Students and other citizens desirous of improving their education received worrisome news on Thursday after it was revealed the Government Assistance for Tuition Expenses (GATE) programme was under review.

During the Standing Finance Committee of Parliament’s examination of Budget 2021, Finance Minister Colm Imbert announced not only a 35 million cut in GATE’s budget allocation but that Cabinet was reviewing the programme, possibly suggesting more changes to come.

The programme is utilised by students and adults to access tertiary education, with Government subsidising part of the fees based on a means test. Many people were able to fund degrees which would have been out of reach without such help.

According to information from the Office of the Prime Minister in 2017, GATE, which began in 2004, saw enrollment in tertiary level institutions skyrocket from eight per cent in 2002 to 65 per cent in 2015.

Thursday was not the first time GATE has been under the spotlight.

In 2016, a GATE Task Force recommended several changes to the programme which later implemented. Before that, in 2012 there were vociferous calls to scrap the programme and revert to its predecessor – Dollar for Dollar – which saw students and government putting the same amount towards degrees.

While a review of Government programmes from time to time is understandable, now may not be a good time to do so.

Already, some young students’ futures are in limbo following the grading debacle by the Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC). The review of GATE and the impending report serves as a double blow for them.

Moreover, the financial impact of COVID-19 has had a significant impact on tertiary level students.

UWI Guild president Warren Anderson has confessed to the Guild having to help many students suffering due to the economic effects of the pandemic. COSTAATT president Gillian Paul has also expressed fear that cuts could see more students withdrawing from classes.

With GATE funding already cut, any further attempt to have students or their parents dig into their pockets will further reduce the number of people accessing higher education.

For years, education has received the lion’s share of the budgetary allocation and 2021 was no exception. Emphasis on the need for education and training as measures to divert some of the country’s human resources away from the energy sector have been championed repeatedly by successive governments. Therefore, it is inconceivable that components to such a critical area would see a cut in fiscal allocation when we need greater focus on the diversification drive.

In this year’s budget, CEPEP’s subvention was increased by $50 million while spending on unoccupied state office space was maintained even while GATE funding was slashed. But somehow, it would seem channeling funding into an investment in education may have been a much wiser spend as we look to innovative ways of rejuvenating the economy ravaged by the virus. All citizens hoping to make greater contributions to the rebuilding process are waiting to see what the GATE review brings.