with various ideas first. This rivalry reached a peak in the current Budget Debate. Last week the Leader of the Opposition made education the centrepiece of his presentation. This week the Prime Minister has responded in kind. Both presentations deserve careful study become passing judgment. Hence I will not attempt any analysis or comment on their content today. The pleasing aspect is the attention being paid to education. Certainly, this is nice and healthy partisan competition. The focus is on the nation’s survival.
What this apparently signals is that both Government and Opposition have finally come to the view that education requires more than ‘ceremonial platitude’ and deserves real cash to be devoted to it. Starting with 1977, when we had the crawling peg devaluation, the constant refrain that educators heard was that the service sectors had to hold strain while the productive sector was given resources that would generate economic recovery. But every time there seems to have been some small recovery there has been an even greater relapse and more demand on the public purse. This most recent is the megabucks bailout of the financial sector.
The positive side of this emerging national consensus on education is that the folly of neglecting this critical area of national development has finally been recognized. What has irritated me in the past has been that almost every taxation measure in the last 20 years has been justified on the basis that Government will be able to spend more on education. Yet, when one looks at the results, educational expenditure has declined in real terms. In 1974 we were spending nearly US$600 per child in high school. Currently, we are spending US$189. It is little wonder that only Guyana performs worse than us in the CXC examinations.
During the period of structural adjustment, education has not only stagnated it has retrogressed. The long-term means of taking us out of the crisis has been cut back. Hence after 20 years, the problem is even more entrenched. It would appear that the penny-wise and pound-foolish aspect of this approach has finally come home to those to whom we have entrusted the Government, better late than never.
As an educator, I am more than pleased with this turn of events. I am sure that most educators in the country share my sentiments. However, there are two worrying considerations.
First, we are in an election year. Clearly, education is going to be highlighted in the manifestos of all political parties. This nice partisan competition could be as much about winning votes as it is about advancing education. Votes, and not education, could be the bottom line.
Second, we are in the midst of a financial crisis with the bail-out of the financial and other sectors. The taxpayers will have to pay for this, after the elections, of course. Without a doubt, the axe is going to fall in the form of cutbacks in various areas of Government expenditure. Education is the largest area of Government expenditure apart from debt repayment. The strong possibility exists that future cuts in education could be one of the sources of paying for the bail-out. Education has suffered in the past when similar crunches have occurred.
In the debate on education that will surely follow the presentations of both the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition, one of the questions that all political parties need to be asked and answer is, should they be elected or re-elected, how will the next Government deal with the financing of the bail-out and the financing of education? Probably, partisan competition for our votes could extract a commitment to education that would really be nice.
April 23, 1997