GORDON 'Butch' Stewart, whose highly successful Sandals International Resorts spreads throughout the Caribbean, has some common sense advice on how the Jamaican Government can stimulate the country's economy in a year expected to be one of the toughest in recent memory. Last Thursday he suggested that the Jamaican Government open up northeast Jamaica for "unprecedented development", by immediately moving to extend the runway of the Ian Fleming International Airport in Boscobel, St Mary, just east of the resort town of Ocho Rios, St Ann. This week, Stewart asks whether the time has come to privatise the University of the West Indies (UWI):
Pointing to the wealth being created for some Caribbean islands by thriving offshore universities, Stewart has invited Jamaicans to consider whether the time has come for the Jamaican Government to consider the possibility of privatising the operations of the UWI.
Stewart acknowledged that the idea might not be a palatable one, because the bond between Jamaicans and the university was "deep, affectionate and hard to break".
"I raise it only as a possibility so that we can begin to look at it and decide if this is the best way forward to secure the future of the institution," Stewart says. "I am not by any means suggesting that we dispose of the UWI. Given the horrendous costs we need to meet from the budget, we have to start looking at things which we otherwise would not have."
Stewart notes that the Jamaican Government cannot find the kind of money necessary for continued development and maintenance of the university.
"We can't make ends meet, but we have to find solutions to get us out of this very difficult situation in which we have found ourselves," he adds. "So this is merely food for thought, but I believe there is some merit in it."
The business mogul points to the offshore universities in Grenada; Dominica; St Kitts-Nevis; and Antigua-Barbuda, as examples of privately run universities which have brought tremendous development to those islands.
"In the case of Grenada, the university is contributing 18 per cent to the island's Gross Domestic Product (GDP). You can't help but be impressed by the way in which the university is integrated into the economy there. Communities around it are thriving from the goods and services stimulated by university activities.
"Antigua has a relatively new university, which is already doubling its size. Montserrat moved its university to St Kitts after the volcanic explosion several years ago, and that has brought additional wealth to the island.
"The movement of hundreds of students, lecturers and other staff, the airlift, the rental of apartments, transportation, the contribution to the food industry, and all the other linkages throughout the economy have created a bonanza for those islands.
Given the regional structure of the UWI, the Jamaican Government would have to work in tandem with the other governments. Or it might want to privatise the operations here, Stewart says.
He adds that the Jamaican Government has done a lot to bring the UWI to its present standing, but it is now putting into the UWI more than it can afford to, and probably won't be able to continue at that rate for much longer. But by privatising it, the university would attract a bigger mix of students from North America and Europe, and even from as far away as India and other Asian countries, which is what he was seeing on campuses in the other Caribbean islands.
"This larger mix of students is attracted by the much lower rates related to the cost of education in the Caribbean, as compared with their own countries. That, in turn, will create a greater cash flow, thereby taking the burden of state funding from the people and governments of the region. We need to protect and enhance the high standard of education established by the university, so let's put on our thinking caps.
"There is a multitude of things that we can do - and this is just one - to start rebuilding our income sources or reducing costs to put our economy in a better shape. Some of it will take courage and we will need to think outside the traditional pathways.
"Again, I'm cautious about this suggestion of privatising the operations of the UWI which is a very delicate concept that many of us are emotional about. But I am convinced that we might find that we have nothing to lose and everything to gain from doing it," Stewart says.
Next Thursday: Stewart looks at how the Government can tackle the energy crisis.