Flashback February 2019, T&T Hospitality and Tourism Institute (TTHTI) student Amanda Raymond, left, looks on as Kaphia La Rode uses buttercream to decorate a cake during an open house at the school at Hilltop Lane and Airway Road, Chaguaramas.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has led to the closure of the Trinidad and Tobago Hospitality and Tourism Institute, leaving students at the facility in limbo.

The closure was confirmed in a release from Michelle Young, the Office Manager of the Trinidad Hotels, Restaurants & Tourism Association (THRTA) yesterday.

The release stated, “It is with a heavy heart that the Trinidad and Tobago Hospitality and Tourism Institute (‘TTHTI’ or ‘Institute’) advises of the decision taken by its Board to initiate a voluntary wind up of the company.”

The decision to permanently close the facility comes less than a month after the resignation of the association’s CEO Brian Frontin.

Lecturers were reportedly called in yesterday morning for the news to be announced to them, although rumours had swirled that the hotel school’s closure was near following Frontin’s departure.

Students, however, were blindsided by the news yesterday afternoon, as there had been little information concerning their status, particularly with regard to students close to completing their courses for graduation.

Neither Young nor Frontin answered calls from the Guardian yesterday evening.

While the closure of the school was linked to the pandemic, the release also alluded to pre-existing conditions, namely the non-receipt of a government subvention to aid the school for the last three years.

“Prior to the Board’s decision to permanently close the Institute, several letters requesting urgent meetings were dispatched by both the TTHTI and its parent body, the THRTA, to the Ministry of Education, the most recent being July 9 and 21, 2020. In addition to outlining the progress made by the TTHTI, particularly during the pandemic period of closure, in these correspondence, the Institute also sought further clarity on the reasons or explanations for the withholding of subvention payments to the Institute (over $13,171,000) which were approved in National Budgets for the Fiscal Years 2017, 2018, and 2019 by the Parliament of the Republic of Trinidad & Tobago,” the release said.

The THRTA added further, “There has been no acknowledgement or response to these letters of request. The unexplained, continued unwillingness of the GOTT over the past several years to engage in discussions with the TTHTI, along with the impact of this global pandemic, has left the Board with no other options but to permanently close the Institute.”

The school, while a private entity, currently falls under the umbrella of the Ministry of Education.

The release closed, “The voluntary winding up the TTHTI is the only viable course of action to potentially satisfy debts owed to creditors, staff, suppliers, students and financiers. Over the coming weeks, representatives of the Institute will be engaging affected stakeholders to discuss the way forward.”

Former chairman of the TTHTI, Denise Demming called the decision “extremely unfortunate” but she noted there had been friction and fiscal challenges for several years.

She said, “Winding up of the TTHTI is an extremely unfortunate decision because the school had so much potential to prepare employees for the local and regional hospitality sector. While I was Chairman, there was intense friction between the school and then Principal Dr Pat Butcher. At that time the government under the former Minister of Education, changed the GATE arrangement and under the leadership of Mr Brian Frontin, the school had to re-design the payment arrangements with students to ensure that it was able to provide sound educational opportunities for students interested in the hospitality sector.”

She explained that the school was recently accredited to the American Hotel and Lodging Educational Institute (AHLEI) which meant that students could be certified locally and be able to work abroad with US accreditation.

Demming called on the government to reconstitute the school.

“If the Government is serious about the Hospitality and Tourism sector it will have to re-constitute the school under new arrangements and leadership but the nexus with the Hotel and Restaurants will continue to exist. This is just a most unfortunate development and while COVID would have exacerbated the situation, preparing for the future is important. There is now a disruption in the education of students in the hospitality sector,” she said.

However, a former lecturer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, also explained the accreditation shift to the US style saw significant increases to tuition fees. The former staff member that financial concerns had been constant throughout the last five years with members of staff taking multiple pay cuts.