LET me make an unconventional statement about the current impasse between the Guyana Teachers Union and the government. From the 1980s to the moment that Guyana discovered oil, the more that was spent on public education, the less educated the Guyanese population became.
On the surface, this flies in the face of all logic, but I believe it is the real reason for the possible strike, and can help us appreciate the true challenge our education system now faces.
Don’t blame the government. Don’t blame the teachers. Blame migration.
Where are all the proud products of our hard-working teachers? Where are our scholars, our highly skilled members of the workforce and the innovators and great minds of our time?
We all know that they are in New York, Toronto and London. We know this because of personal experience, but also because multiple reports put the migration rate of Guyanese with bachelor’s degrees at over 80%, a statistic corroborated by the Bureau of Statistics, which notes that only 2.3% of Guyanese have bachelor’s degrees.
As 80% of Guyanese have not migrated since the 1980s (that would put the total Guyanese population at 4 million, which doesn’t seem reasonable), what this means is that the higher the level of education obtained locally, the higher the likelihood that Guyanese will migrate.
Since much of education locally is either fully taxpayer-funded or partially subsidised, this means that the more spent on a student, the more likely that student will not stay to directly contribute to the local economy.
This has put considerable tension, implicitly, on the relationship between successive governments and teachers, because teachers have been unable to concretely point to the positive results of their work locally, and governments have been unable to reap the full rewards. As a consequence, our perception of the value of teachers is much lower than it otherwise would be, matched by an economy that has had to rely on a sizeable underground economy, rather than one that can innovate freely.
Since we can’t tax the underground economy, by definition, this means less money in the coffers and therefore lower wages for teachers.
It is important to acknowledge the contributions, especially financial ones, of those living abroad, and many would argue repatriations are a primary pillar of local life. Indeed they are, but that argument misunderstands the real problem, which is that the lack of qualified people undermines the broader economy. It has created a strange equilibrium, in which Guyana’s population and growth rate have remained stable, but not spectacular, with technological change and innovation (which bring truly high rates of development) nothing more than an abstract aspiration.
This is not to single out those who have moved abroad, as we can all understand the many reasons people choose to leave, or migrated as children. Rather, it is to highlight the structural nature of our economy, and in particular our education system.
On the other hand, however, finding oil completely reversed this situation, and I believe we are only just now coming to terms with this. It has meant, to any savvy young Guyanese, that the returns to remaining are likely to far outstrip the returns to leaving. This also reverses the relationship between the government and teachers, so that investing in education will now produce higher, not lower returns.
I find the current strike and its sharp, proposed salary increases very strange, almost like the few twilight minutes between day and night. It seems to me that teachers are asking for pay increases at precisely the wrong moment. Rather, they should restructure their demands for the years during which we produce oil, settling for smaller demands now and accelerating those as production increases.
Given that the value of education to the government will also increase because students are likely to remain in the country, the government will also likely be friendlier to increases.
I’ll frame it simply: doesn’t every teenager know the best time to ask for money is just after mom and dad have been paid? Near the end of the month, when their pockets are empty, there’s just not much to give, even if they do want to help.
And so, my suspicion is that the GTU has not yet figured out that a salary increase now may actually mean teachers are paid less in the long-run.
This type of restructured thinking is becoming more and more pressing in the run-up to first-oil, and so I’ll leave you with this question: if Guyanese are now going to remain rather than leave, how does this change the way we think about our entire education system?