An important voice has been added to the regional conversation about publicly funded tertiary education. Since Barbados announced in August that students must start paying tuition at the University of the West Indies starting in 2014, there has been heightened public debate, which essentially calls on the Caribbean to come to terms with the current economic realities.
Professor Archibald McDonald used the occasion of his installation as principal of the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, earlier this week to propose a new approach to funding tertiary education across the region.
While acknowledging that governments do have a duty to provide some funding for public tertiary institutions, Professor McDonald recognised that the region lacks the necessary funds to continue to subsidise quality tertiary education.
In the principal's vision, the new funding model calls for diversification of sources of revenue and a new approach to research and development, among other things. He appealed to his UWI colleagues to explore practical means of commercialising their research.
This newspaper hopes more comes from this proposal because it is commonplace that we are excellent at articulating the problems, but we are not very good at delivering policy solutions to the myriad challenges that beset our country.
In putting forward his proposals, the principal made this commitment: "On my watch, the Mona campus will focus on research projects that are aligned to national and regional development." We hope Professor McDonald makes good on this promise.
Resources must be found to ensure the future of this institution, which has contributed so much to the development of regional thinkers and professionals. Hopefully, this means the future of the UWI is safe, and that poor, able students will be afforded assistance through bursaries and scholarships to acquire an education.
OVERSEAS UNIVERSITIES MORE ATTRACTIVE
Ironically, there is verifiable evidence that a number of offshore tertiary institutions are attracting scores of students and raking in millions of dollars. This means that there are people in the region who are capable of finding significant sums of money to advance their education. It is for the UWI and like institutions to step up their game and offer the kinds of programmes that these persons may find attractive.
On one side of the education debate, there are those who argue vigorously that since government resources are scarce, they should be spent where they are most needed. They have identified the early childhood sector as the place where the demand is greatest. Indeed, if this investment will guarantee that fewer children leave school deficient in numeracy and literary skills, it all boils down to what is good for the country in the long run.
Without government support, though, some public tertiary institutions may collapse. And where would that leave bright, young people who are facing economic constraints, which render them unable to access loans? Will they be denied the opportunity to become part of the talent pool and be better equipped to make their own contribution to national development?
It is critical that big ideas emanate from our oldest tertiary education because people in the region are eager for imaginative solutions to our problems. The best outcome would be that we save tertiary education from once again becoming the preserve of the elite.
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