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UTech is Technology Plus

Stephen
Vasciannie

Sunday, May 14, 2017

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Some weeks ago, the Sunday Observer published a speech which I gave setting out aspects of my vision for the University of Technology, Jamaica (UTech). In that speech, I emphasised, among other things, the importance of research and publications within the university's constellation.One of the respondents to the Sunday Observer took me to task primarily for not incorporating within my vision the notion that UTech should become the “MIT of the Caribbean.” This phrase — nice-sounding but largely undefined — suggests perhaps that UTech should eschew all intellectual activities, save those which bring about training in areas of technology, narrowly defined.

Against that background, I write to offer some general comments on the core issue of the focus of the University of Technology. These views are part of my personal vision, and do not necessarily reflect the corporate view of the university.

Emphasis v exclusion

Given the name of the institution, reasonable persons are entitled to presume that UTech should concentrate on technological development and on the creation and dissemination of learning related to technology.

If this is a statement of emphasis, then it is readily supportable, not only because it reflects the approach required in the university's governing instruments, but also because it underlines governmental and social expectations about the primary role of this university.

On the other hand, if we conclude from the name of the institution that we must concentrate on technology programmes of study to the exclusion of all other programmes, then this is problematic.

While the university must retain its focus on technology courses, it should also undertake courses outside the strict limits of technology (or science and technology) for a number of reasons.

Existing practice

To begin, as a matter of history and practice, the College of Arts, Science and Technology (CAST) included non-scientific, non-technology courses within its remit, as indeed expressly indicated by the reference to “Arts” in the name of the institution.

This approach was retained even after CAST achieved university status; for the university's Charter stipulates that one of the objects of the university shall be the preservation, advancement and dissemination of “knowledge and culture, through teaching, scholarship and research”, a term sufficiently broad to extend beyond “technology” simpliciter (Charter, Section 2(b)).

Similarly, Section 2(a) of the Charter lists as an object of the university the advancement of “education and development of technology through a variety of patterns, levels and modes of study…”, another form of words that does not contemplate work exclusively in the area of technology.

Some persons offering commentary on the university seem to assume that, having named the institution the University of Technology, the Government should require the institution to confine itself to technology only. This does not necessarily follow, because the nomenclature may be no more than a shorthand expression of emphasis, and not a pointer in favour of exclusive concentration on technology.

The retention of the reference to education, knowledge and culture in the governing statutes suggests that there is express scope for non-technological programmes such as management, law, the liberal arts and the social sciences at the university, as long as these do not undermine the primarily technological focus of the institution.

In practice today, about 75 per cent of the courses at the university concentrate on science and technology: broadly speaking, an appropriate balance may be in place, though the precise balance will almost always be a matter of debate.

Cross-fertilisation

Secondly, scientific and technological learning should take place in its societal context. To put this in summary form, technology must be managed, it is always subject to law, and it must be implemented by persons with an understanding of social forces.

Thus, there should be a place for the university to present an understanding of technology in its context, with courses on the management of technology, law and technology, and technology in the social environment.

In this regard, it should be noted that technology students stand to benefit from the cross-fertilisation of ideas in non-technological areas of study just as lawyers, managers and social scientists are beneficiaries of new forms of technology.

The university's challenge, therefore, is to ensure that this cross-fertilisation takes place in the midst of high-quality teaching and research in the different fields of specialisation.

More than 50 years ago, C P Snow in a famous Cambridge lecture “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution”, noted the significant divide in modern society between the humanities and science. Snow's plea was for greater exposure to diverse areas for specialists as part of a rounded education. The University of Technology needs to maintain some of its non-technology programmes of study to retain the advantages of cross-fertilisation in the promotion of a rounded education for its students.

Access and enrolment

Thirdly, it remains true that the Jamaican educational system has provided only limited access to tertiary education for qualified students. Enrolment rates at the tertiary level have traditionally been below 10 per cent of each post-secondary age cohort.

Some non-technology students come to the University of Technology, Jamaica, because they have exercised their choice from among very limited possibilities. And others may come to UTech because they have not been able to enter alternative institutions.

In either case, UTech is giving these non-technology students an opportunity which they would not otherwise have had. In the circumstances, why should the University of Technology, Jamaica, cut established non-technological programmes when this would simply limit existing opportunities for tertiary education in an environment of already limited options?

Why should we promote monopolistic approaches when, in the era of free markets and commitment to increased educational opportunity, some students choose to pursue non-technology courses at UTech?

The demand for some non-technology courses exceeds the supply of places (see, for example, management and law): the university seeks to provide an increased number of opportunities on the supply side.

To that extent, the university is respecting market logic and helping to provide opportunities for tertiary education for the traditionally dispossessed, among others. The institution should not be apologetic about its initiatives in this area.

Economics

Fourthly, it is important to note that management-related programmes of study constitute key drivers in the funding of the university. Precisely because there is a strong demand for management-related training in the Jamaican society, about 40 per cent of the students at the institution pursue courses in this area.

Shortly put, the programmes in management make money, and thus indirectly subsidize some of the technology courses on offer. This is an important consideration, bearing in mind current perceptions on profitability in education.

More generally, persons arguing for the university to cut its non-technology courses sometimes seem to attach insufficient weight to the fact that some non-technology courses justify themselves from a budgetary point of view.

Given the funding potential of such non-technology courses, cutting them in the interest of a pure concentration on technology could actually cause the institution to require more funding from the Government of Jamaica.

This economic argument suggests that, rather than approaching the matter with a broad brush, the university should assess the profitability of individual programmes of study; it should not simply say that Programme X is not essentially technological and so it should go.

Significance?

In the broad discussions on the subject of the university's focus, the impression is sometimes created that the institution has somehow gone off track because it is concentrating on many things outside the area of its true competence in technology.

Against this background, it may be important to note that, apart from the aforementioned management programmes, most non-technology courses do not carry large numbers of students. The law programme has been something of a lightning rod for certain criticisms; and yet, less than five per cent of the students at the institution study law.

Also, because the numbers for student intake in most non-technology courses tend to be relatively small (other than for management), it is not at all clear that abolishing those courses would lead to a significant impact on the work of the university in pure technology programmes.

This leads us to two conclusions. One is that some courses pay for themselves and generate subsidies that can help finance technology programmes (eg the case of management studies). And the other is that some courses have relatively small numbers which have limited impact on the university's budget. These latter courses, however, promote a rounded educational experience, and encourage intellectual cross-fertilisation (eg the case of law).

Competition

In addition to the foregoing, there is a case for greater competition in the provision of tertiary education in Jamaica. The University of Technology, Jamaica, in providing services in areas such as management, law and the social sciences, provides an alternative to other institutions, and thereby opens up choices for students.

This is not an abstract issue. On questions such as the provision of classes for evening students, and on providing for a practical orientation in some courses, the university may well have a competitive edge over certain alternatives.

In a competitive environment as well, the university may be forced to raise its standards, and prompt others to raise theirs: this should redound to the benefit of Jamaican and Caribbean society. The way of the monopoly should be discouraged in the present environment.

Finally, it should not escape notice that competing institutions do not perceive themselves to be under any obligation to refrain from competing with the university in respect of technology subjects. The university accepts that position, and simply wishes to be allowed to compete on a level playing field.

UTech was, is and should be Technology Plus.

Stephen Vasciannie is President of the University of Technology, Jamaica.

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