Thu | Jan 23, 2020

Editorial | Advance the university debate

Published:Tuesday | January 14, 2020 | 12:23 AM

Regional stakeholders of The University of the West Indies (UWI) ought, like this newspaper, to be grateful to the institution’s vice chancellor, Hilary Beckles, for his exposition on the strategic direction of the university to make it relevant to the needs of the Caribbean in the 21st century.

The expansion of The UWI in recent years, as well as a range of global partnerships in which it is engaged, as outlined by Professor Beckles, are indeed impressive. The fact that, UWI, an institution serving a group of small island states with fewer than six million people, is ranked among the top four per cent of the world’s universities, is testament to the vision of its founders and the manner in which it has been led over its seven decades of existence, which is relatively short in the context of an academy.

However, as Professor Beckles noted, his intervention was in response to calls by regional media for “an open dialogue on the matter of higher education – its capacity, quality, and funding – and role in the region’s transformation and development going forward”.

There is little doubt that the vice chancellor made a credible case for The UWI on all fronts, except the one that most regional governments and Caribbean students are likely to consider the most urgent: how to fund tertiary education, including The UWI. Or in the face of limited financial resources, how should what is available be allocated across the competing demands of the education sector.

This oft-raised matter of concern for this newspaper wasn’t addressed by Sir Hilary. Yet its import has been highlighted in recent events in Jamaica. It is fewer than three months ago that lecturers at Jamaica’s state-funded University of Technology (UTech) were on strike, demanding nearly J$900 million in salary arrears, which the administration said it could ill-afford to pay.

Further, last February, UTech students demonstrated in support of calls for a substantial hike in the J$1.8 billion in the university’s subvention. The sotto voce comparisons of those protests was allocation to UTech and the J$8.7 billion in the Government’s existing budget for The UWI. Or examining the complaint another away, the more than J$480,000 per Jamaican student the island’s Government subscribed to The UWI was three times more than what it spent on students at UTech.

There are, no doubt, good reasons for this difference in the allocations to the two institutions, but the matter is also part of a wider debate on at what level of the education system, should most of the available resources be placed for the best returns.

GETTING TO THE NITTY-GRITTY

In the current fiscal year, which ends on March 31, Jamaica projects to spend approximately J$109 billion on education, or approximately 15 per cent of the total expenditure. Of that amount, J$15.1 billion, or 14 per cent, is for tertiary education, with three-quarters going to the universities, of which The UWI gets the lion’s share. None of this means that the regional university is sitting pretty.

As we observed last July, for the financial year to July 2018, The UWI, with an income of Bds$965 million, ended with a deficit of Bds$95 million after writing off substantial amounts of debt owed by contributing governments. Moreover, cash-strapped regional governments have been lessening their subventions – it has, in recent years, averaged 45 per cent of total income – forcing The UWI to search for alternative sources of earnings, including asking students, who provide between 13 per cent and 14 per cent of the university’s income, to pay more. Many insist they can’t, a fact highlighted by the demands on Jamaica’s stretched Students’ Loan Bureau, which also suffers from high levels of default on repayments.

There are also those who argue that most of the education budget should be spent on fixing perceived crises in its primary- and secondary-education systems, thus providing a good foundation from which students can readily matriculate to tertiary and university education and leave students at the higher level to make their own way.

Having started with a broad brush, Professor Beckles and his team at The UWI must now help Jamaica and the Caribbean to get to the nitty-gritty of how to pay for world-class universities on a least-cost basis.