Up to the 1960s, all TT had were ‘prestige schools’. These turned out impressive graduates: Eric Williams, Lloyd Best, CLR James, Naipaul….
To extend access to secondary schooling, the government started ‘Comprehensive Schools’, open to all, which used more-or-less the same curricula as the ‘prestige schools’. What was the result? The Comprehensive schools turned into ghettos of poor performance and just added members to the ghettos of the society.
Conclusion: extending access to educational opportunities does not necessarily lead to wider access to social and financial opportunities. It is too superficial an approach to a complex problem.
Nevertheless, the new Principal of UWI St Augustine wants to extend access to that institution by changing its entry requirements. In a rather incoherent fashion, she proposed at her inauguration that qualification for entry should no longer be based solely on examination results at secondary school but should include unquantifiable achievements such as ‘community service’.
This raises unpleasant echoes in TT ears since the term ‘community leader’ has come to equal ‘gangster who receives money from the government to support the PNM’. Fudging fuzzy entry requirements is standard practice abroad: it is telling that tertiary education in the US requires SAT scores and, in the UK, GCSE Advanced level results.
Professor Antoine supports her proposal with the claim that such a practice exists in many universities abroad, citing scholarship requirements. She must know, however, that requirements for scholarships are not the same thing as university entry requirements. Scholarships are awarded based on clear social aims, and their recipients have to fulfil the basic entry requirements of the university they apply to. A university should only admit students who have mastered the skills needed to benefit from its training.
To make matters worse, Professor Antoine justifies such a change as a way of countering social and economic constraints suffered by some applicants, including those based on ethnicity and gender. This is really a red flag. Girls are outperforming boys in secondary school exams. So, should we lower admission requirements for boys? Is that fair to the girls who study hard in order to become economically independent? Are boys assumed to be handicapped? I know many from rich families who are really just too spoilt to bother to study.
And then there’s this ethnic bias being proposed. It’s obvious that this is aimed at discriminating against the ethnic group that has a habit of high educational achievement, not only in Trinidad but elsewhere in the world. Are we assuming that members of some other race are inherently handicapped and must be given special treatment? Isn’t that an insult to that group? Who were the high achievers of the past – the ANR Robinsons and Ulric Crosses? What ethnic group did they belong to?
Clearly, these proposals are hastily thought out. They can be challenged on the basis of the same international human rights principles the principal used to espouse. But more than that, they will not achieve the objective of catering for weaker members of the society. The problem of educational failure originates in the primary schools, in homes, and in poor social leadership spawned, in part, by the very University of the West Indies. It has to be tackled there.