Thu | Aug 6, 2020

Hilary Beckles | Economic Growth: University sector can do more

Published:Sunday | January 12, 2020 | 12:00 AM

Editors and opinion writers in the public media have called for an informed debate on the effectiveness and efficiency of the higher-education sector. There is concern that in Jamaica, and the wider Caribbean, the sector might be underperforming though its leaders are keen to assert that it is seriously underfunded. The quantity-quality discourse is invoked as a good starting point. No blame games are needed. We must understand our challenges and take corrective measures as best as we can.

Finance Minister Dr Nigel Clarke sets out clearly the predicament. Despite success in macroeconomic stabilisation, and efforts to mobilise significant national and foreign investments, the elusiveness of economic growth at the expected levels seems to defy standard explanations and is therefore mysterious. A question raised is whether the university sector, beyond its teaching and research remit, can add greater value and constitute, in time, the yeast that will enable the cake to rise.

There are features about the sector that require immediate recognition. In terms of building the human capital stock, the Caribbean has the lowest enrolment in higher education in the hemisphere within the relevant age cohort, 18-30 years.

At the moment, we are hovering at less than 25 per cent against a North America average of near 60 per cent and Latin America approaching 45 per cent. Within CARICOM, The Bahamas and Barbados lead the chart, with Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago bunched in the middle, with the Windward Islands at the base.

The challenge here is that using any model of economic growth, the potential of a country for transformative and sustained economic growth is a function of the number of its citizens who have had higher education, professional development, and technical skills certification. The data for Jamaica are not encouraging and would suggest that the country is being held back on account of its inadequate social capital. In other words, it can be argued that the country is being held back not by insufficient investment capital, but by a shortage of skills and professional mentality in the critical areas of the economy that are expected to superperform.


Centre of growth paradigm

Recognising that this is the age of innovation and knowledge- driven growth, it is reasonable to expect that the university sector, as a custodian of the knowledge content, should be at the centre of any and every growth paradigm. That is, this is the age in which the university sector is expected to lead the way or be a critical partner in the search for new and innovative economic sectors, facilitating the transformation of old sectors.

Indeed, this is largely correct since it is true that those economies in South East Asia, for example, that have attained impressive rates of sustained economic growth have done so on the basis of massive but focused and scientifically modelled investments in the university sector, which was restructured into alignment with the industry sector. There was no blame game, just the recognition of the need for partnering, with the State performing the ‘big daddy’ role.

Technology parks were created to support industry-academic ecosystems in which professors and producers, teachers and technologists came together to innovate on the industry terrain. This is how Silicon Valley began and the China Technology Park in Suzhou operates. Operating in the neighbouring spaces served to normalise the relationship between research information and product investment. The alignment revolution that brought business and campus together for the national purpose also served to drive the enrolment upsurge because it pulled younger generations into the “making things” culture and the “thinking things” systems.

In newly post-colonial countries like Jamaica that did not receive at independence a reparations development package from imperial Britain, building out a quality higher-education sector is a complicated cost-benefit proposition. There are two aspects to this challenge. First, in modern market economies, there is a tendency for the unit costs in the university sector to rise at a faster rate than in other sectors of the economy. This has to do with the fixed maintenance of libraries, laboratories, and staffing structures. Second, the tendency in democracies for policy to be distorted along the short-term trajectory, while building social capital for economic growth, is middle, to long-term strategy.


Social exclusion

In addition, there is the structural problem of social exclusion and majority market marginalisation, which has proven to be very resilient. Truth is, our societies rooted in colonial oppression, have remained among the most unequal globally, with nearly 30% of citizens ‘locked’ away in ghetto conditions. In the 1930s when the colonial state was rejected, incipient national liberation movements called for slum clearance as the top priority even ahead of adult suffrage. We got no support from imperial Britain, who created the colonial mess, and the problem has overwhelmed our national efforts.

The result has been that the national social growth, which the university sector wants to take responsibility for, has not kept up with national expectation. Too many citizens are placed in a situation where they do not believe that national institutions serve their normal living purposes, resulting in an opposition approach. But social growth is not a consequence of economic growth but a prerequisite. Herein lies the dilemma. Education cuts don’t heal. In our education system, over generations, ministers have preached about the plumbing being broken in the basement contributing to challenges higher up in the system. Taking from the tertiary to fix the primary might seem the right choice, but without an expansive tertiary, the industry inputs we need will be unavailable. Politically, it is a bitter conundrum pill.

The UWI has done a great deal to address some of these matters beyond the expected output associated with generating social capital through teaching and research, and opening, though insufficiently, the door to higher learning to the historically marginalised and still socially excluded.

Another aspect of this challenge is whether each UWI campus should be at the core of a national tertiary system of multiple institutions that is largely borderless, delivering a good-quality experience for students at lower cost and greater efficiency. The answer is that we are laying the foundations for this approach. We have created a new category called Colleges of The UWI (CUWI). These independently managed colleges will be integrated for programme-delivery purposes to meet the objectives of lower costs and better quality. This approach is in its formative phase and there is considerable potential.


Do much more

These are other areas where The UWI can do much more if adequately funded. It is important to note that the funds currently made available by the State would be sufficient if the university had as its primary concern its own preservation. That is, if the purpose of pursuing excellence was for self-aggrandisement, then with a 30% less enrolment it could do well on existing budgets. We should not minimise, however, the result that our subregion has within it the best-ranked university in the Caribbean, which is rated in the top 4% of the world’s best 28,000 universities.

But UWI is here to serve the development of the region as its top priority and has, therefore, taken on an enrolment of 50,000 students, beyond its financial capacity. But with the region at the bottom of hemisphere student enrolment, undermining economic growth and development, The UWI has had to function with a significant measure of deficit financing for the public good. We are managing this situation with considerable financial skill and within a diplomatic discourse with our governments, but this situation is not sustainable.

The need for a new financial regime is now upon us. We are deeply preparing for the roll-out of a new model in which the private sector and our 100,000 alumni will be invited to invest. The state sector has done very well these past 70 years. It is the time of the private sector to step up beyond philanthropy and for the University itself to be more entrepreneurial. Implementing this new business and finance regime is the primary task of the next few years.

The UWI’s reputation as a globally elite university has never been higher. We are respected and celebrated more than ever. This reputation revolution now has to be converted into a more sustainable financial model. This is our remit for 2020-2022, the second part of our strategic plan. It’s an exciting time for us to implement the new financial order, but first, we have to be precise and perfect in our conception. This success of this financial transformation will depend on the support of all stakeholders. It will be excellent for the institution and good for the region it serves.


Economic Historian, Professor Sir Hilary Beckles is a university administrator, and transformational leader in higher education. He was installed as the 8th Vice-Chancellor of The University of the West Indies (The UWI) on May 30, 2015. For Sir Hilary’s complete biography, visit: