Mon | Jul 6, 2020

Budget cuts roil UWI

Published:Sunday | August 8, 2010 | 12:00 AM
Densil A. Williams
University of the West Indies, Mona campus. - File
Professor Gordon Shirley

Dr. Densil A. Williams, Contributor

The shocks that have hit the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, are unprecedented. Over the past year, the university has seen a 25 per cent reduction in its subvention from the Government of Jamaica, which is its major source of revenue.

In absolute numbers, this amounts to roughly J$1billion. While the cut in revenue is happening, the university is facing intense competition from internationally recognised brands such as Manchester Business School, London Business School, Florida International University, among others. There is also competition from local brands such as the University of Technology, Northern Caribbean University, University College of the Caribbean, among others.

As an aside, I should suggest that it is an unhealthy situation for local universities which are funded by the government to be competing with each other. I think that they should complement each other since they all feed from the same tree. This would lead to a more efficient use of government's limited resources available to the tertiary sector. This, however, is another debate that can be picked up later. The central issue is the shock that has been given to the UWI, Mona system.

Strong and sustained growth

With a double dose of a shock to its system, not many organisations in Jamaica or anywhere in the world could survive better yet, grow. Mona is not only surviving but, laying the foundations for strong and sustained growth of the university in order to make a stronger contribution to local and regional economic development. Credit for this has to be given to the adroit leadership of principal and pro vice chancellor, Professor Gordon Shirley and his team of dedicated men and women. The way they have approached the turbulence that has hit the university can make for a good case study in organisational innovation and efficiency for management scholars and students who are interested in understanding the drivers of competitive advantage at the level of the organisation.

The classical approach that managers would apply to organisations that have faced the shocks that hit Mona is to increase prices or cut staff. Mona, however, has decided not to depend on these routes only. It could have easily gone the route of increasing price (in this case tuition fees) since it has a high quality product which people want. Everyone wants an education, especially from a reputable institution. There is no doubt that Mona scores high on both fronts. This is manifested in its rising student numbers year after year. Instead of going this route to recover loss revenue, the university leadership has instead looked to generating efficiency gains from its current stock of resources.

Having carried out a diagnostic analysis of the organisation, they discovered that the current stock of resources could deliver higher value if used more efficiently. This has led to a set of measures that are aimed at better aligning the university's resources to its overall strategic goals and imperatives. These included a reduction in the number of unnecessary tasks, reduction in service level agreement (SLA) time between departments, better alignment of academic staff to course offerings, revisiting of the types of courses and programmes being offered by the institution, among other things.

This, no doubt, will lead to the displacement of some team members while at the same time, the hiring of new ones who are better equipped to handle the new challenges. This is typical when institutions are innovating. This is just how the business cycle works. Some people will like it, others won't, but leadership has to do what is best for the overall good of the organisation.

As part of the repositioning process, Mona has also started investments in building out its physical infrastructure. It is building new halls of residence, new sports infrastructure, a new law faculty, a new basic medical sciences faculty, among other critical infrastructure developments. These are not merely to show that the leadership is working but strategically, they are laying the foundation for the growth in the student population that is expected at the campus in the coming years. Any key observer of strategy will tell you that infrastructure (both physical and human capital) do matter for driving competitiveness. This is what the infrastructure project at Mona is about.

There is also a drive to upgrade the human capital infrastructure at the university as well. Efforts are being made to attract the best academic staff in each discipline. The strategy for hiring new staff is being looked at closely and great emphasis is being placed on persons with terminal degree in their field of study. Also, the geographical areas from which the university recruits are being looked at more seriously. This will help in getting the best human resources into the university system. Evaluation and promotion for current staff are also being taken more seriously. This is important for staff motivation and morale, especially in an environment that is undergoing rapid changes.

Visionary leadership

There is no doubt that the leadership of Mona is up to the task. They are not merely ensuring the survival of the university but repositioning the institution for long-term growth. This is not an effortless task and one which requires dedicated and visionary leadership. It is clear from the changes that are happening at the institution that visionary leadership is at the core of these strategic initiatives. It cannot be business as usual at Mona. The global imperatives have dictated that the institution respond in a creative way to deal with the challenges that are thrown at it from its operating environment, if it wants to remain in the marketplace.

The lessons from Mona can be used to help other entities in Jamaica and the region that are grappling to gain a competitive advantage in their marketplace, to improve their competitiveness. It is indeed exciting times at Mona.

Densil A. Williams is a lecturer of International Business in the Department of Management at UWI, Mona.