Education is the bridge

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THIS week saw the confluence of a few events which underline the need for Guyanese to be forward thinking and united as the oil economy rushes closer and closer. To the casual observer, the teachers’ strike, the pending Memorandum of Understanding with Trinidad and Tobago and regional talks about the CSME are unconnected events, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Our government is now carefully navigating the tricky waters of maintaining regional friendships, while safeguarding local workers and entrepreneurial interests, lest Guyanese are shipwrecked by Caribbean integration.

What does the teachers’ strike have to do with Caribbean integration? Let us not forget that Guyana is reputed to have the highest rate of brain drain in the world, and that the CSME guarantees access to living and working in Guyana if Caribbean citizens are skilled workers. This means, put simply, that there is a large Caribbean workforce with easy access to Guyanese jobs as the economy grows, potentially crowding out local employment. These anxieties are mirrored as we move closer to Trinidad and Tobago, which of course already has considerable experience supporting an oil and gas industry, rightfully concerning local businesses.

Unless Guyanese are willing to pull a shocking move on a Trumpian scale, and pull out of the CSME, what this means is that we need to find an effective way to guarantee Guyanese jobs and business growth while maintaining local allegiances. The only realistic ways to do this are through effective local content provisions and massive spending on education. Guyanese are now tasked with playing an intense game of catch up; our Trinidadian peers, in particular, posing the greatest competitive threat.

It is against this backdrop that I reiterate the importance of teachers maintaining good relations with the administration, as they are likely to be the biggest beneficiary of the aggressive education spending that must come if Guyanese are to compete with their Caribbean siblings. We can simply not afford to continue with only 2.3 per cent of our population having bachelor’s degrees, when over half of Trinidadian students enter tertiary education. The Trinidadians are coming, my fellow Guyanese. The government is massaging this complex dynamic, but we do increasingly need to plan for the Guyanese education system of the future.

This situation reminds me somewhat of Caesar crossing the Rhone River in pursuit of marauding Germans. The wide river had never been bridged before, and a huge number of Germans had massed on the opposite shore, a threatening presence containing the spread of Roman influence. Needless to say, Caesar crossed that river, building one of the engineering marvels of the ancient world, a wide bridge 1000 feet across, that took only 10 days to construct. The Germans were so shocked that they fled, and Caesar was able to cross and easily secure the Roman Empire’s northern border.

I believe a push on this scale is needed in education, to act as a bridge between the Guyana of old and the wealthy country we will with fortitude become. This can come in many forms, but stipends for students, which compensate Guyanese for going back to school to get Math and English CSEC passes, or encourage attendance at technical schools and the University of Guyana will help us urgently fill classrooms and in a few short years, build the appropriate workforce. The very teachers who are now striking can be hired in government night schools to help train Guyanese in critical subjects, providing them substantial additional incomes and further demonstrating how much we value educators.
We cannot afford to do nothing, as of course the consequences of inaction are dire. Without an aggressive push into education, the crime rate will likely skyrocket as inequality grows, not just between fellow Guyanese, but Guyanese and these new Caribbean migrants. Even further, it is important that Guyanese recognise that, unlike Barbados, Trinidad or even Jamaica, Guyana is certainly big enough to accommodate a huge influx of Caribbean citizens. We cannot claim overcrowding as a defence, and are thus even more vulnerable to unchecked migration.

But the answer, Guyanese, is not to entirely turn away from our Caribbean siblings. We will, in the short term, need their skills to help drive economic growth. The key is for us not to let a temporary accommodation turn into permanent inequality, with Guyanese once again at the bottom of the ladder. Education will make us more competitive, can be used as a means of wealth redistribution and is fundamentally about uplifting Guyanese, so they can live their best life. We will build this Caribbean Region together because we are a family, but it is our local responsibility to ensure that Guyanese lead the way.