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PUBLIC AFFAIRS

Floyd Morris | What of the future of tertiary education in Jamaica?

Published:Sunday | June 20, 2021 | 12:09 AM

UWI Regional Headquarters.
UWI Regional Headquarters.
Senator Floyd Morris
Senator Floyd Morris
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On May 30, Professor Densil Williams, with his usual luminosity and panache, outlined the management complexities of The University of the West Indies (UWI) in an excellent article titled ‘Understanding complexities of The University of the West Indies’. Professor William brilliantly outlined the issues affecting the over 70-year-old institution that has produced some of the region’s finest intellectuals and leaders of government, as well as captains of industry. What is quite pellucid from the arguments of Professor Williams is that the challenges are not insurmountable. A unity and fixity of purpose is what is required on the part of all the stakeholders to deal with the challenges.

One argument that I wished for Professor Williams to have expounded on in his article was the current contribution of the Government of Jamaica (GOJ) to the UWI. There was an established agreement, prior to 2009, on the GOJ making a contribution to the economic cost of each student attending the institution. The established rate was 80 per cent of the economic cost, while students would contribute 20 per cent. But faced with the financial meltdown of 2008-2009, the Bruce Golding-led administration, in what I regard as ‘good faith’, decided to make a fixed payment to the institution until the country had recovered from the recession confronting the world at the time. Just over J$6 billion was allocated for the UWI and this was about J$3 billion less than what should have been paid over to the institution.

The arrangement of the Golding administration found its way in the 2010 Standby Agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). It stated: “A nominal freeze will also be implemented on tuition subsidies for tertiary education at the level of the FY2009/10 budget, while a system of means testing will be introduced.” The current prime minister, Andrew Holness, was the then minister of education and was fully involved in the decision to change the established formula. The established formula had come about with agreements by the respective stakeholders at the University Council, the body that has responsibility for signing off on fees for students at the UWI.

ESTABLISHED MODEL

The decision by the then Golding administration was continued by the Portia Simpson Miller-led administration with Ronald Thwaites as the then minister of education. It has now become, it seems, to be the established model by the GOJ in funding tertiary institutions. The fundamental question to be answered is: is this a fair and pragmatic move by the GOJ?

In 2008, the GOJ established the Vision 2030 Development Plan of Jamaica. This development plan is irrefutably Jamaica’s road map to develop world status. Intrinsic to this plan is the education of a critical mass of the population at the tertiary level. These are the individuals who will have the skill set and expertise to improve Jamaica’s competitiveness on the world stage. The world is a global village and our products and services have to compete with countries that are heavily investing in education, and especially at the tertiary level.

Professor Williams in his article pointed to the fact that developed countries were seeing seven out of 10 students leaving high schools, moving up to post-secondary education. Conversely, in the Caribbean, only two out of 10 high-school graduates were moving to the post-secondary level. This cannot cut it in the era of the 4th industrial revolution. It cannot cut it in the era of robotics. It cannot cut it in the era where the service industry is growing exponentially.

The GOJ requires tertiary institutions to assist in meeting its targets for the professionalisation of citizens to take the country into developed world status by 2030. The tertiary institution with the greatest capacity in the Caribbean to do so is the UWI. And, the UWI has rallied and responded to this demand with fixity of purpose. It has increased its enrolment of students to 19,000 in the pre-COVID-19 era. This is up from about 10,000 in 2008. Over a 12-year period, the institution has increased its enrolment by approximately 90 per cent. However, its bottom line has been affected because of the arbitrary change that has been made by the GOJ to reduce its financial contribution to the institution.

FUNDING OF TERTIARY EDUCATION

In 2019, I asked a number of questions in the Senate relating to the issue of funding for tertiary education, and specifically, the debt owed to the UWI by the GOJ. It was stated in the answers to the questions that there is an estimated debt of J$33 billion that is claimed to be owed to the UWI. Furthermore, the GOJ acknowledged that the decision to make a fixed annual payment was done in 2009 and this led to a reduction in the percentage contribution to the economic cost per student at the UWI. Based on the current records of the UWI, the GOJ is contributing less than 40 per cent of the economic cost for each student studying at the institution. This has left a gaping hole in the budget of the institution and it has taken a Herculean effort from the management team at the institution to keep the ship steady.

Kudos must be given to the vice-chancellor of the UWI, Professor Sir Hilary Beckles, for his visionary stance on this matter and the increasing of fees to students. The vice-chancellor has corrigibly insisted on no increase of fees to students at this time. This is because it would be unconscionable for students to be burdened with an increase in fees when the COVID-19 pandemic has had a deleterious effect on families across the region. At Mona, approximately 3,000 students who were registered in the pre-COVID-19 period have not registered in the academic year 2020-2021. It is therefore inconceivable to see what the fallout rate would have been if there was an increase in tuition fees at UWI during this pandemic.

QUESTIONABLE

So the GOJ’s target for the 2030 agenda is now questionable. With this myopic public policy decision towards the UWI, it is unimaginable to see the targets articulated in the Vision 2030 Development Plan of Jamaica being realised. The GOJ must establish a rapprochement with the UWI and deal with its outstanding commitments to the institution. It must have a discussion with the administration on a reasonable contribution to be made to the institution. For example, if the Government should give the UWI a contribution of 50 per cent of the economic cost of each student studying at the institution, it would go a far way in correcting the problem.

The vice-chancellor has outlined a comprehensive plan for reimagining the UWI. This 10-point plan articulates a new funding model that would see government, the private sector, students and the UWI making their contribution to the funding of the institution. I strongly endorse and support the model. The GOJ must step up to the plate and honour its commitments to the education of the youths of our nation.

If the GOJ does not make moves to correct and reconcile its contribution to the UWI, what is likely to happen is that the institution will be forced to cut its enrolment of students significantly. This option would further retard the progress of the country and the Caribbean. It would blight the future of a number of our brilliant young minds, who see education as the means of lifting them out of perpetual poverty.

It is blatantly unjust for some policymakers, who are graduates of the noble institution, to be treating tertiary education in this supercilious manner. The song of celebrated reggae artiste Ernie Smith is relevant and salutary: “Can’t build no foundation pon a if and a but. Are we building a nation, or are we building a hut?”

- Dr Floyd Morris is an opposition senator in the Parliament of Jamaica. Send feedback to columns@glenerjm.com