A Short and Very Casual Essay To and On Behalf of COB Students

This article is a contribution to the discussion about COB’s new fees written by Dr. Carlton Watson, Assistant Professor in the School of Mathematics, Physics & Technology at the College of the Bahamas.

1. COB and the Art of Selective Progressivism

People are saying, “Well, the students should expect to pay more.” The question is why? I guess ’cause that’s the new thing now – more fees. It is interesting that folks would make this statement without seeing COB’s financials. Is COB making a profit or loss? Or are we just breaking even. Who knows?? Why won’t admin make the books available to the public? Quick story: in 2008/2009 I started inquiring about how lab fees were being spent for the School of Sciences and Technology. I was basically told, “Don’t worry about that, you’re getting your fair share.” After many many requests I finally saw the figures. Come to find out less than 20% of the collected lab fees were actually being spent on lab equipment. The take away from this is I love my institution, but most COB administrations have not had a good track record when it comes to funds appropriation (to be clear, I’m not accusing anyone of stealing but of just not being concerned about basic accounting).

I have too many stories about COB’s bookkeeping to ever trust anyone on blind faith… nor should I have to. If the college wants to raise fees, it should justify in very clear terms how those fees will be spent. It should also give full financial reporting to those who pay those fees. Where did those numbers come from? Are they based on the president’s dream book? To me it is funny that the college now wants to be all progressive and university-like about charging these very specific fees (’cause I guess that’s how they do it in the “states”), but when it comes to being progressive and university-like in its transparency, accountability and reporting to its stakeholders, it has no problem falling perpetually short (can’t get away with that in the “states”).

So until COB can get a grip on this thing call basic accounting and appropriation I say NO NEW FEES. Until COB is willing to demonstrate that every single penny of the technology fee is being spent on technology for students… I say NO NEW FEES! Until COB is willing to demonstrate that every single penny of the student activity fee actually benefits students… I say NO NEW FEES!

2. Race To The Bottom – 242, We Gat Dis!

The major justification for the new fees is based on the decrease in government subvention. The question is, why is the government cutting the subvention? They say we’re really broke so we must cut back. We jus een gat it, they say. Really? Well this broke country’s government plans to spend $2.223 billion this year. Some of that money comes from taxes and revenues. Some of it comes from debt. By the way, students: guess who’s going to have to help pay off that I. O. U? Yup! Y. O. U. So the question then is not one of not having money to spend but prioritizing how we spend. How can we decide what is reasonable. There is no rule of thumb but it might be useful to get a feeling for what our neighbors are doing.

Based on our total expenditures, for every $100 OF OUR MONEY that the government spends $1.10 is allocated to direct funding of tertiary education in the Bahamas (not counting UWI). That number drops to under $0.90 if the subvention is cut. Is that enough? Who knows? I say no. What about Jamaica how much on tertiary education do they spend per $100 of government expenditure? $1.80. You mean Jamaica with all its high debt and interests on debt, etc prioritizes education (in monetary terms) 63% more than we do. WOW! How about Trinidad and Tobago? – $2.21 and Barbados? – $4.10 ! If how we spend money as a country is a true reflection of our priorities, then that means that tertiary education is 270% more important to the people of Barbados than it is to the Bahamian people.

In fact I suspect, we prioritize less money on education as a percentage of total expenditure than most countries in the region (so much for being a regional leader). What do you think is the long term position of a country that spends relatively less money on tertiary education than its neighbors? Not good!

In terms of expenditure on all education (K-12 + tertiary) the numbers don’t look much better either. And generally they get even worse when scaled by GDP or GDP per capita or GDP per capita per Student or GDP per capita per number house or any other kind of metric that you can dream up. The bottom line is, based on our spending habits, education is not important to us. It has never been.

So students the next time someone tells you about all that money government spends on education and how you should be grateful for the money they give COB, politely tell them thank you. But realize that you are probably talking to someone who has not given serious thought to the problem or to someone who is not well informed. I know some people will say that money is not the answer to everything. I agree, true it isn’t… and I say in those cases then don’t spend money… but if you are going to spend $2.223 billion, shouldn’t it go to the things that matter most… like education, health, security, you know the little things that are most important for the long-term health, peace and prosperity of a nation?

