Interview: Brian Copeland

How would you assess the recent changes implemented to the Government Assistance for Tuition Expenses Programme (GATE)?

BRIAN COPELAND: The changes to GATE were necessary given the economic and financial circumstances of Trinidad and Tobago. Through this government assistance programme, participation in higher education has widened and classes have swollen in size, affecting staff-to-student ratios and teaching quality. At the same time, it was necessary to limit system abuse. It is crucial that any future adjustments to GATE be done in tandem with the identification of priority areas for growth and development, and in line with a strategic national development plan. At this point the government has yet to elucidate a blueprint, though there is a clear commitment to move in this direction. One school of thought suggests the country should focus on sectors in which we are already strong, at least initially, in order to maximise short-term gains.

We are faced with a scenario where our graduates are underemployed and failing to secure the jobs for which they are qualified. GATE was extremely effective at taking care of the supply side, however, we failed to address growth on the demand side. There is significant brain drain in the country, and we as a society have not done enough to provide opportunities for graduates.

While the cuts to GATE have certainly impacted tertiary institutions, they are also leading to more prudent financial planning, elimination of superfluous expenditure and greater efficiency. We have plans to engage in discussions with other tertiary institutions to ensure we do not duplicate programmes, and in so doing, maximise the return on the country’s investment in education.

How can educational institutions and private industry partner to enhance creativity and innovation?

COPELAND: By August 2017 we intend to launch UWI’s first spin-off company, with a goal of launching one spin-off every two years. By demonstrating the success of the first spin-off and the framework that produced it, we will be able to attract further private sector support with financing and investment in future ventures, and in so doing, build synergies and grow the programme.

While government investment in education has increased over the years, in per capita terms, its funding has declined in context of a larger student population. The only way we can mitigate the impact of this is through private sector partnerships and investment. We have been looking very closely at innovation and the role of universities. While blue sky research will continue, we need to pay more attention to impact, activation pathways and commercialisation outcomes. While the risk in such investment might be high, we need to build a platform that harnesses the entrepreneurial talent and creativity of our population, and minimise the underutilisation of our human capital.

What can be done to overcome challenges that have historically hindered the education system?

COPELAND: Ensuring a strong pathway from primary to secondary to tertiary education should be a priority, as the colonial roots of our education system are no longer suited to address modern society’s demands. The system needs to rely less on rote learning and do more to encourage critical thinking and creativity among students, and to empower teachers and lecturers with greater freedom. We also need to address cultural issues and understand the historical context underlying productivity challenges.

The legacy of slavery and indentured servitude plays a significant role and, while some may dismiss this as irrelevant, it has contributed significantly to the culture that exists today. We must ensure the curriculum takes this into account and supports students in the challenge of overcoming the underlying obstacles of this legacy. This has had a deep-rooted impact on culture, and there is an attendant stigma that we must acknowledge if we are to more directly address these concerns.