We are grateful to Professor Hubert Devonish for his forthright, clear and simple enunciation of this basic fact.
"The University of the West Indies (UWI), whatever the high-minded motives behind its establishment, is now a business," he wrote in this newspaper on Sunday.
Professor Devonish is a linguist at the UWI's Mona, Jamaica, campus. He made the observation as part of an argument for the Jamaican Government's continued, and perhaps expanded, investment in this enterprise, especially at Mona, which is owned by Caribbean governments. There is also the motive that the university professors want more pay.
Just how persuasive is Professor Devonish's case will be determined by a broader and deeper analysis of the numbers he offered from a-yet-to-be-published study by the university's lecturers' union. But in the meantime, he has placed on the table another element in the ongoing debate about Jamaica's economic engagement of UWI.
He also sketched the outlines of a business model for Mona, upon which the university has already embarked, but which probably demands adjustments.
The context of Professor Devonish's article, and the study by the lecturers' union, is Jamaica's discussion of what has been euphemistically termed rebalancing. The argument, essentially, is that, given the Government's financial constraints, and the deep problems in education, it should spend less on tertiary institutions like the UWI and more on other areas of the system such as early childhood education. That, it is felt, would strengthen the foundation and lead to better long-term outcomes in education.
The study by the lecturers' union apparently determined that Mona's adjusted business model, in the face of declining subventions by its Jamaican shareholder, is delivering positive returns to the country: in foreign exchange earned from non-Jamaican students and taxes paid by its staff and suppliers of services. And there is the positive impact of Mona in helping to develop an educated workforce.
Mona, in part, has been able to spend an additional J$1.69 for every dollar of subsidy it receives from the Jamaican Government largely because of its entrepreneurial efforts at attracting non-Jamaican students and the sale of other services.
A worthy investment
We agree with Professor Devonish that, at least from the standpoint of the public good, the UWI is a worthy investment. But how to achieve the additional investment to upgrade and expand the plant of this not-for-profit institution, and to increase the salaries of faculty, is now the question.
The lecturers' union, Professor Devonish reports, proposes a system of a tax rebate, where university-related tax revenue, beyond the level of the Government's subvention, is clawed back by UWI for spending on its upgrade - including salaries and financial support to students.
This approach, however, does not address the inadequacy of resources for other areas of the education system. Nor does the analysis, as so far publicly revealed, indicate what would be the comparative medium- to long-term return/saving if that allocation went to early childhood and primary education as in the cost of remedial and social interventions.
Clearly, the UWI's recent entrepreneurial posture, and the achievements thereof, should be expanded. How this should be funded, over the long run, is now a matter to be debated. The professors have had the first go at the moot.
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