‘Galvanize’ GATE and Access

by Dr. Denzil A. Streete
As appeared in Trinidad Express 10.13.16, p.13|This version USA spelling
GATE: Government Assistance for Tertiary Expenses [decade-old program of the Government of Trinidad and Tobago that provides full payment of tuition fees for all citizens at public and private post-secondary institutions (academic and vocational). Proposed changes to program include means testing]

Growing up when and where I did, in Morvant, high walls and secure fences were not commonplace. Often, with the largely haphazard layout of housing, any yard was susceptible to being used as a shortcut to get to some other place. Having a bountiful fruit tree was reason enough to develop some arbitrary fencing solution. Quite often, the materials of choice were either discarded wood or the ubiquitous sheets of rusted ‘galvanize’. A galvanize fence or ‘gate’ bore all the semblance of demarcation, but essentially was just a mirage of security — keeping out those who couldn’t be bothered with the screeching noise or the risks involved from rusty, jagged edges.

In early August this year, after much delay the government finally made public its plans for the ‘strengthening’ of the GATE program. Facing reduced revenues to the national coffers, GATE was ripe for the picking. Nevermind that the estimated costs of bailing out CLICO cost taxpayers, at minimum, a couple decades of equivalent GATE funding at current levels; GATE became symbolic of wastage and excessive spending. The GATE changes forecasted by the government, although lacking in significant detail, will act as nothing more than a ‘galvanize gate’ for those who will be impacted most. While possibly being effective in keeping out the monied ‘intruders’, this galvanize GATE may in fact, in the long run, keep out those for whom the program in theory was designed to benefit.

Pivotal in the strategy forecasted by the Minister of Education, was the re-introduction of a system of means-testing. Means-testing was the easy way out in reducing the cost of the GATE program. Research has shown that means testing in the delivery of social services often acts as a gatekeeper. Those citizens most in need of the service and who meet the financial threshold for qualification, often shy away from even applying. This reduction in enthusiasm among the qualified usually stems from the perceived ‘shame’ involved in the virtual self-identification of poverty. Further, the additional paperwork and requirements to provide additional proof for verification of what is being claimed, act as an added barrier. Means testing has not yet been in place and it is being widely reported that enrolment at UWI St Augustine this academic year is already lower. One would have expected that with this being the final year of not having to prove family income, students would have been rushing to post-secondary institutions like UWI to take advantage of this reality.

Contrary to the popular discourse, GATE is not free education. GATE merely waives tuition costs. Any university student will make you aware that schools have become quite innovative in their yearly adjustments to ancillary fees which are not covered by GATE. In the case of private institutions, these additional fees are usually quoted in foreign denominations. Even when students from disadvantaged families qualify for full government funding, these increasingly exorbitant fees and costs such as housing, transport and books, serve as an additional barrier which the government’s increase of the HELP loan maximum to $35,000. annually will do little to ameliorate.

It is important that the minister and the government understand that citizens at the lower rung of the income ladder can only benefit from the new GATE funding formula if they meet the entry requirements for these post-secondary institutions, in the first place. Professor Deosaran, like the common man, has been at pain to point out that our current system of education consistently disadvantages the poor. Does the average student attending a government secondary school have the same likelihood at university entrance as those graduating from a prestigious denominational secondary school? With abysmal pass rates at CSEC Mathematics and English Language examinations over the years, these students from government schools are further disproportionately disadvantaged from accessing education at the CAPE level — a significant gatekeeper for entrance into the UWI. To truly ensure that those who benefit most from GATE, need it most, Government would have been better served by placing significant emphasis on providing government secondary schools with the human and physical resources to raise the performance of their students — giving them a greater chance at meeting the matriculation standards for quality post-secondary institutions.

In my own research, so far GATE has largely benefited those who otherwise would have financially been able to afford a higher education. In fact, the research has shown that, on average, those students who choose to attend university are the financially secure and are the children of parents who also have some form of higher education. The savings the government projects to derive from implementing means testing, may indeed be derived from the barriers it places on low-income families, as highlighted above, rather than from spending less on ‘wealthy’ families. Income disclosure in Trinidad and Tobago is notoriously inefficient. Income derived especially from self-employment is particularly not reported. Implementing a system of means testing before revolutionizing the state’s ability to accurately verify income disclosure, does nothing to discourage those with the social capital and access to political operatives to evade the checks and balances to be implemented. What is to prevent a student from a wealthy family from moving out on her own and then subsequently claiming she is an independent student with no parental assistance? What prevents a student still living at home with her parents from claiming that ‘my parents’ income is not my income and they contribute nothing to my education’? Verification of these new income thresholds will be problematic at best, and shoddy if past experience here with income verification is to be a barometer.

In light of the above, it is evident that the forecasted changes to GATE for the next academic year, will in fact be a ‘galvanize gate’ impacting access. While portending to not impact those who cannot afford, the new barrier is in fact real — hurting those who need access most, while serving as an insignificant and surmountable impediment for those with the capital — social and financial — to continue their unimpeded access to the country’s wealth. In the Budget speech last week, it was expected that significant attention would have been paid to addressing the inequality and disproportionate funding existing in government secondary schools; and much of the annual ‘ole talk’ of strengthening tax compliance and income verification rhetoric be translated into actionable steps, with firm dates. However, both the Ministers of Education and Finance sidestepped these issues, and we continue to spin the proverbial ‘top in mud’ — going nowhere fast.

Dr. Denzil A. Streete is a former student of Morvant Anglican School and Queens Royal College. He received his PhD specializing in Economics of Education from Columbia University in the City of New York in 2016, and is currently a faculty member at the Syracuse University School of Education in Syracuse, NY. He can be contacted at Streete@tc.columbia.edu.

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