A few days ago, the manifesto promises from the two main political parties were highlighted during a special ceremony held at their respective headquarters. One of the focuses of those manifestos was the issue of education and how they plan to address the needs in that area. The People’s United Party has pledged to provide free education for every student starting from preschool to sixth form.
“Free education from preschool to sixth form; when I was the Minister of Education we carried that analysis already of what it would cost. It would cost about three million dollars more at the primary school level, about eight million dollars at high school and around twelve million dollars at the tertiary level because tertiary level education is the most expensive. So the accurate picture is that we are looking at something like twenty three million in addition to the existing education budget to meet that commitment which is absolutely achievable. Not to mention all the waste that has been taking place over the last eight years. We believe we will be a much more efficient government, we will cut back on waste. There will be a lot of savings and all of that combined with economic growth, export led growth, with foreign investment and domestic investment and tax reform will provide a formula for moving the county forward and putting these commitments in place for the Belizean people.”
The word, ‘free’ has always been known to garner wide attention but just how practical is that promise and how much are we looking to spend on such an endeavour? According to Opposition Leader, Francis Fonseca, it would be in the millions and according to Education Minister, Patrick Faber, it is not a practical commitment.
“Eradicating the fees all together and just saying free for all is not very responsible and it’s not the way the UDP operates. It’s like what was done in 1993 when the Esquivel administration promised free education. You could have excused us then because it was the first time that something like that would have been tried but just doling out money is not going to take down the cost of education. In fact I am willing to bet that if we just say, ‘here is 23 million dollars more, education is now free’; it won’t work. That in fact, the cost will continue to go up, the inefficiencies in the system that we describe will continue because we refuse to bite the political bullet and fix them and you will see that people will continue to suffer and in fact it will make the wage bill of the government or what we spend on education even higher without getting proper results. I reject the idea of using additional monies in that manner there is still a lot to do but the answer to that does not lie in these kinds of reckless band-aid fixes that the PUP suggests in its manifesto. Rather the solution lies in us keeping faith in the works that have already begun, that are already yielding the kind of results that we’ve seen. We’ve said to many that the fixing of the education system is not going to be something that can be done overnight and we are seeing that but we are seeing gradual development and for me there should be no reason why we should turn back from that.”
So, it that is not deemed practical, then just what does the United Democratic Party has planned for education? We asked Minister Faber.
“We are proposing to make it more affordable in many instances and eradicate the fees in some instances and this is not pie in the sky, this is already in the pipeline. You would know that we implemented school finance reform some years ago, a second component to that initiative is also curriculum reform and also as a part of the finance reform measures we have embarked to try to lower the fees in many of these school but it takes dialogue with the partners, the various different schools.”
As at the close of the school year 2014/2015, statistics have shown that there are currently seven thousand five hundred and five students enrolled in the pre-school division; sixty seven thousand seven hundred and seven in the primary level; twenty one thousand six hundred and forty four in the high school or secondary level; three thousand nine hundred and five in the junior college level and four thousand six hundred and fifty seven in the university level. According to the figures shown in the report from the Policy and Planning Unit in the Ministry of Education, female students are outnumbering the males when it comes to pursuing education beyond the high school level. While Faber has been serving as the Education Minister since the UDP’s victory in 2008, Fonseca, too has worked in that same capacity under the Musa administration.