The College of The Bahamas, COBUS, and a crisis of vision

Over the past several weeks, the College of The Bahamas Union of Students has worked tirelessly to resist the college's proposal to raise fees in response to proposed government cutbacks in subvention.

Their work has included attempts to meet or speak with senior administration, with the college council, with the minister of education, and with the minister of state for finance. Their most recent press release may be found here; I encourage those people who may be quick to dismiss the students for their passion to read it, as it will show you another side of them, and may encourage us to treat them with the respect that is due to adults who are legitimately questioning their rights to participate in our democracy and their place in our society.

To Pay or Not to Pay Tuition

I will be the first person to say that, given the fact that our society has decided that the only education offered freely to its citizens is that which stops at the secondary level, I am not opposed to the principle of raising tuition. Here are my reasons.

A powerpoint presentation recently uploaded to the COB website provides a history of tuition increases over the college's 39 years of existence. In the beginning, the government was the primary subsidizer of tertiary-level education. Fees were never non-existent, but until 1998, they were a mere $25 per credit hour. The result was the persistent underfunding of the institution, as until 1995 that money was released through the Ministry of Education, presumably through Budget Head 39, which can be viewed here. In 1998, recognizing the move to university and the development of bachelor's degree courses, the college raised tuition over the course of three years from the $25 per credit hour to the present $100 per credit hour for lower-level (100-200) courses, and $150 per credit hour for upper-level (300-400) courses.

No other increases in tuition have been applied since 2000. Students today still study for the same cost as students in 2000, but the purchasing power of the Bahamian dollar today is worth only 80¢ of the 2000 dollar. The tuition increase originally proposed by the college administration (from $100 to $120 per credit hour) can be seen as merely making up for that lost revenue. But that is not all. Not only does the 2013 Bahamian dollar buy 20% less than the 2000 dollar, what students get for that price is considerably more than what students got in 2000. Tuition for the college has not increased in that time, but what is provided to the students has consistently been expanded over the past 13 years. Improvements include (but aren't limited to, as they're off top of my head):

  • The acquisition and renovation of the Michael Eldon Building

  • The creation of Chapter One Bookstore

  • The renovation of the Performing Arts Centre

  • The construction of the Bandshell

  • The construction of the Wellness Centre and gym

  • The construction of the HCM library

  • The installation of WIFI (at least at the Oakes Field campus)

  • The installation of multimedia in the majority of the classrooms

  • The air-conditioning of classrooms

  • The acquisition of the property earmarked for the Wilson Business Centre

  • The construction and building of the Northern Bahamas Campus

  • The introduction of BA programmes in every faculty of the college

  • The introduction of master's degrees offerings

  • The expansion of course offerings across the board

  • The installation of PowerCampus/Self-Service to improve registration woes

  • The refurbishment of the existing dorms

  • The hiring of PhDs

  • The granting of study leave to faculty to pursue doctorates

  • Faculty reclassification and salary increases

  • The conducting of and the investment in ongoing Bahamian research

  • The establishment of college varsity teams and athletic scholarships

  • The establishment of the Small Island Sustainability programme

Given the fact that these improvements have taken place while the fee structure has remained exactly the same, that recurrent costs across the board have increased along with these improvements, and that students in 2013 are getting considerably more for their credit dollar than the students did in 2000, I can see the rationale behind the increase. All things being equal, I would even support it, even though I am theoretically persuaded by arguments that tertiary level education is worth being fully subsidised by our government. My pragmatic perspective in this country at this point in time recognizes that our culture, so heavily influenced by the USA, tends to devalue those things that we do not pay for; on the contrary, the more we pay for something here in The Bahamas, the more we tend to respect it.

To Pay or Not to Pay Incidental Fees

That said, however, I do not support the principle of raising incidental fees in an attempt to recover costs.

In the first place, student amenities at the college are sub-standard, even with all the improvements; in the same period of time, although the investment in tuition and the quality of education has improved, changes in student life have been mixed. Students have lost their access to much of the Student Union Building, some of which has been repurposed as offices; there is no on-campus cafeteria and students have to purchase their food from the fast food franchises that flourish around the campus; while the dorms have been upgraded, they have not been expanded; there are no student lounges or interior spaces in which people can gather and relax or rejuvenate; communications with the student body is difficult, as student emails are so unreliable that virtually none of the students use them and there is no central congregating place where notices can be shared and discussions held. In all, the approach to student life at COB is still far more in keeping with that of a fancy high school than that of a university.

