Fri | Dec 6, 2019

Ronald Thwaites | The outside child

Published:Monday | November 11, 2019 | 12:18 AM
UTech has to become Jamaica’s equivalent of the famed Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

By this, persuaded against their will, the academic staff at the University of Technology, Jamaica (UTech) have returned to their classrooms, laboratories and workshops. Despite the fact that ­justice has not yet been done to them, it would have defeated their purpose and wreaked irreparable harm to their best allies, the students, to have ­denied them instructions any longer.

Already, it is going to be difficult to make up the lost time, given imminent examinations and the coming Christmas break. Quality will suffer and dissatisfaction abound. No university, striving to be first-class, can go on like this.

UTech has to become Jamaica’s equivalent of the famed Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), an ­institution attracting and nurturing the brightest talent to absorb and advance the high learning, the best cutting-edge research, with an emphasis, though not an exclusive one, in the fields of ­appropriate science and technology.

The late and much-missed UTech academic and administrator, Martin Henry, shared this vision with me some years ago. I had posed the aspirational target for higher education in Jamaica that The University of the West Indies (UWI) should be our equivalent of Harvard College, a place of excellence in all academic disciplines, operating in juxtaposition and complementarily with UTech, our MIT.

Martin took up the concept and prepared a still-useful paper, the crux of which was a treatment of the financial arrangements that would be essential for any such paradigm to work. The unfair inequality of resources applied to UWI and UTech by the Government, on behalf of the people of Jamaica, is at the heart of the current complaints of the UTech academic staff. They are justified.

UWI gets between four and five times the annual institutional support accorded to its younger sister institution, on the other side of Hope Road, for serving much the same number of students. There are all kinds of historical reasons for this imbalance that are impatient of re-examination if we are wise and serious enough to realise that our national development goals are largely dependent on the viability and quality of these two institutions.

Both need more resources – UTech moreso, because it has grown up like the outside child of national higher education. Perhaps even harder than finding the additional billions will be the humility, wisdom and will to conceive and execute the institutional realignment, which is necessary for the plenty more dollars to be efficiently spent.

Jamaica cannot afford and does not need to support, for instance, two law faculties, two dental schools, two engineering faculties, as well as many other areas of overlap and duplication. Both campuses have taken on similar programmes over the years because of market demand and, thus, the opportunity for new and much-needed profit centres.

The history is all very understandable but not very efficient in meeting national needs. During the period of economic stabilisation, it was not ­possible to redress the structural imbalances. As I used to reason with late Chancellor Edward Seaga of UTech, the emphasis had to be on helping to keep both institutions solvent.

The present campaign of the UTech academics and even moreso, the increasing national consciousness as to how crucial tertiary education is, should stimulate a comprehensive rethinking, by both universities, of how to calibrate their discreet objectives, areas of research and specialisation, human resources and finances, to best achieve national development goals. They owe the nation no less if they want more of our money and respect.

GOOD IDEAS

Some good ideas are emerging. Franklin Johnston’s proposal to enlarge the access to university education by following the London University model and broadening the remit of our teacher training colleges to become colleges of UWI and/or UTech would multiply numbers, reduce costs and better utilise a relatively meagre talent pool through the use of virtual instruction.

Basil Waite’s suggestion for the State to plant a $5,000 endowment fund seed for each child at birth, with parents adding a mere $200 a week to age 18, would go far, not only to assure about $11.2 million for tertiary costs, but will also craft a culture of shared responsibility for education, which is so lacking at present.

In the meanwhile, the nation should support the UTech lecturers even as we require greater accountability and quality from them. Their university used to have reserves of more than $2 billion. Why not use some of these resources to pay the lecturers, with the Government undertaking to restore these amounts out of subsequent Budgets. It would be a worthwhile investment and a restoration of trust.

It is time for those responsible to stop the unseemly tossing (and dropping) of the ball between UTech and the ministries of government as to who is to find the money that everybody knew had to be paid.

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