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 226.

In this rough monetary moment, the conversations we have about the economy are more important than ever. We could focus on issues of debt to GDP ratios. The debt-to-GDP ratio is over 60 per cent for 12 of 20 Caribbean countries, over 80 per cent for 6 countries, and over 100 per cent for four. Indeed it’s the pressure of debt payments that prevents Caribbean countries from affording development projects and social programmes.

We could focus on the importance of investment to economic growth. Investment provides funds needed by industries to provide jobs, create wealth and pay taxes. But we are at risk of invisibilising other indicators if we mainly focus on these. When countries focus on debt reduction, who carries the costs and how are those measured? When we rely on profit-seeking investment to drive economic growth, what might we fail to discuss in terms of environmental, labour, health and other costs?

Looking at women’s experiences in the labour market can show what such indicators hide. From this perspective, the global and national economy is fundamentally gendered, meaning that the roles that women play in both private and public spheres aren’t incidental, but central to how the economy is organized and experienced. For example, women often devise survival strategies for their families using their unpaid time and labour to absorb the effects of economic crises, such as industry shrinkage, or higher food prices, or prescriptions for debt reduction.

More than men, women perform uncounted, non-unionised and unwaged homebased labour, and have greater responsibility for care of children, and the disabled and elderly, particularly where health and social services are inadequate. Such economic exploitation within households reinforces women’s exploitation in the waged economy, where women predominate in the five Cs: caring, catering, cashiering, cleaning and clerical work. Particularly when traditionally male-dominated jobs are being lost, these women are more vulnerable to poverty and relationship violence because of their economic dependence.

When women take work to make ends meet, they may experience the absence of a social infrastructure permitting them to combine work with family life. Additionally, women’s clustering in service sectors, and informal jobs, that are often considered less skilled or valuable than hitting a ball with a bat, is highly exploitative and features low wages, poor working conditions, and little opportunity for security or advancement. In this context, economic problems and prescriptions are likely to have an asymmetrical impact on women and men because they have different relationships to labour in informal and formal spheres, and in reproduction and production.

Reflecting on this, Caribbean feminist Eudine Barriteau writes, “Constructing economic analyses around households should force development planners to move beyond exploiting the resources of women to costing out the use of these resources. It should no longer be possible to speak of market gains while households are suffering, of growth without equity or redistribution.” Making households the basic unit of socioeconomic analysis, she argues, should make planners directly confront the gendered nature of economic relations, disaggregating and exposing the conflicts and competing interests within households, and between household roles and market-based economic behavior.

In our economy, in the category of those 25 to 49 years old, men comprise about 57% of the labour force, women 43%. Within this age group, women’s labour force participation rate is 72% compared to 95% for men. Men’s unemployment is 2% for that age category, but women’s is 4%, and more women than men (28% versus 6%) are considered to be out of the labour force between the ages of 25-49. Why and with what implications for their labour?

In the petro/gas industries, men comprise 80% of those employed, women 20%. In the construction sector, men constitute 88% of those employed, women 12%. Finally, in community, social and personal services, as well as in trade, restaurants and hotels, women are 54% and 58% respectively of those employed in comparison to 42% and 46% of men. And, this labour force data for 2015 doesn’t adequately highlight women’s pervasive wage inequality for similar work.

The costs of recession and growth are being survived and subsidized by households, and by labour inequities being borne by women. In addition to indicators of investment and debt, this is something economists should be discussing.