In the second place, the pervading attitude towards students on campus appears to be that they are a necessary evil—or, to use more gentle language, that they are simply overgrown, misbehaving high-schoolers who should be seen and not heard, and who should be deferential to their elders, accepting of whatever treatment is meted out to them, unquestioning of inefficiencies, and uncritical of mediocrity. Unlike the quality of the education provided at the College (which is, against all odds, high—and some of the best value for money in the hemisphere), the quality of student (and faculty) life is low. To ask students to pay additional fees without addressing these shortcomings is asking a bit much.

Higher Education and the Bahamian Nation

I said above that all things being equal, I would support an increase in tuition fees. For example, if that increase was linked to the College's full and legal transition to university status, I would have no quarrel with the proposal. But it is not. It is a desperate move on the part of a college administration faced with drastic and untenable cuts to its subvention to find ways to maintain the services currently being offered.

So to me, the real question is whether or not The Bahamas as a whole, and its representative, the government, sees any real value in Bahamian tertiary-level education. As with most other things, the lip-service is certainly paid. In his mid-year budget communication to Parliament this year, the Minister of Education reiterated his ministry's "commitment" to COB's university status:

The transition of the College of The Bahamas to University status is a national imperative. This remains an important and fundamental objective of my Ministry and by extension the Government of The Bahamas. We share the collective belief that we cannot have any expectations for a progressive nation if we do not provide the means for higher learning and scholarship reflective of successful, progressive and first world countries.

But these are just words. I should like at least to raise the question of our nation's investment—or lack thereof—in higher education on the whole. As many have said before me, there is something fundamentally visionless and absurd about the government's proposed reduction of the COB subvention. While the government itself is faced with the need to reduce its own expenditure by the 25%-over-two-years that it is passing onto its agencies, it is not making those cuts across the board; certain agencies have been deemed to be exempt. That the College of The Bahamas, poised by promise on the verge of the university status that the government has yet to grant it, is not also exempt speaks volumes to the place of the intellect in Bahamian society, and to the real commitment of the government to Bahamian university education.

Consider the following facts.

  • The government's subvention to the College stands at just under $25,000,000 for 2012-2013 ($24,994,543, to be exact). There are 4884 students enrolled.

    • This is approximately $5100 per student.

    • This is approximately $70 per capita.

    • The government's budget for the prison is just over $23,000,000 for 2012-2013 ($23,036,978, to be exact). There are 1,550 inmates.

      • This is approximately $14,863 per inmate.

      • This is approximately $64 per capita.

      • The government's total expenditure on education (including the Department of Education, the Bahamas Technical and Vocational Institute, the Ministry of Education and the College of The Bahamas) is $281,503,462.

      • According to both the World Bank and the IDB, the greatest single obstacle to doing business in The Bahamas is the lack of an educated workforce. Worse yet, businesses in The Bahamas were almost 3 times as likely to make that observation than other nations in the Latin American and Caribbean region. Given the fact that 61.8% of the Bahamian population has a high school education, the problem is at the tertiary level.

      • COB's budget subvention of $24,994,543 is 8.9% of the government's overall budget for education. If we add in BTVI's $5,641,622, this brings the percentage spent on local tertiary level education by the Bahamas government to 11%.

        • Barbados spends 41% of its annual education budget on tertiary level education.

          • Jamaica spends 20% of its annual education budget on tertiary level education.

          • Trinidad and Tobago spends 22% of its annual education budget on tertiary level education.

These facts, together with the relative lack of outrage about the government's proposal to cut COB's subvention, suggest that the Bahamian government, together with the society that supports it, does not in fact take the idea of Bahamian higher education seriously at all. What the College of The Bahamas is being asked to do, at the same time as it is being moved to university status, is to cut just under $6.25 million from its current budget over the next 2 years. This is to be done "without any reduction in quality and level of services to the public". Now consider this.

  • 70%, or some $35 million, of COB's current budget goes to pay personal emoluments. (Contrary to popular belief, the College employs more than just faculty; this percentage covers all the people who work at the college.)

  • This leaves $8.75 million (assuming salaries remain exactly the same as they are today--i.e. no promotions, no increments, no further investment in PhDs, etc) to provide what is currently costing the college $15 million to provide.

