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Should tertiary be our top education priority?

Friday, March 15, 2019

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The problem of tertiary education stems mainly from flawed primary and secondary schooling. Education Minister Senator Ruel Reid said tertiary education was being restructured in order to meet the demands of the 21st century and he would rebrand “tertiary” as “higher” (University Council of Jamaica Retreat July 26, 2018); so let's help.

Tertiary is the least important stage of education as by then students make their own decisions and can lobby. The stages at which adults make decisions for students, imbue them with knowledge and abilities to make their own decisions are more important and should be priority.

Sir, an education system is sequential, integrated, progressively complex, so you can't fix deficits at the start — primary and secondary — by reorganising the end stage — tertiary.

Reid is minister of schools, yet most reading a degree did not master key literacies as well as cognitive, affective, critical thinking at school to benefit from tertiary. He must get 80 per cent of the secondary cohort to standard and tertiary will flow, as State or private campuses can award all academic or competency certificates, diplomas or degrees.

Most first degrees expand knowledge but offer no job skill. Early The University of the West Indies (UWI) students were tops. They read degrees in history, sciences, Latin, but easily tooled as civil servants, could run businessws, do accounting, and sell rum and insurance. Firms now have granular needs; a cold chain manager, ABC1 marketer; want work-ready graduates; no management trainee, no remediation. Sir, schools must deliver quality to campuses!

So how does Reid reorganise tertiary education?

Jamaica has over 90 tertiary degree-granting institutions; four universities and one university college. The UWI, now affirmed by global ratings, is top dog. Caribbean Maritime University (CMU) is about specialisms and balances academic with hands-on mastery. Northerm Caribbean University is faith-based and maintains strong workforce credentials and values. University of Technology, Jamaica (UTech) transitioned from a great college for work-ready students and is trending to a new paradigm. The State funds some 30 community, agriculture, teacher training and special colleges such as Management Institute for National Deveopment.

The private sector has dozens of institution — faith-based, offshore, local, virtual; corporate such as Sandals Corporate University; most secular and all for-profit. Tertiary is a vibrant space, so the State must enable, register, regulate (University Council of Jamaica for quality), protect students (Consumer Commission), fund its own ,and use incentives to channel choices as necessary. So it is now easy to get a degree, but Minister Reid is not turning out enough qualified scholars.

Glib chatter about financing tertiary education is hot air unless we use the market. We must zero-base, check private, public sector job forecasts, and model. There is a ratio of support jobs to one degree job; so one engineer leads to 20 non-degree jobs. So use labour forecasts and job creation ratios to determine need, quantum, then cost by discipline, level in a four-year to seven-year plan horizon. Then we can rationalise State provisions (private tertiary will fill gaps) and right-size, merge, divest. Can the State afford or need 30-odd campuses with professors, lecturers, registrars, bursars in this bullish private market? Yet, all professors are not equal; so who has critical academic mass to do serious research, development and innovation?

The plan must ensure the 80 per cent of secondary graduates get tertiary education and training based on job forecasts. Say, 15 per cent academic; history, philosophy, management; then 20 per cent blended; some 65 per cent ought to read in-demand area such as social media, business process outsourcing, information technology. There, too, must be a place for technicians, masons, salespeoples, steel riggers, analysts, and workers for construction, farm, factory or home. All must earn certificates and the only bar would be employers' need for certificate, diploma or degree level expertise.

The degree market is competitive. Fees for a Harvard, State University of New York or DeVry degree are different, but each has costs, return on investment, market, and none grudges the other. For-profit campuses are cost-effective, so you can get a University Council of Jamaica-approved degree for $250,000 midtown, or $1.5 million uptown. Private campuses do cheap “chalk and talk” degrees for marketing, sales, human resources and teach classes at hotels. Their lecturers are moonlighting civil service, private sector or State university employees. They are nimble, but can't backstop national development as State campuses invest in specialised technology, machinery for sciences, medicine, or engineering.

State campuses pay better and have higher costs, yet all offer University Council of Jamaica-approved degrees. UWI Mona is part of a multi-national, and, as people are better paid in member Trinidad, for ease of management, staff movement across nations pay was normed on their oil riches. Mona is in a different economic and treaty space and State campuses that rely on our spluttering economy 'suck salt' — just as all of us who live here!

Minister Reid can reorganise UTech, CMU, Mico, but not UWI, yet these must do our heavy lifting with no duplication.

Sir, private tertiary is almost as large as State tertiary and costs taxpayers nothing. So, while you reorganise, let Jamaica Promotions Corporation (Jampro) promote quality and private tertiary investment! Stay conscious!

Franklin Johnston, D Phil (Oxon), is a strategist and project manager; Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (UK); and lectures in logistics and supply chain management at Mona School of Business and Management, The University of the West Indies. Send comments to the Observer or franklinjohnstontoo@gmail.com.


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