It was clear that Government Assistance for Tuition Expenses (GATE) had to be restructured. The existing system was wasteful and much of the value went to families who could have afforded to pay university fees — a typical problem with most subsidies. The increase in both the quantity and quality of the cars driven by students and parked on The University of the West Indies (The UWI) St. Augustine campus was testimony to this fact. Means testing is an obvious way of targeting subsidies and a logical policy decision, though I have some misgivings about how the levels have been set and how the process will actually be administered.
My bigger concern, however, is the fact that the debate on government funding of tertiary education continues to focus on bachelor’s and post-graduate degrees, while technical and vocational education seems to not even be on the agenda. I think that a far great emphasis should be placed on investing in skills development both for young people and for the existing labour force. In the energy sector, there are thousands of skilled craftworkers who have no formal certification of their skills. It would be great to see focus placed on getting these individuals fully certified. This will involve both assessing their existing skills and providing targeted short-term training to meet any gaps identified in their assessment.
Most of these individuals are not permanently employed by one service company or contractor, but migrate between different companies on a project-by-project basis. While they are well paid when they are working in the energy sector, there are typically periods when they have no work or when they are working in lower-paid jobs outside of the energy sector. This situation makes it difficult for the individuals to invest directly in their own skills development, as they are unsure if they will get future work. Companies are also reluctant to directly invest in training for these itinerant workers, as they are unlikely to stay with the company beyond a few weeks while a project is in progress.
Getting these workers certified also has an important role in our attempts to export energy services to new markets like Guyana. Major customers in international markets want to see that our workers are certified, and workers also need official documentation of skills certification if they are to access the free movement of people provisions within the Caribbean Community (CARICOM).
Under the current GATE setup, the government will pay for skills assessments for these workers through the established Workforce Assessment Centres. However, there is no GATE funding for the short-term skills development courses that are needed to complement these assessments and help individuals close any skills gaps. I have not seen any mention of this area in the current announcements on GATE or even if GATE will continue to fund assessments at a full or partially subsidised level.
The other issue that seems not to be discussed in any of the conversations about GATE is the demographic transition which Trinidad and Tobago is experiencing. I have written about this change before in this space, but policymakers do not seem to be fully grappling with the fact that the number of young people in the country is falling and the population is aging. This means that we need to be thinking about retraining and increasing the skills level of the existing workforce, not just school-leavers.
Trinidad and Tobago is currently experiencing a period of structural adjustment in response to low commodity prices and falling oil and gas production, whether we like it or not. We have seen workers retrenched in various industries over the past few months and years. At the same time, we still have many companies complaining about skills shortages and low productivity. The restructuring of GATE offers a great opportunity to direct government investment in retraining people in the existing labour force with the skills that are now needed by industry. We need to stop focusing just on universities and start thinking about the overall role of post-secondary education in our changing economy.