That’s why I say… #NO NEW FEES

* The figures presented are approximations based on a quick analysis of the countries’ 2012/2013 budget estimates and have not factored in the subvention that regional countries send to the UWI system. The Bahamas figures also do not factor in the new borrowing for this fiscal year; which makes the relative numbers worse.

3. COB: A Game of Shadows

Even in the wake of my demonstration of how education in the Bahamas is severely underfunded, relative to our West Indian bredrren, I know there will be some who continue to argue that the impending budget cuts are still necessary. Once again they are not! In fact in the last few months most of the global economic data has pointed to the dangers of budget cuts but I know some folks think that if it sounds good to them and make sense in their own heads, even if it isn’t based on anything real, then that’s all that matters. Don’t get me wrong cutting waste is good but indiscriminate budget cuts (and fee/tax increases) – very bad.

Anyhow, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that these cuts are so ‘necessary’ – can we expect that the other 73 departments/budgeted heads of the national budget will also be cut? Will there be 10% and then 25% cuts to the Ministry of Finance (MoF) and the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM), The Ministry of Grand Bahama (whatever that is), etc.? It is interesting that COB received a negligible budget increase (~ 1% ) for the year 2012/2103, but the two units that fall under the direct purview of the prime minister, OPM and MoF, received budgetary INCREASES of 27.7% and 39.4% respectively – how convenient. Students you should demand that the OPM, MoF and all budgeted unit heads share the burden of these ‘necessary’ cuts. YOU SHOULD ACCEPT NOTHING LESS! Furthermore, you should insist that their cuts be based on the 2011/2012 budget and not the selectively inflated 2012/2013 budget.

I sometimes hear some folk say they don’t want their tax dollars being used to support COB. They’re not necessarily saying they want to pay fewer taxes but rather they just don’t want you benefitting from them. See dey een ga no problem paying the full cost of twelve years of primary and secondary education for 50,000 students enrolled in our public schools (even if dey chirren does go to private schools). They just gat a major problem helping to defray the cost of less than 5 years of tertiary education for 5,000 students. In fact they don’t mind paying $23 million to house 1,600 inmates up Fox Hill but $25 million to educate you and roughly 4, 999 other students – not their good tax dollars! If you want their full financial support, it seems you gat-to burse someone in dey head and get sent up Fox Hill fa dat (please do not try at home, school, the president’s office or anywhere for that matter). They would rather their money be used to help promote Atlantis than help you get promoted in life. They would rather their money be used to pay consultants from the UK to produce a couple sheets of paper (even if they don’t know exactly how much they paid them… or exactly what’s on the sheets of paper… or if there were any papers to begin with) than help you become a productive citizen. They would rather… I think you get the point – they’re just not into you. I know their thinking seems a bit cold and maybe even a little crazy, but thank God that you’ve got a president, council and government that’s got your back from mean-spirited, short-sighted, clowns who don’t mind doing you in and who think that the first place to start cutting from a national budget is your education.

Yeah, I heard about the recent fee increases (sorry ‘bout dat) but you caann really blame the government, council or the president for dat? You see the prime minister say een know what ya’ll talkin’ bout – so you caan blame him; and the minister of education, well een no one tell him – so you caaan blame him; and what about the council chairman? Well, he say he was traveling, and he say he een know wat gone down – so y’all DEFFFFINITELY caaaaan blame him. So it mussie Betsy fault then? Not really ‘cause they say y’all shouldn’t blame that poor woman, she’s just the president. She was probably only taking orders from one of those people who een know what gone down.

Yeah, I know! This wursa than “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.” It seems like no one’s to blame for ya fee increases so you misewell just go ahead and blame yourself… and while you’re at it, blame yourself for thinking that this country of yours should devote more tax dollars to ensuring that you not only get an affordable education but that you do so from a decent and well-funded world-class institution. Well that’s jus the definition of a freeloader: hoping that society will pay your college fees so you could get a good job and contribute to society and make lotsa money and pay lotsa taxes, some of which might be used to help some other young person become a freeloader by getting a good quality, affordable, maybe even free, college education… so that they could get a good job and contribute to society and make lotsa… just like you! Well, I hate to spoil it for you, the world don’t work that way, so I suggest you stop dreaming and get back to reality. Bey, where you tink you was, mussie in Barbados aye!

