After leaving secondary school in 2006, somehow I still managed to find myself traveling to Port of Spain, Monday to Friday every week.
Quite often, on that loathsome Maxi Taxi ride I would end up hearing the radio segment of a then well known pastor and owner of a Tertiary Educational institute. The segment was boastful to say the least.
I'm not sure what its overall intention was, but he would often drone on about how great the programs this institution offered were and how well former students are doing.
They were getting top notch, well paying jobs. They were managers, engineers, accountants etc. Apparently they had no regrets about
their enrollments, they did well at home and abroad.
For me, this segment was unwanted noise, because not too long after leaving secondary school, I tried to enroll there for a computing course. The nearly 10K in fees at the time was a non-starter. But what about GATE? Tertiary education is free right?
No, not really, as many students will tell you, it's not. This is the first lie.
Tuition is covered for approved institutions and programs, not any other costs. However, for the average Trini, the details don't matter. People would boastfully tell you; "Manning gave allyuh free education, be thankful". Therefore those gripes about having to pay registration fees, foreign body fees, book and exam fees fall on deaf ears.
GATE only covers tuition, which seemed to have ballooned when the program was implemented. GATE contributed to inflated tuition prices; that's what I would like to say, but finding these kind of statistics in T&T is a horrible experience. I can't say for sure, call it a hunch.
Now it would not be fair to only focus on SAM and their radio segment because they were not the only Tertiary education institution with a strong marketing campaign. Their approach was probably the most personalized but SBCS did a good job with their success propaganda too.
SBCS had billboards and put out newspaper adverts with portraits of former students in their graduation outfits, testifying about the quality of the programs and how successful they are now.
Usually you would see the person's name and fancy job title or some award they got. This was meant to instill a sense of, "This could be you!" – well educated, respected and paid!
Other institutions also ran similar marketing campaigns, though I think SBCS and SAM had the most mind share. In fact I recall conversations, lamenting how lame the UWI had seemed taking the "it's a privilege to be here" approach while these institutions competed with each other fiercely for students. Mostly basing their marketing pitch on student potential job prospects
For people coming of age around that time, the ones interested in making something of themselves at least, many were tantalized by the prospects of a fruitful career. Many were also simply interested in making a whole lot of money. Particularly if you knew upper management and executive types who drove company cars, took trips abroad, made their own hours and lived comfortably as far as one can tell.
If you ever had to interview for a job by demonstrating how heavy an item you can lift then this lifestyle might appeal to you. I can't tell you how many people I interacted with back then, that were studying Accounting because of this basic reasoning:
"Accountants count the money, therefore they must make a lot of money".
All of this however, is part of the second lie; Tertiary education guarantees a fruitful career.
In a society as unproductive and dependent on a few sectors as we are, there is always going to be a hard limit on what kind of skills and education is in demand. Worse so, when the public sector is the largest employer.
What GATE did, was not open the "gate" to our future but rather open a flood gate of educated individuals who can't get jobs that match compensate their years of study.
It's a classic demand and supply scenario. You have a demand that has not moved enough but a supply that increased, possibly exponentially. The net result is a lot of idle knowledge waiting to be bought up for cheap.
There are people who were educated to be business executives, engineers, medical researchers, scientists who work taxi, deliver pizza, sell fast food, work in warehouses and pump gas for a living. Not to mention, some now do Web Design.
Picture the consequences of this class of labor competing with unskilled, non-higher educated individuals in an environment of runaway crime.
When I enrolled in ACCA's CAT program, it felt like almost everyone I
knew was studying to be an accountant. Classrooms were always full
at the start of a cycle but numbers dwindled as the semester went on.
For a while, the nation experienced a boom thanks to the price of LNG
so a lot of businesses were able to expand and absorb some of this talent but history would show this was fleeting. Many businesses in T&T boil down to services or the import and retail of foreign goods, not the actual production of value. Take away the energy boom and you take away jobs too.
What GATE created, was a Diskomart for educated labor and indeed, foreign multi-nationals and companies have been able to benefit from this. Time and time again we see those with higher education having meaningful employment when they work for branches of foreign firms or migrate to developed countries.
In this respect, GATE is effectively a subsidy the GoRTT provides to the developed world that keep the development gap between us wide enough.
This is no fault of those who migrate for better outcomes, after all,
they could not call themselves educated if they remained in an environment that undervalues them and provides little opportunity.
This brings us to the third and final lie here:
The problems with GATE are the students wasting time and money.
When the issue of GATE not giving the nation it's "bang for it's buck" first became a regular part of national discussion, I was paying for a year of tuition. This was required to once again qualify after dropping out of a prior course.
Politicians and the news media put the attention on students signing up for programs and not completing them, effectively demonizing students who may have simply realized they made the wrong career choice.
The very first GATE approved program I enrolled in, failed to even look at my documents to verify whether I met the requirements. Just fill out these forms and you're good to go. Years later, I would receive a phone call from them warning that I was at risk of loosing my gate funding if I don't come in to sign some documents and provide information. Of course by then I had moved on and rectified my situation on my own.
For me, that program, ACCA's CAT, was a cheap substitute for the Computer Science I really wanted to study. At the age of 19, can one really blame a student for changing their mind about their career decisions?
What exposure do most young adults have in Trinidad and Tobago to the working world to even be able to make that decision effectively?
Thankfully, for a while at least, it seemed that career days and related initiatives were gaining momentum. These days, I'm not so sure if that's still true. Regardless, shouldn't the administrators for GATE take some kind of responsibility to ensure students understand the career paths they choose before singing into a contract?
Shifting attention away from the delinquent student narrative, the GATE program was politicized from day one.
GATE has been used by politicians to curry political points and when this happens common sense and national interest take a back seat to political agendas.
The late Prime Minister, Patrick Manning once told us to not vote for the opposition because they want to take away GATE. Really?
For a segment of our society, the threat of GATE coming to an end or being significantly changed hung over their heads as politicians use it as a whipping boy.
Digging deeper still, into the structural problems with the program, I mentioned paying a year tuition on my own. I recall stressing out because the tuition fees per semester were ~2-3 months of my salary at the time. I was absolutely elated however, when the school told me that tuition costs less if I'm not covered by the GATE program. Great!
However, it did leave me wondering if the introduction of GATE lead to inflated tuition costs. It's hard to research this because as far as I am aware, no one has been tracking tuition costs, at least not publicly. The administrators of the GATE program don't seem to publish much statistics either.
What schools are students directing their funding requests at the most? What fields of study? What are the dropout/success rates per program? What degrees are receiving the most state funds? What are the reasons for dropouts? Are people finding jobs etc?
I have no idea. I hope the people making decisions on the program do however.
After writing this I found a link on the Parliament website that is a report on the situation with GATE and recommendations for improvement. The statistics contained are not granular enough to answer my questions but they do suggest where the majority of GATE funding goes.