The Second Higher Education Meeting of the OECS took place in Saint Lucia on November 5, 2019. In attendance were OECS ministers of education and presidents/principals of national colleges of the OECS. The meeting provided the opportunity for policy makers and heads of OECS national colleges to: 1. Engage in constructive dialogue on substantive issues regarding higher education development in the OECS;
2. Agree on policies and strategies to advance the implementation of the specific imperatives relating to higher education in the OECS Education Sector Strategy (OESS);
3. Share innovative ideas and successful practices that have contributed to educational development at the national level.
The President of the Saint Lucia National Youth Council Nyus Alfred was invited by the OECS Commission to deliver a presentation on the youth perspective as it relates to higher education. Mr Alfred’s presentation zoned in on the issues of accessibility and lack of finance for students hoping to purse higher education, and called on the officials present to consider the psychosocial barriers to the attainment of higher education by less privileged youth. His address, in part, is as follows:
‘’The opportunity to address this prestigious gathering is indeed an honour. I applaud the OECS Commission for consistently making these spaces available to our regional leaders; this time for those responsible for a fundamental pillar in Youth Development across the region, education. We have long concluded that the challenges as they relate to education in Saint Lucia are not unique, as they are shared by our brother and sister territories. It goes without saying that the competitiveness of OECS countries hinges heavily on our ability to develop human and social capital, which is reliant on an efficient education system.
“The Saint Lucia National Youth Council represents the collective voices of all Saint Lucian youth between the ages of 10 and 35. A key part of our mandate involves advocacy on behalf of young people to ensure that there is equal access to quality education at all levels. The SLNYC remains steadfast in our advocacy strategy as it relates to education because inherent in our beliefs is the view that every child, regardless of their socio-economic background, has the right to accessible and affordable education. “A significant aspect of our action plan for the 2019-2021 tenure focuses immensely on improving access to education and the strengthening of student governance structures. Our plan is ambitious, but realistic, as we understand fully the intricacies of education sector development and the challenges common to small island states.
“According to a special UN report on the progress towards the SDGs: ‘In 2015 an estimated 617 million children and adolescents of primary and lower secondary school age worldwide—more than
50 per cent—were not achieving minimum proficiency levels in reading and mathematics. Of these, about two thirds were attending school but were not learning in the classroom, or dropped out of school.’
“These striking statistics represent the unfortunate regional and global realities of student learning outcomes and continue to remain top priority of discussions at forums such as this one.
“I understand that tertiary level education will be a key part of the discussion at this meeting and, considering the growing demands for higher-learning opportunities, this comes at an opportune time. Access to tertiary level education in the region cannot be understated, especially as it plays a critical role to the distribution of capital and social justice within the region.
“Critical to improving our education system in its current state is an understanding of the myriad of issues that restrict access to higher education in small island developing states like those of the OECS sub-region.”
Lack of finance has long been touted as a problem which significantly hinders access to Education. Furthermore, financial institutions make it difficult for most working class families, without the necessary prerequisites, to afford to send their children to a college or university. In Saint Lucia, it is almost impossible to get a student loan unless you present 100% security, and promise to repay interest while at school. Imagine the situation with an unemployed mother, who is able to present adequate security, maybe through family land, to secure a loan arrangement, only to face the reality that she will not be able to afford the interest payments. Additionally, we assume that the challenges are mainly economic, not understanding that there is a social aspect to it as well. Imagine that same mother, overcoming all odds to secure that loan. She has 2 other kids of school age, and a mother who hasn’t been well. The son who she is trying so desperately send off to university, analyses the situation and in not wanting to overburden his mother, decides to forego university education and to accept an entry level job at a local bank. He then goes on to receive an offer of a scholarship, but turns it down so that he can be there for his family. The single mother in that story, I call her mom.
Unless we can explore a comprehensive and inter-ministerial approach, to getting more of our brilliant students to explore new horizons, then financial barriers will always persist. It is no longer enough to recognize the talent of an underprivileged child, and simply offer a scholarship. There has to be greater focus on understanding the social issues impeding the ability of vulnerable youth to benefit from these privileges.
With further regard to scholarships, we must acknowledge a fundamental flaw in the process by which a lot of the available scholarships are disbursed. As Ministers and Education Officials, you will undoubtedly defend the objectivity of your selection processes, I expect nothing less, however one cannot deny the fact that ‘knowing someone who knows someone of influence’ just makes the process a whole lot easier. Maybe that explains why most of these opportunities are reliant solely on a child’s academic brilliance. Let us use another scenario. Two students involved this time. One is from an affluent family, who is able to pay for extra lessons, swimming and other extra-curricular activities. The other is from a poor family, who is just as bright, is unable to afford extra lessons, and unable to participate in extracurricular activities due to a part time job in order to support their family. Both students write final exams, and in most cases, the poor student who gets an average of 70% will be overlooked for the affluent student with an 85% score, who may just be able to afford university education anyway. What are we doing to ensure that opportunities are actually AVAILABLE and ACCESSIBLE to those who are financially challenged?
I know, that you will probably say that there are other opportunities to access higher education, through sports scholarships most frequently. While this is accurate, we need to consider widening these opportunities to areas such as music, S.T.E.M, arts, and youth development.
The opportunity to address you today doesn’t allow me to delve much further into these issues, however this discussion undoubtedly has to continue. In another address, on another day, I might have regurgitating all the facts and figures that support my claims, and quote all the latest studies. But as Ministers, and officials within our education system, I have decided to appeal to your human side. If we are to address the myriad of issues that you are going to discuss over the course of this meeting, there needs to be an effort to look beyond just the facts and figures. Let us begin to humanize our students, and think of them as not problems to be solved, but as a potent resource, that if nurtured holistically, can begin to live up to their potential. This has to be done keeping in mind that accountability starts with governments and officials like you, as you are ultimately the primary duty bearers of the right to education.
It would be remiss of me as the NYC President, not to solicit your support for the development of student governance movements across your jurisdictions. The UNESCO Global Education Report on Accountability states that student movements have often swayed policies on equitable and affordable education. Yet Saint Lucia remains one of the only countries in the Caribbean with a functioning National Students Organization. So I leave you with a call to action, to ensure that the voices of students are an essential part of the education debate.
Thank you for having me, and I wish you a productive meeting. ‘’