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.