Sun | Jun 20, 2021

Editorial | Whither the Byron Commission report?

Published:Thursday | May 6, 2021 | 12:22 AM

DESPITE THE claims of a covert effort to unseat him, the Council of The University of the West Indies (UWI) last week reappointed Professor Sir Hilary Beckles to a second six-year term as vice-chancellor of the regional university. It probably did not hurt Professor Beckles’ cause that his backers waged an open, and very frontal, campaign in defence of his stewardship and for his retention.

Now that that element of the university’s leadership has been settled, it raises the question of whether it means the same for Sir Hilary’s vision for the future of the university, especially how it is financed, and what now happens to other concerns highlighted by the commission on governance, led by Dennis Byron, a former president of the Caribbean Court of Justice, whose report was presented in the middle of 2020.

The report, we were advised, was sent to a committee of the Council, the university’s highest decision-making body, to determine which of its recommendations, if any, should be implemented. Noticeably, after last week’s meeting, the Council did not pronounce on the status of the review. However, from a distance, how Vice-Chancellor Beckles speaks of his planned initiatives, including his funding formula, suggests that they are settled business.

The fact remains, though, that despite an estimated 19 per cent, or BDS$15.5-million reduction in its deficit for the 2019-2020 financial year, the university will still report a loss of BDS$66.5 million, according to interim figures recently reported by Professor Beckles. A major part of the problem is that Caribbean governments, which used to cover up to 80 per cent of the UWI’s costs, have, in recent decades, sharply cut back their outlays. Their contributions now fluctuate between 45 per cent and 47 per cent of the institution’s expenditure. And not only are the fiscally burdened governments giving less, they have also run up big arrears, forcing the university into heavy write-offs. It has also had to write down huge chunks of impaired student debt.

FINANCIAL HEALTH

The situation, the Byron Commission warned, placed the university in an existential crisis. At the time of the report, the UWI’s composite financial index, the matrix generally used by universities and not-for-profits to determine their financial health, was at minus 1.21, where 3.0 is considered to be the starting range of decent financial health for universities. The university, the commission said, had to shift its funding model, taking into account the unlikelihood of governments giving more.

Their major proposal was for a doubling of the amount, to 40 per cent, students are asked to contribute to the cost of their education. This would be facilitated by vastly improved, and cheaper, access to student loans. Further, repayment would be linked to what graduates actually earn.

Professor Beckles, however, has proposed an alternative. Under his model, tuition and other student costs would cover 15 per cent of the university’s expenditure, while governments would pay 50 per cent. The other sources of revenue would be the private sector (15 per cent), entrepreneurial activity (five per cent) and alumni contributions (five per cent).

The public, as yet, does not have specifics on these plans, although Professor Beckles has talked of going to capital markets for cash, presumably in joint-venture deals with the private sector. He also plans to establish an offshore medical school in Trinidad and Tobago that will be distinct from the UWI’s well-respected medical faculty. This, no doubt, in the absence of further and better particulars, caused many arched eyebrows.

OVERHAUL OF GOVERNANCE SYSTEM

But it is not only the UWI financial circumstance that was addressed by the Byron Commission. They pointed also to a governance system “that is one of the most complex globally,” which concentrates power, harbours potential for conflicts of interest, and encourages management arrangements that are non-inclusive, slow, inefficient, does not open itself insufficiently to feedback, and is often unresponsive to complaints. The commission called for a significant overhaul of the mechanism so as to improve decision-making, oversight and accountability.

While many of these observations rehashed old complaints, some preceding Professor Beckles’ tenure, many of his supporters read into the commission’s critique an effort, presumably hatched by the chancellor, Robert Bermudez, to oust him from the vice-chancellor’s job.

This newspaper believes these theories of conspiracies to be fanciful. That the university’s Council believes that Professor Beckles is worthy of another term does not mean that the problems highlighted by the Byron Commission do not exist and ought not to be fully and publicly debated. Indeed, the document’s review should not only happen within the councils of the UWI. As we have urged before, the Byron report should be tabled in Parliament by the education minister, Fayval Williams, and sent to the Human Resources and Social Development Committe for hearings.

Jamaica is a major stakeholder in the university and is one of the countries that, in recent years, has cut back, in real terms, its contributions to the institution. Indeed, not long ago Professor Beckles complained that the financial shortfalls of the UWI’s campus at Mona, 91 per cent of whose enrolment are Jamaicans, was a primary contributor to the university’s overall deficit.