It was not all that long ago that this country was experiencing an explosion in enrolments in tertiary-level programmes, a direct result of the Government Assistance for Tuition (GATE) Programme which provided assistance to citizens for undergraduate and postgraduate programmes at recognised local and regional institutions.
There was a direct impact on student numbers at the St Augustine Campus of The University of the West Indies (UWI), which increased by 134 per cent in the academic years from 2000/01 to 2014/15.
The number of graduates from the campus more than doubled during that period, increasing from 1,637 to 3,870.
These were measurable results from a policy to make higher education more accessible and affordable in the quest for a larger pool of qualified citizens capable of supporting the country’s development and economic agenda.
GATE, introduced in 2004 during the tenure of the late Patrick Manning, resulted from the former prime minister’s vision to make tertiary education available to thousands who would not have been able to afford it.
With the implementation of the programme and subsequent creation of the University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT), T&T was well on the way to being on par with developed nations in terms of the level of participation in tertiary-level education.
This was in alignment with the goal of developing a highly skilled workforce, part of the Manning administration’s Vision 2020 agenda for T&T to achieve developed country status.
Although circumstances have changed over the years, it is even more important now for higher education to remain a national priority.
A World Bank study done years ago found tertiary education to be essential for fostering growth, reducing poverty and boosting the prosperity of a nation. Those findings should underscore the importance of maintaining and expanding programmes for the development of a well-educated population.
The significant social and economic benefits of having citizens who are more employable and productive should be sufficient motivation to take another look at GATE and any other programmes that increase access to degree and diploma programmes.
There should be concern about the situation at UWI, St Augustine, where enrolment is dwindling and there is a struggle to regain financial viability.
The challenges facing the campus are to a large extent due to the scaling back of GATE in 2020, when the country was facing strained economic circumstances.
UWI Principal Professor Rose-Marie Belle Antoine, in her address at a Campus Council Meeting, gave some insight into the negative repercussions of scaling back GATE and how the effects of a decision made when T&T was in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, continue to be felt at tertiary-level institutions.
If figures shared by Finance Minister Colm Imbert are anything to go by, the country’s economic situation has improved.
While it might not be prudent to return to the GATE arrangement existing before 2020, there are sufficient grounds now for a review.
T&T needs to do much more to increase the number of highly skilled workers within this population.
In a world increasingly driven by competitiveness and innovation, focus must be fixed on increasing access to tertiary training; T&T can’t afford to be heading in the opposite direction.
It is time, therefore, to take another look at GATE.