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Stabroek News

Gordon Shirley's hopes for the UWI
published: Sunday | October 7, 2007

Principal of the University of the West Indies, Professor Gordon Shirley. - Rudolph Brown/Chief Photographer

In Barbados, Prime Minister Owen Arthur also has an ambitious 25-year plan and in that period he wants to see at least one member of each family with a university degree. When will we get there?

The Cave Hill Campus five years ago, was about a fifth of the size of Mona; by the end of the current planning horizon, they should have a campus the size of Mona. Barbados has a population of one tenth ours, but they in effect, will be training from their equivalent institutions 10 times as many students per capita as we are training.

That is part of our challenge. How do we compete? If they are training a much higher percentage of their population at the university level, the kinds of jobs that will materialise and the standards of living and growth rates of those economies will reflect that. We don't want to see Jamaica receding from that race among sister nations of CARICOM. This is one of Mona's fundamental challenges.

The open campus is focused on providing opportunities for students who are not served by the current campuses. They are principally from the Eastern Caribbean; but there will be Jamaicans participating too. It would seem like a problem but Trinidad and Barbados are expanding. Even if Mona expands, we would still be behind, so we have to continue moving aggressively. In the short term, I don't see an open campus as a major impediment.

I suspect that the new government has a desire to broaden the locations of investment that come in, but to date, most of the investment has gone into the north coast highway, between Montego Bay and Rose Hall, up to Ocho Rios, and the strip between Montego Bay and Negril. Significantly, we have a new airport, which is a hub for the territory. Such facilities usually become magnets for investment. Montego Bay is going to grow substantially. One of the challenges for Mona is to be able to service that community more effectively.

This takes me to the question of the western campus, any timelines on that?

Yes, it's an important item on our agenda; we have to expand and do it in a way that understands what the community needs and provide it in a way that is responsive to them. And it's not just in the hospitality sector either, there is a range of areas that will be covered.

Our timelines are aggressive, other institutions want to go in too. But if the University of Technology (UTech) and Northern Caribbean University grow, there are still many opportunities for us and I want to find ways of collaborating with them. I also want to find ways to collaborate with other international institutions with whom we have relationships as we expand our programmes. We want to ensure that every programme we have is genuinely of world-class standard. We have to be willing to subject ourselves to reviews.

To that end, every programme will continue to be reviewed over the university's planning horizon of three years. My own objectives are more aggressive; I want to have them reviewed within 19-24 months maximum. We have to convince ourselves we are genuinely competitive and what we offer to the Jamaican students is equivalent to the best offered internationally. We must find ways to fix it and, if necessary, partner with other institutions to get genuinely world-class programmes.

Do you have comparative figures to show our growth over the last five years with those of Barbados and Trinidad?

Jamaica has exceeded our original targets for the last planning horizon. We grew very quickly in the first three years of that period. Trinidad is slightly larger than Mona right now and it has been projected to be bigger than we were over the last planning horizon. The current planning horizon sees us growing at a relatively slow rate. I have not bought into that. I think we will continue to grow. We have to find ways to respond to the needs of the market.

For many years, overseas Ivy League college scouts come here and go into our best schools to recruit our best and brightest. Many parents pay thousands in foreign exchange for those tuition fees. Does UWI do the same aggressive recruiting? What are we doing to encourage parents to send students to universities here rather than abroad?

Yes, we do go out and make presentations about Mona in schools and we also hold a research day annually, exposing them to our environment. That has an impact. Are we as aggressive as the foreigners? They come bearing scholarships and other attractive packages and recruit the best and brightest. We need to increase our aggressiveness in order to compete effectively. We don't want them taking the cream of the crop, especially the males.

Parents support foreign education because the schools provide scholarships for tuition waiver and sometimes parents are hooked before they realise that accommodation and daily living expenses will make it far more challenging than if they were educated here. But often, they are too far into the process to turn back. Another factor is that some Jamaicans want their children to have international exposure to give them more options in the job market.

This is why we at Mona, have to convince everyone that our programmes are as good as international ones. Second, I want our student body to be as international as possible so they get exposure across the Caribbean, as well as from North American students coming here. I would like to see a lot more from Central and South America coming here so our students become international-oriented through those exposures and academic programmes that reflect the changing global environment.

Are you headed in the direction where students spend time on other campuses in other parts of the world where the majors (like architecture) would necessitate practical exposure overseas?

We are headed there in two directions: We will provide opportunities to interact with students in more intimate ways thus embracing cultures and languages.

The other directions is an overseas study programme. Mona already has memoranda of understanding internationally, but we would like our students to take up options to study overseas. One area we would like to ensure is to have our programmes more open and willing to accept the credits earned in overseas institutions so students can benefit. It's not just a chance to travel, it's to make them closer to world class.

What is the length of your contract? And did you make specific goals?

I am a tenured professor, so I do have some job security, but my initial period for the principalship is five years. My goals are in concert with the strategy of the university.

I want the university to be identifiably one that offers a world-class education that is seen. I want us to be more responsive to the needs of the market so that we can respond to the needs of the private sector in particular.

I would like Mona to better respond to the needs of the investment opportunities that flow into our country.

We have to ensure that our research output responds to the needs of the community.

I would like to see the face of Mona visibly evolve to reflect many of the bright and fabulous young members of our faculty who do not get the kind of exposure that some of the more traditional and seasoned members do.

I would also find a way to expose more of our excellent student body, many without fathers.

How has your time spent away from academia at the Jamaica Public Service Company and in the diplomatic service prepared you for the present responsibility?

While at JPS, I straddled both worlds. It was an important eye-opener to operate close to a private sector company. I gained valuable experience in dealing with unions and balancing budgets. I never aspired to be a diplomat but going to Washington, D.C. was a surprising and valuable experience too.

Washington is one of the policy-making centres on the globe and to interact with people you normally see in the papers and be able to work with them in the think-tanks, the international financial institutions - World Bank, International Development Bank , International Monetary Fund - and see the way policies are formulated, the process by which ideas are developed, was an enormous learning experience.

Jamaica is no longer only a country of persons who live here. An equal number of us live overseas. We are unique. Whereas other immigrants may return home every four or so years, many Jamaicans return home at least once a year. This is one of the few countries where the borders no longer have the same meaning they did years ago and significantly, many overseas-based Jamaicans believe they should influence policy at home.

As as an ambassador, from as early as eight in the mornings, I got calls asking if I had read a particular story in The Gleaner that morning. They know the latest happenings; they are engaged, they don't lose contact. To be involved so directly proved very valuable for me.

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