Guest editorial

When Education Minister Fayval Williams tabled in Parliament – as this newspaper urged her to do – the Byron Commission report on the state of The University of the West Indies (The UWI), she merely provided a broad outline of its findings, offering no analysis of her own or the Government’s position on the review.

Broadly, the commission concluded that:

• The university is faced with a fiscal crisis.

• It has a Byzantine management/governance system that is often accountable and generally resistant to change and in need of overhaul.

• It requires a new financing structure given the inability of Caribbean governments, its owners, to adequately fund the institution.

The commission’s main recommendation with respect to fixing The UWI’s fiscal problem was to place a greater burden on students to meet the cost of their education by doubling their implied contribution to 40 per cent of the cost after governments have put in place arrangements to make students’ loans more accessible and affordable, including in paying back the debt.

That is not enough. Indeed, having gone so far as to place the report on the table of Parliament, Minister Williams and the Jamaican Government would have done a disservice to those who prepared it, but more so the management of the university, if the document were just left to hang, without deeper analysis and debate.

For instance, Sir Hilary Beckles, The UWI’s vice chancellor, which effectively makes him the CEO, has been offering an alternative model for the funding of the university, which does not include students having to bear a higher proportion of the university’s expenditure.

Their tuition and other fees now cover around 15 per cent of spending. Shareholder governments, whose subsidies in recent years have hovered at 45 per cent of costs, would, under the vice chancellor’s proposal, edge up their contributions to 50 per cent of the budget.

Last week, the university’s senior management, including the principals of its five campuses (which includes an open campus), held a retreat at which not only Sir Hilary’s funding model, but his broader vision for the academy and how these are to be implemented, were reviewed. Public statements subsequent to the session suggest that there was consensus on the plans.

Notably, Sir Hilary was recently appointed to a second term as The UWI’s vice chancellor, which suggests that the majority of 17 regional governments that contribute to the university have confidence in his leadership as well as his strategy for pulling the institution out of its financial bind.

It is not clear, though, what that means for the broader issues raised in the Byron Commission report, such as the establishment of an executive committee of The UWI Council, the university’s highest decision-making body, which, effectively, would lessen the power of the vice chancellor. There have been declarations that the report is being studied by a subcommittee of the Council, which will recommend what parts of it should be implemented.

It is against the backdrop of the foregoing that this newspaper repeats its call for the Byron Commission report to be sent to a special joint select committee of Parliament for broader and deeper review and analysis so as to give Jamaican stakeholders a fuller appreciation of its contents and the reasoning behind them.

But more critically, especially in the wake of last week’s strategy sessions, the university’s management deserves an opportunity to respond to the task force’s observation in a debate that is fit for an academy – robust but without rancour.

In this regard, we restate the suggestion that we made previously that the proposed parliamentary hearings on the Byron Commission report be fundamentally different to what normally obtains for matters that are before parliamentary committees.

Critically, interventions and presentations should not be limited to domestic stakeholders. In acknowledgement of The UWI as a vital regions project, it should be widened to engage Caribbean stakeholders, whether at home or in the diaspora.

First, Sir Dennis Byron, the chair of the review commission, and members thereof, should be invited to provide the larger and nuanced context to the document they produced while Sir Hilary and his key lieutenants, should also be able to give their response to it.

This should include the details of their proposals for funding the university and their expectations of Jamaica’s contribution thereto. Further, participation from people in other stakeholder countries, including their governments, as well as Caribbean people who live outside of the region, should be invited and encouraged. International partners, too, should be part of this conversation.

We suggest this novel approach to the Jamaican Parliament for several reasons, not least of which is our view that this discussion is an opportunity to reinforce the idea of singleness of the university, or in the current idiom of its managers, One UWI. But more important is our unshakable understanding that wisdom resides in no single place and that neither is it constrained by geography.

The collective capacity of the Caribbean is greater than any single unit thereof. Moreover, The University of the West Indies is important to all of us – too important to fail and too important for any of us to be aloof from discussions about its survival and growth.

Courtesy the Jamaica Gleaner

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