Short-sighted underinvestment in UWI

Sunday, May 06, 2018

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The countries that achieve a significant leap in economic development are those that increase productivity and international competitiveness through technological change driven by innovation. This has been the experience from the Industrial Revolution, to China, to Singapore.

In today's globalised world, rapid technological change based on innovation and adaptation derives from knowledge and research which emanate from universities. Investment in higher education is the key to future economic development.

In the same way that parents who are poor sacrifice to educate their children, governments — particularly in developing countries — must make every effort to educate their populations. In these days, with an eye on the future, it means increasing the percentage and number of young people attaining a university education.

The University of the West Indies (UWI) is undoubtedly the premier institution of higher learning in the English-speaking Caribbean, and a globally recognised brand in higher education. Its stakeholders are the governments of the Caribbean in trust for the people of the region. For most of The UWI's 70-year history, the governments have provided financial contributions to sustain it. Recent economic difficulties have put regional governments in serious budget problems, making it a strain to maintain their pledged commitments to The UWI.

The Government of Trinidad and Tobago was magnanimous and paid off its arrears. Barbados has paid what it could manage and acknowledges the arrears as part of its national debt to be reduced in better times. The Government of Jamaica, since 2012, has paid a sum it determines but which is less than what The UWI had programmed in its budget, based on the traditional formulae.

The rest is not acknowledged as a debt to The UWI because of debt limits established by the International Monetary Fund. This is an expedient but short-sighted approach since the contribution could have been paid in non-cash ways which would be better for The UWI's balance sheet.

As far as we are aware, The UWI is not unsympathetic to the economic plight of governments. Vice Chancellor Sir Hilary Beckles has established a group led by Professor Densil Williams to formulate options that allow governments to reduce the arrears and design a new financing model for the university.

Meanwhile, The UWI has been implementing cost reduction measures such as public-private partnerships for student housing and water from its own wells at Mona Campus. Emblematic of this mindset is that the newly installed chancellor is businessman Mr Robert Bermudez.

The UWI and other tertiary institutions do not have entitlements, but since their owners are governments it is not unreasonable to expect adequate support. When governments under-fund tertiary institutions they are responsible for increasing the fees charged to students and for the mounting student loan debts. When governments underinvest in higher education they stifle research, innovation, education of the workforce, and reduce the potential and capacity for economic development in a world where every other country is investing in higher education.

Remember also that every dollar spent by The UWI has a significant multiplier effect because the university employs thousands of people, pays taxes, earns foreign exchange, and purchases goods and services.

It can't be asking too much of the Administration to give this matter serious attention.




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