Sat | Jun 19, 2021

Editorial | Take novel approach to hearings on UWI report

Published:Sunday | June 6, 2021 | 12:10 AM

Quite sensibly, Fayval Williams accepted The Gleaner’s recommendation and tabled in Parliament, for debate, the Byron Commission report on governance at The University of the West Indies (UWI). Hopefully, the quality of that discourse will, when it happens, be informed and thoughtful. Which is why before the report comes to the floor of the House, it should be sent to a parliamentary oversight committee for serious analysis, with input from stakeholders.

We previously felt that the committee on human resource and development was the appropriate one for the job. But the recent insensate babbling of Heroy Clarke, its chairman, at the Public Accounts Committee’s (PAC) hearings on the matter of the auditor general, was disqualifying not only of his membership of any committee, but leadership of one undertaking such a critical assignment. In this regard, the education minister should urge Prime Minister Andrew Holness to ensure that the Byron Commission report is sent to a joint committee of the House and the Senate.

Chaired by the former president of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), Sir Dennis Byron, the Byron Commission highlighted a management system at the UWI, an institution ‘owned’ by 17 Caribbean governments, that is Byzantine in structure and almost impervious to change. It has committees overlaying committees, often with the same people presiding over each body and being, ultimately, accountable to themselves.

CONFLICTS OF INTEREST

Such arrangements lend, potentially, to conflicts of interest and an environment in which operational decisions were not always robustly interrogated and the concerns and welfare of staff insufficiently recognised and attended to.

These issues of governance have been exacerbated by the poor state of the university’s finances as regional problems. Not only do they pay less, but governments are often behind in their contributions. This has forced the UWI, in recent years, to write off huge chunks of their debt. It has also had to mark as impaired millions of dollars owed by students in tuition and other fees.

The poor state of the UWI’s finances is reflected, in part, in the BDS$66.5 million deficit it recorded in the 2019-2020 financial year, which was a 19 per cent improvement of the BDS$82 million the previous year. In 2017-18, the deficit was BDS$95.5 million.

Another example of the existential crisis faced by the university, as the Byron Commission pointed out, was its shaky composite financial index (CFI), a matrix often used by institutions to determine financial health and capacity to absorb shocks. Universities normally consider that a CFI of 3.0 is in the starting range of good health. At the time of the report, the UWI’s was minus 1.21.

Perhaps even more than the governance/management issues – for which the Byron Commission suggested a flattening of structures and the removal of the vice chancellor and campus principals from the chairmanship of some key committees – the question of UWI finances is likely to be the major focus of the Jamaican Government, which has, essentially, frozen its subsidy to the university at around J$12 billion a year. The institution’s management recently complained that Jamaica’s payments covered only 36 per cent of the cost of operating the campus at Mona, where over 90 per cent of the students are Jamaicans.

DOUBLE THE CONTRIBUTION

Quite controversially in some quarters, the Byron Commission proposed a financial model that would require students to double, to 40 per cent, their contribution to the economic cost of their education although it said that this should be underpinned by improved access to student loans and indexing the repayment of student debt to what graduates earning.

The university’s vice chancellor, Professor Hillary Beckles, recently appointed to another term in the job, opposes any such demand on students. His model is for students to pay 15 per cent of the cost of running the institution, with the subsidy from governments inching upwards to 50 per cent. The remainder would come from entrepreneurial activities, partnerships with the private sector, and alumni support.

Supposedly, the Byron Commission’s report is before a committee (the names of whose members haven’t been disclosed) of the University Council, the UWI’s highest decision-making body, to determine what of it is to be implemented. But at the same time, the university recently announced that the Grenadian prime minister, Keith Mitchell, had been appointed to “lead a team of technical experts to review the academic and administrative operations of the University Centre”, which is UWI’s overarching administrative body, led by the vice chancellor. On the face of it, Dr Mitchell’s group and the Byron Commission and the committee of the University Council will tread much the same ground. In an institution notorious for failing to implement recommendations from the reports it commissions, these goings-on have caused arched eyebrows.

A Jamaican parliamentary review, however, if done properly, can help make sense of these matters and contribute to the strong regional institution which this newspaper supports and to which, we hope, the Jamaican Government is committed. The operating mandate of our proposed committee would, therefore, be different from the norm. Its engagement would be not only with stakeholders inside Jamaica, Jamaicans abroad who are interested in the UWI should have an opportunity to participate in the deliberations. Hearings would be open to interested people in all the UWI’s member territories as well as Caribbean academics and other Caribbean people in the diaspora. Indeed, they should be actively invited to participate. Sir Dennis, Professor Beckles, the UWI’s chancellor, Robert Bermudez, Dr Mitchell, and other regional leaders, who are willing to engage, should also be key participants.

Such hearings would be accommodated on digital platforms, already used for some committee sessions. The idea is to use the Byron report as a platform for a serious dialogue on establishing a long, sustainable future for the UWI.