Supplied by Tony Best
Yet another worthy step in educational institution’s development
“We have been having a more challenging time in terms of meeting our obligations to various governments.”
Prof. Nigel Harris, Vice Chancellor of the University of the West Indies, was reflecting on the steep slopes the Caribbean’s premiere educational institution must climb as it gets ready to launch a new five year strategic plan.
It’s a strategic program, which, if implemented effectively can help the dozen-plus island-nations that contribute to the UWI’s vitality reach their development goals and assist millions of young people attain their dreams of professional excellence while boosting their lifestyle. In the 50-plus years of its existence, the school, first with a single campus at Mona in Jamaica, followed by a second years later at St. Augustine in Trinidad and Tobago, followed by a permanent presence at Cave Hill in Barbados and in more recent times an Open Campus that is serving the islands of the Eastern Caribbean, the UWI has more than lived up to the region’s expectations. It has helped to transform the Caribbean educational and economic landscape by providing students with a first grade education. It has trained the region’s public servants, corporate executives for their crucial roles in the private sector, physicians, educators and a long line of distinguished professionals for their places in society.
The strategic plan prepared by Prof. Harris and his team of administrators, academicians and a wide range of experts and approved by government representatives who sit on the University’s top boards and committees is essential because a key element is the continued expansion in access by young people to UWI classrooms, laboratories and other training facilities. After all, the region’s bright but challenging future depends on the high quality of its human resources and on the ability of the archipelago of islands and coastal states to compete in a highly sophisticated world in the 21st century.
But the Caribbean isn’t alone. From Brazil, Chile, India, China and South Africa to North and Central America, Europe and the Middle East the story is the same: tertiary education is expanding and the cost to provide it is galloping along at a brisk pace.
“There is understandings within the Caribbean that if we don’t expand that access then we are not going to be competitive,” said Dr. Harris. Along with that added expansion is the necessity to raise standards of teaching. At every step governments must find ways to pay the university’s bills and finance their own national universities, community colleges and technical institutes which are either working alongside the UWI or competing against it.
The bottom line in this education equation is that the three forces – access, quality and costs—are in equilibrium with each other, a point made most emphatically and appropriately by the Vice Chancellor.
“If you increase access and you do nothing else your cost will have to increase,” he warned.
That brings us to the ability of the countries to pay. Like other developing regions of the world, Caribbean states have been hit hard by the fall-out from the global economic crisis that began in North America and Europe and spread to the rest of the world. The growing financial challenges have weakened the ability of many UWI member-states to meet their obligations to the school. For example, Barbados has fallen behind in its payments by $75 million (B’dos $150 million) and any failure to clear those arrears would impair the implementation of the strategic plan.
Little wonder, then, that the strategic plan calls for an expanded role for the Caribbean’s private sector. Quite sensibly, the strategy aims, among other things to reduce the UWI’s financial dependence on Caribbean governments, an approach which was first pursued by Prof. Rex Nettleford when he was Vice Chancellor and accelerated at the three campuses by Dr. Harris and the principals at St. Augustine, Cave Hill and Mona. Secondly, it wouldn’t rely simply on private firms making solid donations to the University, which by the way are highly desirable and welcomed. The heightened corporate presence means greater use of the school to upgrade the skills of the employees of commercial enterprises, from the CEO and the Comptroller to middle managers and even the lowest level worker.
That approach makes eminent sense. The private sector would become even more efficient and productive and serve as a crucial partner for the UWI. It would also ensure that the University recognizes the changing needs of the profit-oriented sector and develop its courses and degree programs to suit the changing economic environment.
But the UWI must do something else. As it moves ahead with the Open Campus, Prof. Harris’ brainchild, it should build on its regional image. Right now Mona, St. Augustine and Cave Hill give the appearance of being national universities geared to meet the individual needs of Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados. That’s not in the school’s and the region’s best long-term interest. Time was when the UWI’s vibrancy and image were securely anchored in the concept of regionalism. Not so anymore. Each campus seems to be going off in a different direction and that saps energy and resources, something the Caribbean can’t afford.
The picture of individual interest may be a reflection of the state of Caribbean unity in the second decade of the 21st century. The Caribbean Single Market and Economy, CSME, which held out the promise that the various nations would march to a single economic drum is floundering. The Caribbean Court of Justice remains unable to get a majority of the Caricom states accept it as the final court for criminal and civil cases; and heads of government, most of whom were educated at the UWI are showing little enthusiasm for the regional matters that bring us closer together.
The UWI whose students once breathed the air of Caribbean togetherness must return to those roots and the strategic plan is the place to kick-start it.