$1.5M TO PLAY ON
By SEAN DOUGLAS Wednesday, October 17 2012
THE Divine Echoes concert band set up by former Prime Minister Patrick Manning was staffed by foreign tutors who were paid salaries totalling about $1.5 million a month, according to Newsday estimates based on figures revealed during the Budget debate by Minister of Tertiary Education, Fazal Karim in the Senate yesterday.
He began by scoffing at a Senator’s plea for the band, and quipped that the Opposition would not want to hear what he had to say next.
Earlier, Opposition Senator Terrrance Deyalsingh had asked why the band was being shut down, when instead youths should be encouraged and taught moral values.
“The value of the Divine Echoes is beyond just music,” implored Deyalsingh. He urged that $10 million in private funding be found for the band, just as it was done to hire US basketball icon Shaquile O’Neal, to launch the “Hoops of life” project. His plea fell on the deaf ears.
“If it is that music was the love of the former prime minister, then the mantra was to find the musicians, and play on, regardless,” quipped Karim.
He said that from 2007 Manning had begun to establish a national orchestra to be made up of foreign musicians.
“A consultant was engaged via UTT (University of Trinidad and Tobago) to pull the musicians together. A certain person negotiated the terms and conditions for the members of the orchestra, and...money was set aside in the Prime Minister’s Office.”
Karim said the orchestra was to be funded and managed by the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM), adding, “By the time of the (2010) election, 20 musicians were sourced and brought to Trinidad for this purpose.”
Karim read out the wages of several posts in the band.
“‘Section leader (viola) monthly remuneration $80,920 per month,” he said.
“Section leader (trombone), $74,670 per month. Professor of music and section leader, $78,270 per month. Section leader (double bass), $66,920 per month. Senior artist in residence –whatever that is– $72,920 per month. Another senior artist in residence and associate professor, $82,560 per month. Concert master of the band, $90,570 per month.”
He paused to say he could go on, only to be egged on by his Government colleagues.
“Professor of music and principal trumpet, he’s getting $80,650 per month,” he then said.
Newsday calculated that if 20 musicians had been hired at an average salary of $75,000 per month, this would add up to a total wage bill of $1.5 million per month. However, smaller sums were shown as allocated to run the Divine Echoes, through the OPM, in Budget documents from 2009 and 2013 known as Estimates of Recurrent Expenditure. (It is not known if the salaries were also paid otherwise, such as through the hefty annual allocations to UTT).
For 2009 the band got $3.6 million, for 2010 it got $3.99 million, for each of 2011 and 2012 the revised estimate was $3.5 million.
Notably, the recent Budget allocates the band an initial estimate of $3.7 million for fiscal 2013, but the band was recently disbanded, when the contracts of local band members – 23 men and five women – ended on August 22.
An OPM official took the instruments and equipment from the band’s Charlieville base to a secret location, while Minister in the Office of the Prime Minister, Rodger Samuel, had told reporters Cabinet is still to decide what to do with it all.
Yesterday Karim complained about million dollar scholarships given by the former government to several persons to study doctorates in engineering in the UK from 2006 to 2010.
“We have people from the University of Trinidad and Tobago who were receiving tuition fees, overseas living expenses, airfare, to the tune of $1.7 million,” Karim hit. “In fact I could tell you about three students. I have there names here — non-UTT personnel, who are pursuing PhDs in Mechanical Engineering at Imperial College, UK, September 2006, $1.244 million.”
“PhD Engineering, University of Cambridge, UK, April 2006, $1,565,861.69. “Another one, University of Cambridge, PhD in Engineering, $1.4 million.”
Karim recalled that in 2009, TT was rocked by a scandal in which $45 million was spent in a secret scholarship fund under the former PNM regime.
Last week in the Lower House Budget debate, Port-of-Spain North/St Ann’s West MP Patricia Mc Intosh lamented that Government has stopped their predecessor’s scheme to fund PhD study for anyone graduating with a first-class first degree.
Karim also addressed Finance Minister Larry Howai’s remarks in the Budget Speech that the Government Assistance with Tuition Expenses (GATE) must soon address TT’s areas of socio-economic priority.
Karim said Howai’s statement did not mean that anyone would be denied “access to tertiary education” based on their socio-economic background.
He added that Government has not approved any means-test to limit anyone’s access to GATE. Yet he said that in 2004, the former PNM regime had means-tested 5,966 students to access $31 million in assistance to pay their tuition.
Karim said a student loan scheme, the Higher Education Loan Programme (HELP), had lent $258 million to 13,943 persons from 2006 to 2012.
To date $3.9 billion in GATE funds were paid out, he said, largely without any alignment of students’ studies to the needs of the labour market. In contrast, he vowed to make graduates employable. Some $758 million was given this year. Lamenting an abuse of GATE, he said this year $12 million in awards has been recouped, up from $3.8 million last year, and $3.2 million in 2010. Karim pointed to the wide variation in fees charged by private schools for the same course, saying a diploma in marketing can cost $6,000 or $11,000, while a BSc in IT can cost $16,000 or $27,000.