Thu | Jan 20, 2022

Mark Ricketts | Professor Stephen Vasciannie should be education minister

Published:Sunday | April 28, 2019 | 12:00 AM
Professor Stephen Vasciannie
Mark Ricketts
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An economically resilient and growing economy requires a well-educated total population, not just the brilliant few. This is where Jamaica has faltered, resulting in per capita income at current prices of US$5,700, placing us at 99 in the world.

Singapore, on the other hand, regarded education as the most critical institution, more of an industry, so this country, smaller than the parish of St James, but with a total population twice the size of Jamaica, has engaged its entire population.

It has done this by placing significant store on visionary leadership; on anticipating and incorporating in the present and future technological advances; in investing heavily in teachers so that they are equipped with competencies and attributes to become the best instructors in the digital 21st century; and by constantly redesigning the curriculum in accordance with global developments. Singapore also places great importance on the role of parents in their ­children’s advance.

I listened recently to the country’s communications minister outlining the five-year education plan. His emphasis was on global opportunities and achievement, including being in lockstep with fifth-generation computers based on parallel-processing hardware and Artificial Intelligence (AI) software.

He reiterated the belief that the people are the country’s only resource and they all have to be exceptional if the country is to prosper. No wonder that little country is number eight in per capita income at US$64,041 and is always in the top five in the world in reading, mathematics, and science.

JAMAICA WAITING FOR CHANGE

Earlier this month, Jamaica hosted a Destination Jamaica conference. Listening to presenters outline exciting opportunities in digitisation of financial markets and hearing Jason Mars, a professor of computer science at University of Michigan, and a business guru whose multimillion-dollar company is achieving outstanding results in growth, earnings, and client retention, was awe-inspiring.

Here was this everyday youngster, who was born in Jamaica to Guyanese parents, underscoring education’s immense potential – exemplified by his own achievements – inspiring many in the audience who could have been his parents. To frequent applause, he spoke of the vision, the environment, and the discipline that are necessary to achieve change, some of which he is already witnessing in Guyana.

Obviously, Jamaica is waiting for change. We have to widen the scope, interests, and fascination for all students by bringing them abreast of what is occurring internationally and by instilling a culture rooted in merit, competition, and achievement.

This starts with leadership at the top, specifically the minister of education, who can challenge and inspire the Government with policy choices to ensure priority allocations in the Budget.

This does not mean bigger budgets. It means less misallocation of resources and much greater incentives for those brilliant principals and teachers as well as opportunities for many who could be brilliant if given resources, careful induction, and excellent professional development in an atmosphere that fosters creativity and innovation.

It is unacceptable that five years ago, out of 1,800 maths teachers in our high schools, only 240 had full mathematics degrees. That’s 13 per cent. While we have been accelerating training for maths teachers, hordes migrate or take advantage of more attractive offers outside the classroom.

INTELLECTUAL JUGGERNAUT

Education has the largest budget. It increased 40 per cent in the last five years, yet only 15 per cent of our labour force has tertiary education, 18 per cent has technical training, and the remaining 67 per cent is somewhere between not trained and not certified.

We have to change direction and fast.

I do not know Stephen Vasciannie in the way people profess to know each other. We meet occasionally at functions and extend a polite handshake, acknowledging we know of each other.

I have no idea of his politics as he has been appointed to various posts by both governments, but I sense that he wants to give his all to Jamaica.

I have no idea whether he ever considered being the minister of education, to influence policy and create a revolution to ensure that this most ­valuable ministry could shape behaviour, re-emphasise the importance of highly qualified and dedicated ­teachers, widen educational opportunities in an age of disruptive technologies, and ensure improvement in the productive potential of the economy.

But if there is anybody in Jamaica who could undertake such a herculean task and deliver results, it is Professor Vasciannie.

I have followed from afar the outstanding achievements of this Kingston College alumni, who must have had instilled in his DNA “the brave may fall but never yield”, something we are constantly reminded of by the purple and white from North Street. Vasciannie goes one step further; never yielding, always achieving.

To understand how brilliant this intellectual juggernaut is, as an undergraduate, he got First-Class honours in economics at the University of the West Indies (UWI), and as a Rhodes Scholar, he achieved some of the highest postgraduate scores at Oxford and Cambridge, completing his doctorate in international law at Oxford. He followed this stellar academic career with impressive postings, including being Jamaica’s deputy solicitor general and Principal of the Norman Manley Law School.

I am taking the unprecedented and unsolicited step of proposing that Prime Minister Holness make Professor Vasciannie the next minister of education, training, and technology. (Technology must start with our young.)

I am convinced that his sharp intellect, his classic mind, his admirable administrative skills, his pivotal work in negotiating bilateral and multilateral agreements, and his wealth of experience in leadership roles as Jamaica’s ambassador to the United States and now as president of the University of Technology, is what Jamaica needs in education.

Sometimes, seemingly inevitable outcomes implying failures, or limited success, as we have witnessed for decades with education, can be scuttled by extraordinary individuals. I believe that Professor Vasciannie is one such individual just as I believe that the key to success is the quality of the people in charge.

Mr PM, go for quality, vision, experience, and change in education.

- Mark Ricketts is an economist, author, and lecturer. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and rckttsmrk@yahoo.com.