November 2020


Post 398.

In recently announced changes to the GATE programme, undergraduate degrees will remain subsidized to an extent determined by a means test. Post-graduate degrees have been substantially defunded for future students.  

Regarding reduction of tertiary education subsidies, and the increased availability of loans, the effects are well-documented in the US, which made this switch in the 1980s and has since witnessed skyrocketing student debt and family indebtedness; resilient labour market inequality by class, race and gender; and exacerbated economic slowdown.

In her prescient book, Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism, Melinda Cooper describes student debt as a “lucrative interest-bearing asset in global securities markets”. It works for both governments and banks. The first can still assert that tertiary education is accessible to all despite shifting from free access to university whether rich and poor. The second can profit from state policy to replace or supplement public funding with private deficit spending. 

As Cooper puts it, “Instead of the government going into deficit to spend on public services…the individual consumer would go into debt to purchase these same services”. Fiscal austerity and credit abundance are being presented hand in hand, and as the national economy continues to contract, this is a policy direction that we can anticipate. 

It will be interesting to see if tertiary education loans increase. One could argue that families are responsible for their children’s education, but one could just as well argue that decades of corruption and mismanagement have wasted billions of dollars that should have been available for investment in education as a public good and economic stimulus strategy (though, for us in the Caribbean, this is undermined by emigration and ‘brain drain’). 

Some families will be able to afford their children’s tertiary education, and even post-graduate degrees. Low- to middle-income students will likely hit a qualification barrier if they cannot afford (rising) tuition and other costs. In reality, most students cannot qualify for a loan on their own so that student debt becomes a familial and intergenerational obligation. 

Additionally, Cooper notes, “a student with no assets or savings is more likely to have to defer, refinance, or default on a loan, accumulating a much longer temporal burden of interest payments than the student who can pay on schedule”. Alternatively, for Trinidad and Tobago, where for decades women have graduated from university in higher numbers and yet on average earn lower incomes, loan repayments could be a higher portion of monthly wages, acting as a form of regressive taxation. 

Cooper describes this as a way that “private credit markets…perform democratic inclusion without disturbing the economic structures of private family wealth”. Simply put, in repaying loans, with interest, poor families will spend more on education than wealthier ones who have less need for additional funds and greater capacity to repay. 

The government analysis that led to the recent GATE reforms isn’t clear. Is the expectation that students will turn to vocational training, the labour market, or other options? This makes me wonder whether the government forecasted the effects of the recent GATE reform, and has a macro plan in relation to those effects.

That macro plan should differentiate the student population affected by class, age and gender. For example, at UWI, 63% of students are women, 37% are men. This means that GATE has been an irreplaceable source of public investment in women, who are the main sex seeking both undergraduate and post-graduate qualifications (except in Engineering), principally to improve their chances in the economy. 

The majority of UWI students are also 18-24 and young women in this age group have the highest rates of unemployment, possibly because they are deferring employment for education in order to improve their chances beyond low-waged retail, service and clerical jobs where women remain clustered. Since 2015, enrolment has been dropping in all faculties except for Law, and Science and Technology, suggesting the economic downturn has already been making an impact. So, it’s a perfect storm out there for students – increased unemployment and decreased access to higher education. What choices do we expect them to make? 

This is an example of how austerity measures have feminized impacts, and so too may be education-related increases in private debt. At the same time, public debt financed vanity projects, such as the port in Toco, and other construction stimulus plans, will disproportionately benefit men as they comprise 80% of that sector. I’ve been calling for gender responsive budgeting, which makes visible such inequitable costs and benefits of gender-blind fiscal policy, for precisely this reason.

Post 397.

I had been quite disturbed a few weeks ago when I overheard a conversation between Ziya and a friend. They were discussing Donald Trump and whether he had Covid-19, at a time when his purported infection, vaccine experiment and full recovery were campaign fodder. One said that she heard he had it, the other said that he could be lying, and I thought what a world in which to be growing up, when children have no idea if adults, and leaders, are telling the truth.

Over on Saturday night for Ziya’s 10th birthday sleepover, the little friend sat with us watching Kamala Harris’ speech. Zi had been excited about the campaign and the debates, and knew early on that there could be a Dougla like her as the first woman Vice President, making US history. She was aware that my family in the US had been feeling unsafe, fearing a triumph of Trump and ascendancy of the ‘white right’. 

We had even discussed what that phrase meant one night, and I had ineptly explained what politically left and right referred to, going back to Karl Marx and, from there, muddling the rest from working mother exhaustion. 

So, it had been a few weeks of discussions whenever her antenna picked up snatches of campaign news and opinion, like a nine-year old version of BBC news. And, it was big tears the night of the vice-presidential debate when I made her go to bed because it was late. 

As we watched Harris’ victory speech, I was immensely relieved that there was an articulate, tough and well-raised woman speaking directly to children, regardless of their gender, whose words could be believed. I was gratified as a mother that they could have this memory at such an influential moment in their development as girls, whether Indian-descended or from the Caribbean, from the African diaspora in the Americas, or from migrant communities. 

Whenever a woman anywhere cracks a glass ceiling, it should be celebrated for that crevice has been opened up for others to join in breaking it. That there are still firsts for women today is astounding, but, in every country, there are still such old, resilient limits for girls and women to insistently crack. 

When that woman is also connected to the Global South – to both India and the Caribbean, when she understands contemporary immigrant experience – which so many of our migrating family members have lived, when she is able to speak knowingly about the systemic violence of US anti-blackness, and when she looks like she could be family to any of us – which is very Trinidadian, there’s a more intimate sense of connection to her achievement. 

Then, there was Harris’ message about standing on the shoulders of those that came before, and their struggle, determination, strength and vision. “Dream with ambition, lead with conviction, and see yourself in a way that others might not see you, simply because they’ve never seen it before,” she said, while girls wearing rabbit-eared bandows and playing with party balloons, watched from our living room.

At the time when the internet sexualises adolescence more than ever before, when hypersexualised Netflix movies like “Cuties” show terrifying trends in how girls are being impacted globally, a mother could do with moments like this; with a powerful woman talking about climate justice and racial justice. At a time when US pop culture continues to overwhelm the region’s local content, an alternative message to girls that isn’t about beauty, brands or bling provides a much-needed respite.

From the experience of Obama, we know that the Biden-Harris term may be defined by less virulent forms of US imperialism, anti-immigrant policy-making, white supremist backlash, man-made climate destruction, and wealth concentration amidst impoverishment of working-class families, but these will not be ended by two centre-left individuals in four years. Though, as we have seen with PM Mia Mottley, there are possibilities to inspire and pivot the world toward more sensible and caring leadership, to mend some trauma, and to soften a public discourse which, so much like ours, has become mired in the inane and insulting. 

Women’s political leadership always secures a symbolic shift, but the substantive difference of the next four years will emerge through partisan negotiation, lobbyist pressure, and the strength of activist movements’ demands. It’s clear that the presidential campaign will be for Harris in 2024. Between now and then, Zi will enter adolescence and encounter inevitable disappointments, but may also learn to continue to choose hope, decency, science and truth.