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How has The UWI managed to survive?

Sunday, February 21, 2021

REMARKABLY, The University of the West Indies (UWI) regional educational institution has survived and thrived, ranking today in the prestigious Times Higher Education's top four percentage of the world's 26,000 universities, despite its perennial financial woes.

One often wonders if Caribbean governments appreciate the indispensable value of having a globally recognised university, since they continue to underfund The UWI. Ironically, such decisions are made by prime ministers and cabinets full of UWI graduates.

Everyone knows, we assume, that education – more so higher education – is a critical determinant of economic development in a technology-driven, 'informationalised' global economy.

Though National Hero Marcus Garvey had called for the establishment of a university from the 1920s, the British colonial authorities did not set up a university in the Caribbean until 1948, ergo The UWI.

The region was therefore off to a late start and has never caught up with the demand and need for higher education. The percentage of young people trained to university level in the Caribbean is low compared to much of the rest of the world, including other developing regions.

Governments were frequently tardy in making payments to the university but funding on the whole was sufficient until recent years of serious and persistent fiscal problems. Starting with Jamaica, they began to reduce their subventions and built up debt to The UWI, while expecting quality of education to be maintained with annual increases in graduates.

If we are serious, the future of higher education in the Caribbean needs to involve the following:

First, governments must understand that The UWI is the vanguard of the higher education system, hence it is no longer solely responsible for turning out increased numbers of graduates each year. Governments must support other universities with different roles and student bodies, and not try to have several UWIs.

Second, governments must settle their debt to The UWI, if necessary by transferring assets in lieu of unpaid cash payments.

Third, The UWI is not a profit-making entity but it must increase the efficiency of its operations, including improving its financial management.

Fourth, The UWI must earn more revenue and not rely so heavily on fees. This can be accomplished by, among other things, selling its online courses to the globally dispersed Caribbean Diaspora and the world market, facilitating more part-time students by teaching seven days per week, and using UWI TV.

Fifth, costs must be reduced by eliminating courses that do not have the desired minimum of students, substituting electronic meetings for inter-campus travel, cutting administrative costs by employing more students rather than full-time staff, and using more adjunct faculty.

Sixth, the public must understand that at this point in time university education is not an entitlement, because countries cannot afford it.

Seventh, the 500-year-old model of the three-year degree needs to be abandoned and replaced with the two-year degree by having three terms instead of two semesters. Increase lecture time from the current seven to 11 months of the year as students would spend one year less out of the workforce and the number of graduates would be increased.

Continuing to pay lip service to The UWI is too costly.