Editorial | Professor Vasciannie’s mandate at UTech
Two months ago when he spoke to a parliamentary committee about the finances of the University of Technology (UTech), Maurice Smith, then the permanent secretary in Jamaica's education ministry, said the institution needed to be "reimagined".
There was, of course, nothing prescient or particularly imaginative in Dr Smith's observation. It is, after all, a fact, and notoriously known so to be that UTech is in crisis. Its finances are in a mess. Its faculty and administrators and students are constantly at each other's throats. Many of its courses are unaccredited, and a huge chunk of its staff underqualified.
But, perhaps more critically, a mere two decades after its upgrading from the College of Arts, Science and Technology (CAST), offering diplomas for training a range of technical areas, UTech has lost its way, uncertain of what it is, or what it ought to be.
Perhaps, it is not so much, as Dr Smith suggested, that UTech needs reimagining, but, rather, a return to its core. That, at least, is among the early conversations we expect from the university's new president, Stephen Vasciannie, when he takes up his job at the start of January. Being clear about itself is urgent for UTech to halt this sense of drift and a sine qua non to staunch its bleeding and internal chaos.
To appreciate just how far it has veered from an institution offering higher-level education and training in technological and related fields, you need only look at its enrolment. For instance, approximately a third - more than 4,000 - of its 13,000 students are doing degrees in business administration. That's not counting the more than a handful enrolled in other liberal arts courses or the five per cent of students in its law faculty.
In fact, not only is its business faculty its largest, it has over three times more students enrolled there than at its School of Engineering, which accounts for less than 10 per cent of all students. Only three per cent or so of UTech students are in natural and applied science courses.
The trend towards business, law and other liberal arts subjects reflects, in part, the university's response to a push by the market. Science and technology are not as yet the first choice in Jamaican education. But it was also driven, we believe, by a desire by UTech's management to compete with the older and respected University of the West Indies (UWI).
This shift from its core and the concomitant rapid expansion of UTech has come with a financial cost. The Government's subvention of J$1.9 billion has been insufficient to carry a nearly doubling of enrolment in the past decade and a half, reflected in deficits in six of the last 10 years and more than $270 million in each of the last three. Most of the 16 undergraduate schools operate at a loss.
All of this has not been helped by the fighting between the bosses and the unions representing faculty and other staff, over salary, weak management systems, personalities, and the fact that more than half of those who teach there are without terminal degrees. This has to be fixed.
Professor Vasciannie has been a diplomat, lecturer, a university administrator and, critically, a man of sharp intellect. We believe he has the skills to get the job done - once, his liberal arts background notwithstanding, he accepts that UTech has stepped far from its core. Now he has his mandate.