Doublespeaking the Investment in Education

Several documents have surfaced and several statements were made over the past few months that paint a dire picture of our nation’s appreciation of higher education. Despite the best efforts of several cabinet members to diffuse the situation by adding hot air to it, it boils down to government cutting its subvention to the College of the Bahamas (COB). Significantly.

It begins with a letter by Ehurd Cunningham, Acting Financial Secretary, to COB President Betsy Vogel Boze. This letter instructs the College to “submit a financial plan … to reduce … subventions to your organization by 25% within the next 2 fiscal years with at least 10% in FY2013/14.”

The government’s subvention was $25 million last year. According to the English language, this translates into a budget cut for the College of at least $2.5 million this year, $6.25 million next year. Cunningham expects this to “be achieved without any reduction in quality and level of services … or any forced reduction in headcount.” I do not know how much thought Cunningham out into this letter – I understand that this was a rather standard letter going out to most government entities – but it shows a shocking lack of familiarity with conditions at the College. Cunningham suggests to look for “improvements in organizational efficiencies,” which is of course a good idea, and some monies can be saved there. However, it is unrealistic to save 25% in this way. Furthermore, for every penny that can be saved at COB, there is a dollar that urgently needs to be invested, that the College already cannot afford because of the underfunding of the institution, the underfunding of education.

At this point, it would be interesting to know what kind of discussions Boze may have had with the government in general and the Ministry of Finance in particular. Students, staff and faculty at the College would wish to see the College’s Senior Team in general, and its President in particular, take the government to task, and fight for adequate funding for the institution. There are excellent arguments supporting additional funding for COB, as opposed to budget cuts, such as the economic contributions of our graduates to the Bahamian economy, which far exceed the $25 million of annual subvention, or the discrepancy between government support for COB (approximately $5,100 per student) as opposed to the University of the West Indies (approximately $46,000 per Bahamian student). However, these stakeholders remain disappointed, for even if the government will not listen, it would not – outside of the Bahamas, that is – be unusual for university leaders to present their case directly to a national audience, via the media.

Cunningham’s letter was dated 20th December, 2012, and the deadline by which COB was supposed to submit its proposals was 31st January, 2013. Yet on 7th February, 2013, Boze sends an e-mail to the College’s faculty and staff informing them of the situation, calling for a meeting the next day “to cooperate and collaborate on recommendations for enhanced efficiencies, austerity measures and fiscal prudence.” Was this really an invitation to seek solutions together, or was this an exercise in keeping the people content when the die had already been cast?

The general nature of Cunningham’s letter was confirmed by the Guardian on 11th February, 2013, in an article that quoted Michael Halkitis, Minister of State for Finance, though either Halkitis and/or the Guardian remain vague on details and do not mention the College in particular. The College’s case was brought to the public’s attention by COBUS, the College of the Bahamas Union of Students. In a press release dated 17th February, 2013, COBUS lashed out against the proposal by the College’s senior management, who seem to seek to offset the subvention cuts with tuition increases, and chastised the government for their lack of vision.

At last COB’s students were beginning to stand up for their rights, which have been violated for so many years! I have often argued that revolutions occur not when noble ideas of abstract rights are being violated and economic conditions are difficult; revolutions occur when our economic conditions become unbearable, when our material survival is being threatened. The flurry of activity – well, not really activity, for they were not actions but merely words – with which the government reacted was… “interesting.”

Like children caught in the act, they tell a good tale that is all too easily dismantled. Ryan Pinder, Minister of Financial Services, for instance, insisted on a social media site that the government had not cut COB’s funding, period. Technically speaking, Pinder is correct, but the statement is irrelevant. As we are still in the 2012-13 fiscal year, and the 2013-14 budget is in the future, his use of past tense was correct. However, adding the word “yet” to his statement might have been more honest.

On 19th February, 2013, both the Guardian and the Tribune report Halkitis as saying that the letter did not mandate any cuts; in fact, he creates the impression that it was merely supposed to motivate the College to see if it may be able to somehow, perhaps, save a dollar or two. However, that is not what the letter said. Anyone who reads the letter like that, is suffering from a literacy challenge that urgently needs to be addressed.

The same can be said for a number of politicos who have engaged in disingenuous, Orwellian doublespeak while backtracking from the PLP’s campaign promise of “doubling of the nation’s investment in the education and training of Bahamians.” In the PLP’s mind, and to remain true to last year’s campaign jargon, albeit in reverse, investment here appears to be exclusively money spent on elusive new things previously unknown in Bahamian education, not on people. Yet by its very nature, education is the investment in people, so how is it not an investment in education to pay a teacher, the person who teaches people?

The words “doubling” and “and” have also been given new meanings. As investment now has a unique new meaning, representatives of the PLP government have often been quoted as saying that, by these standards, the level of “investment in education and training” under the FNM was zero dollars, and that therefore by doubling the investment it would have to remain at zero dollars. Simply put, investment means unicorns; we currently have no unicorns, and by having twice as many, we will still have none.

And in doublespeak, “and” means “or.” Said Halkitis, “We go from preschool all the way up to The College of The Bahamas and if we ask them to look at their budget to identify some savings in the subvention, theoretically we can take some of those savings and invest them in early childhood education, in special education, in building a new high school…” In other words, if a family of five had a ten piece bucket of KFC for dinner yesterday, and everyone had two pieces of chicken, I can now take the same ten piece bucket today, give two people five pieces and let three people go hungry, but apparently, I would have more than doubled dinner.

Later that evening, due to mounting pressure by COBUS, Jerome Fitzgerald, Minister of Education, was forced to release a statement. It basically confirmed the cuts, and he tried to spin them as a clever idea. Demonstrating that the College would not need to touch “personal emoluments and allowances,” the savings could come out of the other $7 million of the College’s budget, “1.25 million dollars in savings from operational efficiencies and 1.25 million dollars in other cost savings” this year, and a total of $6.25 million next year. Of course, when seen through a golden lens, one could hope that attempting to do the same thing with $0.75 million that previously cost $7 million would not lead to a “reduction in quality or level of services…”

Since then, the public’s attention has turned away to other issues, but behind the scenes, COB’s leadership, under Boze has been working on a financial plan to continue COB’s operations with less moneys from the government. The administration’s first plan, which was to increase tuition, was shot down by cabinet, so yesterday, in an e-mail to the college community, Boze announced a set of new and increased fees for students:

  • parking fee – NEW*: $50 per semester
  • library fee – NEW: $50 per semester
  • capital facility development fee – new: $100 per semester
  • technology fee – INCREASE: $20 additionally per semester

 * Apparently, there is an annual parking fee of $20 on the books, however, it has not been collected, as COB does not have sufficient parking spaces to accommodate all students.

Based on the student figures from COB’s own fact sheet, these new and increased fees should raise approximately $2.2 million per annum; according to the most logical interpretation of Cunningham’s letter, the reduction of the government’s subvention should amount to a loss of $2.5 million. There remains a shortfall of $300,000. However, what must be pointed out is that the mandate from the Ministry of Finance stated that “at least 50% of the reduction would be achieved through improvements in organizational efficiencies.”

In other words, the government did not tell the College to simply go and find its money elsewhere. The government did not tell the College to simply make its students pay more. In fact, the letter stated that any “proposed measures should also be benchmarked to … the public’s ability to pay.” If any benchmarking research was conducted regarding this point, it was not communicated to the college community.

Yet Boze’s one-page e-mail to the college community contains only two sentences that – if only vaguely – address the government’s mandate to look for savings: “All budget officers throughout the College will be required to exercise more stringent fiscal discipline. Among the cost savings measures to be undertaken throughout The College are reduced budgets for travel and subsistence, food, utilities and over-time.” No further figures are provided.

Perhaps, the College’s leadership believed it was acting in anticipatory obedience, however, one could interpret these discrepancies as being in violation with the mandate given by the Ministry of Finance.