Trinidad’s Fight for Higher Education Amid COVID-19

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ST. JOSEPH, Trinidad and Tobago — According to Christopher S. Collins, author of Higher Education and Global Poverty, higher education is linked to effective poverty reduction through its stimulation of a country’s economy. However, higher education amid COVID-19 has proved difficult.

Benefits of Tertiary Education

The World Bank’s study, “Constructing Knowledge Societies: New Challenges for Tertiary Education,” explains that tertiary education has a direct influence on national productivity. Tertiary education supports “knowledge-driven economic growth strategies.” These strategies largely determine a country’s living standards and its ability to compete in the global economy.

Higher education benefits entire societies, not just individuals. Societal benefits of higher education include “democratization, human rights advances, political stability, increased life expectancy, reduced inequality, increased social capital and the utilization (not just creation) of new knowledge and technology.”

Costs of Tertiary Education

The costs of insufficient investment in tertiary education can be very high. This includes the “reduced ability of a country to compete effectively in global and regional economies; a widening of economic and social disparities; declines in the quality of life, in health status and in life expectancy; an increase in unavoidable public expenditures on social welfare programs and a deterioration of social cohesion.”

Investing in higher education became a credible, worthwhile strategy for poverty reduction during the late 1990s. Then, in 2009, the World Bank set aside $3.5 billion for higher education lending. This number marked 7% of their total lending for education subsectors.

Tertiary education supports the entire education system by training teachers. It provides a country with much-needed specialists by training medical doctors, epidemiologists, public health specialists and hospital managers. In particular, it provides underprivileged students the opportunity to become these very specialists. This opens the door to better employability, income prospects and social mobility. It also pulls more young people out of poverty.

In order to achieve these benefits, the World Bank states, “The state has a responsibility to put in place an enabling framework that encourages tertiary education.” If a government does not facilitate an adequate tertiary education system, developing countries risk further marginalization.

Tertiary Education in Trinidad and Tobago

The government of Trinidad and Tobago recently made the unilateral decision to cut the Government Assistance for Tuition Expenses (GATE) Funding Programme and greatly decrease the number of national scholarships for tertiary education from 400 to 100. This made higher education amid COVID-19 inaccessible. Stakeholders assumed the pandemic’s effect on the economy caused this.

The Ministry of Education managed the GATE Programme, which provided financial assistance to low-income citizens pursuing local and regional, public and private tertiary-level programs. Academic merit decided the allocation of the initial 400 national scholarships. Some provided full funding to the University of the West Indies (UWI), Trinidad’s local tertiary institution and some provided partial or full funding to students accepted to higher-quality international tertiary institutions.

Former Tertiary Education Minister Fazal Karim condemned the government’s decision, calling it “backward and visionless.” The new policy also altered the allocation of the few remaining scholarships and changed the criteria required to receive one. These changes blindsided stakeholders in the education sector, affecting parents and that year’s graduating students in particular. “I’d always been working toward an open scholarship, and in pre-pandemic years, I would have gotten one,” Christin-Lee Maharaj, one affected student of the 2020 exam year, told The Borgen Project.

The Effect on Students

Hundreds of students recognized for their outstanding achievements and accepted to tertiary education institutions abroad suddenly faced uncertainty following the policy change. The Borgen Project interviewed three students who are struggling to achieve their goals: Azahrias Ali accepted into Bethel College, Andria Joseph to Howard University and Christin-Lee Maharaj to Leicester Medical School in the U.K.

“Lots of bright Trinidadian students like myself are getting into these top universities around the world and are unable to go due to lack of funding.” Indeed, the World Bank states that access to affordable loans frequently remains restricted to a minority of students. The ability of individuals to borrow sufficiently for tertiary education is also limited. Trinidad’s government has further exacerbated this equity issue with its policy change.

Both Joseph and Maharaj tried falling back on UWI in their fight for higher education amid COVID-19. However, they found difficulty there as well. Joseph, who never planned to apply to UWI’s Engineering Program, did not receive admission to her desired program. She did not meet their requirements.

Moreover, due to controversial grading in 2020 by the region’s governing examination board, Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC), there was a four-month delay in the announcement of the few scholarship winners. Maharaj had to defer her university applications to 2021. She had to take a gap year until she knew whether she could afford to attend any university. As such, her application to UWI has not even been reviewed yet.

Not Giving Up

The three students were forced to write their examination in person despite the pandemic, deciding they would not let the government’s decision disempower them. They are using their ingenuity and technology to empower themselves. Currently, they are raising money to fund their international tertiary education via GoFundMe. Their passion and dedication to better their lives drive them. However, the state of emergency implemented in Trinidad against the spread of COVID-19 has also limited fundraising efforts.

Maharaj reported she was unable to secure a job during her gap year due to the pandemic. As such, she is giving lessons online to contribute to her tuition expenses. Media houses throughout Trinidad have also been covering the students’ stories in an attempt to help get their message of achieving higher education amid COVID-19 across.

“I really believe education is the way to build a better future, so that’s why I’m fighting so hard for this and not backing down,” said Maharaj of her #HelpChristinBecomeADoctor campaign.

Joseph, who placed in Trinidad’s national merit list, wants to major in Chemical Engineering so that she “can make a difference in the manufacture of life-saving medicine upon graduation.”

Maharaj, who wants to become the first doctor in her family, pursued an extra Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Exam (CAPE) subject and achieved a rare academic achievement. She placed in the top 10 of the Caribbean region six times. As a result, she secured one of the fewer than 20 places offered to international students at Leicester.

The Importance of Higher Education Amid COVID-19

According to Collins, “in the study of poverty reduction, the most significant disciplines are science and technology.” To Maharaj, “[The pandemic] has compounded my desire to want to be a doctor. It has highlighted just how crucial healthcare professionals are.” Indeed, countries like Trinidad will benefit from making tertiary education more accessible to students like Maharaj and Joseph as it is currently operating at a ratio of one nurse to 30 patients.

As the World Bank states, “new financing strategies have [to be]put in place in the public sector to generate revenue from institutional assets, to mobilize additional resources for students and their families and to encourage donations from third-party contributors.”

Serah-Marie Maharaj
Photo: With Permission from Christin-Lee Maharaj

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