Thu | Aug 24, 2017

Ronald Thwaites | Crisis at UTech

Published:Monday | November 7, 2016 | 11:00 AM

If you look at the 21st-century inventory of skill needs and our best hopes for really dramatic job creation, the strength and significance of the University of Technology (UTech) cannot be overstated. It must, therefore, be a matter of national concern that this institution is clearly in a state of crisis and needs urgent attention.

Last week, Richard Powell, the retired engineer and business leader, was inducted as pro-chancellor of UTech, a position which makes him virtual chairman of the university's board of management, the UTech Council. He is an excellent choice, nominated by the university's chancellor, the wise but now infirm Edward Seaga.

The UTech Council has been in a state of virtual gridlock over the past few years, unable to agree on a new president to succeed the long-gone Errol Morrison, bleeding more and more of its few faculty with terminal degrees, while trying to expand into ever more faculties and courses, as many as a frightening 60 of them as yet not accredited, according to acting President Gyles.

Moreover, UTech has been using up its financial reserves and operating at a deficit in recent times.

The UTech Council has been unable to take decisive action because its deliberations are ambushed by internal interests, represented by the dominance of trade union representatives and the rigidity of a governing statute which makes it nigh impossible for UTech's owner, the Government of Jamaica, through the Ministry of Education, to take corrective action.

 

POOR ATTENDANCE

 

This state of affairs inevitably affects the quality of governance, instruction, student outcomes, and campus morale. This was clearly evident at last Monday's function. First, the attendance by all elements of the university community was embarrassing. One wondered if the absence of faculty, students and alumni was intentional. Then the speech of the student representative was below university standard.

There followed a disgraceful presentation by a member of the academic staff, on behalf of all the unionised personnel who virtually control the institution, reciting the claims of their bargaining units and offering a left-handed welcome to Powell, warning him that their patience was "wearing thin" and contending that the environment was like "a swamp of alligators" and that, in Trump-like gaucheness, the pro-chancellor's role should be to "clear the swamp".

Those in the audience blanched at the inappropriateness. The poor minister opted to be saccharine and palliative and then had to leave before the final litany of woes were spoken. But he made a sterling point which is easily overlooked. A university does not have to do everything. Our tertiary institutions, in conjunction with the Jamaica Tertiary Education Commission, must determine areas of specialisation and define specific competencies.

Prof Gyles, the acting president, installed at the behest of internal UTech forces, an earnest man, no doubt a good scholar, but quite out of depth in dealing with the sharks in the campus community, summarised UTech's problems as being those of unfair government allocation and the absence of institutional accreditation.

There is no doubt that the disparity of support per student between UTech and UWI is not sustainable and there are serious issues of quality, fuelled in part by inadequate funding, which prevent institutional accreditation in the near future. But the hope that the Consolidated Fund can redress these problems is ill-founded.

And despite all this, there are major achievements to be attributed to both faculty and students at UTech right now. Excellence is not strange to this institution. Its potential is what excites this constructive criticism.

 

MY DREAM FOR UTECH

 

My dream is for UTech to become the MIT of the Caribbean. For this to be achieved, Government will have to rethink the block grants to UWI and UTech each year and consider scholarships to qualified and needy students, with priority for studies in areas of greatest national need. Appropriate bonding for service in Jamaica will be a condition of all grants.The beneficiaries will then choose the best institution for their course. The Students' Loan Bureau and opportunities for work/study should fill out remaining areas of financial need.

Beyond this, Government and private enterprise should provide research grants to universities for specific areas of national, or enterprise and social needs.

These directions will encourage competition; enhance the crucial linkages between the tertiary sector and public purposes; discourage undeserved tenure; promote efficiency in the delivery of education and training to masses more Jamaicans and foreigners and, incidentally, remove from UTech its poor-cousin crutch so grimly evident last Monday.

I am not sure of the calibre of the council Richard Powell will preside over. I hope it is not a 'set hand', full of political and other special interests and undeserved by practical visionaries and thinkers.

But I am sure of three things: first, that Powell is the best man to lead the transformation; and second, that this institution is far too crucial to remain in any 'swamp', and, most immediately, the UTech statute has to be overhauled and the constitution of the council recalibrated.

Once again, on the eve of the signing of some kind of Magna Carta by the Government and the Economic Growth Council, a simple truth: there will be no sustainable, inclusive economic growth or social cohesion without radical change in all sectors of our institutions of education and training.

Start at Papine.

- Ronald Thwaites is member of parliament for Kingston Central and opposition spokesman on education and training. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.