Sleight of hand and double-speak aside, what the government has just demanded the college do is carry water in a sieve. Do I object to the raising of fees for tertiary education? In principle, no. But when this is the only way in which the services currently provided can hope to be maintained, I am left with grave and serious questions about the proposal indeed.

Forty years and maybe more, or falling off the balance beam

are meaningless
except to measure the process
of maturing.

Pat Rahming, "Still and Maybe More -- A Trilogy"

Need I say it? I am overcommitted, and I am feeling compromised, and am consequently conflicted and a little angry at both myself and the system which governs us. I feel like I'm swimming underwater and there's a pressure building up inside (or is it outside?) my head that is uncomfortable, to say the least.

This post is one small step towards equalizing the pressure.


The feeling of compromise comes from the fact that as long ago as August 2012 I was asked to serve as co-chair of the fortieth anniversary of independence committee. Back then, in the golden haze that surrounded the change of government, there was a sense of excitement regarding this anniversary. It's not always an excitement that stretches across both sides of the political divide; often I get the sense that supporters of the PLP tend to make a whole lot more of being independent than supporters of the FNM, but maybe that's an assumption. Certainly there was a measure of scepticism about a big-time forty anniversary celebration. It's a scepticism that I understand. After all, it's not the fortieth anniversary that usually gets the attention, but the half-century, and rightly so.

I even share some of the reservations about a fortieth anniversary celebration that I have heard expressed. No need to go all out on this one; fifty is coming up. Now this is something that I happen to believe, to an extent. Fifty is coming up, and fifty should get most of the attention; true. But when I hear the easy and (forgive me) lazy comments that we don't have the money to waste on celebrating the fortieth anniversary of our independence something happens along my spine and up the back of my neck. I suppose if I were a cat or a dog that's where the fur would be standing up on end. I have very little patience in this uncontested oh-so-Bahamian habit of suggesting that spending money on national events is somehow a waste of time; and the more reading I do about our history the more my hair stands on end.

Money more sacred than people

We come from a tradition where it has been an unquestioned truism that money is somehow more sacred than people. It's more sacred than ideals, and it's more sacred than collective identities. It is an attitude that pervaded our governance all throughout the twentieth century. Back in the 1920s, the debates surrounding the establishment of a public high school that would make it possible for Bahamians who were not white to have even a hope of a high school education were fuelled by this question of affordability; opponents of the establishment of a government high school (who were, unsurprisingly, pretty exclusively wealthy and white) argued that it would be more cost-effective to establish a reformatory school for children (a sort of work-house perhaps?) because there was nothing in the colony for educated black people to do. (Apparently the idea of creating space for educated black people to exist was not something that was affordable either). Back in the 1940s, the argument for not paying the Bahamian workers on the Windsor Field project American wages was that the colony could not afford the consequent raise in wages that those workers would expect from all of their employers.  Back in the early 1960s, the debates attending on independence which inevitably accompanied the changes that were being made in suffrage were countered by the idea that the colony could not afford the cost of creating its own diplomatic service or its own military—things that, strangely, less than ten years later were suddenly affordable. In the 1980s, for some reason our nation was unable to afford the cost of maintenance of public buildings, or of supplying them; those of us who came of age in that era will well remember the persistent shortage of basic amenities in public offices and buildings, from chalk to toilet paper in our schools, from drugs in our hospitals (this during a time when banks were turning away deposits of cash owing to the success of a very different drug trade) to books in our libraries, from docks on our family islands to places of public renewal (think Jumbey Village) in our urban communities.  And in the 2000s, we were unable to afford an investment in CARIFESTA which might have energized our cultural economy and rejuvenated our tourism product and given us the potential to take advantage of the most vibrant parts of the global economy, culture and tourism, today (though we were more than able to borrow ourselves into an economic depression to deepen our harbour and build roads in New Providence alone—things that make you go "hm").

Bahamian money: more important than Bahamian people.

Forty years of independence

So I am not likely to jump on the naysayer bandwagon and argue that we can't afford to celebrate our nationhood by commemorating forty years of independence. On the other hand, though, I am equally unlikely to ratify half-baked and wasteful decisions. I hope that I've made it clear that I don't believe in principle that celebrating our independence is either half-baked or wasteful; but there is such a thing as context, and context changes many things.

My personal challenge is simple. Each week I am called to attend a meeting of  the (recently formed) fortieth anniversary committee. Despite having been asked to serve as its chair in the middle of last year, the committee was appointed in January 2013. We are expected to sit around a table once a week to discuss activities for the year. At the same time, though, as I write, a document is circulating around my place of employment (the College of The Bahamas, for  those who may not know) which calls for fairly drastic budget cuts. These are cuts being imposed upon that institution by the government of the Bahamas, in the form of a (perhaps unprecedented?) reduction of the government's subvention: a 10% reduction in 2013-2014, rising to 25% reduction in 2014-2015—the same government who has asked me to co-chair a committee that plans activities in honour of our fortieth anniversary of independence. They are cuts that will not simply require the trimming of some fat at what is already a fairly lean institution, but will certainly require the letting of some blood as well—and, if rumours about 2015 and beyond are to be believed, the chopping off of a limb or two. At the same time, 2015 is the year by which my institution is to be a university. Add to the mix the fundamental conservatism by which the institution has come to be governed internally—according to philosophies that privilege central control over shared governance—and also add the ways in which protests have generally been made within that institution—by personal attack, divisiveness and a pitting of one constituency (faculty, for example) against another, and you will understand that the balancing act with which I am currently faced appears impossible.

Falling off the balance beam

On the one hand, I understand the desire to recognize our fortieth anniversary of  independence in some tangible and uplifting manner. Among other things, in this country where our history is as well-known as the speaking of Latin, it has a practical significance that in some ways trumps the symbolic significance that our fiftieth anniversary in 2023 will have; it is the last major anniversary of independence when the people who will shape the Bahamas of the future can converse and work together with the people who laid the foundations of the Bahamian nation (and here I'm not just talking about the political leaders). That we celebrate it appropriately, to my mind, is imperative.

But on the other hand, when we are being asked to "celebrate" in a climate where one of the most solid achievements of our forty years of independence, the College/University of The Bahamas, is being asked to cut services which are already woefully under-funded and under-supported by successive governments, the question of what is appropriate looms large. And the irony of my personal situation is not lost on me. I know one thing for sure: that if the College is forced to cut 25% of its budget in an attempt to meet the shortfall it will face from the 25+% cut in government subvention, the independence that I am called to celebrate will lose much of its meaning not only for me, but also for the generation of Bahamians to come, whether they know it yet or not. 

Bahama Republic

Election fever has brought some interesting things back to my attention, such as this blog, Bahama Republic.It's not that I didn't know it existed. It's right there in my blogroll, among the various links that are expired, obsolete, or moved. That means I knew about it three, four or five years ago (don't know how long ago I constructed the blogroll—the older I get, the more time compresses into one big blur). Still. As is the case with many of those links, I haven't revisited it in some time.But links to its posts are resurfacing on Facebook via the Demand Debates campaign, and because there's more discussion regarding life and work at the College of The Bahamas.Go check it out. It's good reading. I tend to fall into its camp with regard to the ways in which we view ourselves, our fundamental conservatism and fear of confrontation, our need of "brain-un-washing". I particularly agree with the idea that 2012 and possibly years to come "may see the continuation of the unfinished revolution of the 1960/70s." I'm not sure I share all of its cynicism, and while I am as unimpressed with the "achievements" of the past five years as the author is, I have not been convinced that a return to a PLP administration will be the magic bullet that solves all our problems.My only criticism? There's nothing on the site to indicate who's behind it. Now while I can't blame a person (who for all I know may well be a civil servant, and therefore prohibited from exercising the constitutionally guaranteed right of free-ish speech, or a sitting MP, or even—weird thought—a down-low member of the FNM cabinet) for wishing to keep a low profile, the lack of identifiable authorship does give me pause. Anonymity is sometimes necessary, but in this cyberage it is also an easy way to make statements for which one does not have to take responsibility. We live in a country where responsibility is too easily shifted from the person to the generic; it seems to me that one way to counter that failing is for each citizen to step up and take personal responsibility for what they feel, think and say.That said, what do I know? I don't know the author's situation, and for all I know his/her livelihood may depend on keeping the powerful happy. In that case, the blog itself is an exercise in responsibility.In any event, go read Bahama Republic. It's heartening to see the continued level of discussion, and well worth it.