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Investment in higher education worth the cost

For Release Upon Receipt - Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Lamenting what he deemed the poor quality of national discussion about higher education and national development; a situation he says that has resulted in a conversation filled with propaganda, mythologies and untruths, principal of the University of the West Indies (UWI) at Cave Hill, Sir Hilary Beckles, has responded to the institution’s critics whom he suggests should know better.

Amid concerns that future generations of Barbadians could have less access to higher learning than now exists, and are at risk of being less educated than their parents, a leading educator is urging authorities not to “close that door” and stymie the country’s development.

His comments came in a spirited defense of the University against ongoing criticisms about funding tertiary level education, student admission protocols, the throughput rate for graduates, quality controls and other issues.

Speaking at the start of a two-day symposium on food security hosted by the UWI in collaboration with several national and international agencies, Sir Hilary likened agriculture’s struggle for survival to that of the Cave Hill campus which is now in its 50th year of existence.

Comparing the university to a battered housewife, he argued that in much the same way that agriculture was fighting for resurgence after sugar production created “the richest entrepreneurial class in the hemisphere,” so too was the university battling to maintain its presence even though it has laid the foundation for the international recognition which the country now enjoys.

Pledge of full support

He pledged full campus support in the national quest to rebuild agriculture while noting the university’s own contribution to the creation of agricultural excellence in the past. “…in the 90s, Cave Hill campus had established a reputation for global and regional leadership in agricultural research. The work by Professor (Leonard) O’Garro and his team was cutting edge; it helped to save the food crop industry in this country and in this region. From all over the Caribbean people came to Cave Hill to acquire the research we had developed here to help with crop sciences, finding disease-resistant strains to food crops - all of that extraordinary work was done to save the food crop industry in this region.

“…I returned ten years later (as principal) and much of that has gone... Therein lies the cycle of the rise and fall. The lack of sustainability, which is a typical defining feature of undeveloped countries, countries that somehow have not mastered the arts of sustaining the excellence they have achieved. Have it for a decade, you (lose) it, then you have to regain it and thus the cycle of woes and misery all over again. But we are going to start again at this campus.”

Sir Hilary said when one listens to the debates about funding higher education “you cannot but conclude that this country is on the verge of crippling the goose that laid the golden egg.”

“… The fact is that the University of the West Indies enterprise in Barbados in the last 15 years is the goose that laid the golden egg in this country,” he said. “It … produced the resources, the stability, the growth, the reputation of this island, its global international reach. It is the University of the West Indies that produced the Barbadian brand that is now able to sustain us.

“Fifty years of higher education has given us a ranking in the echelons of the world’s capital development in terms of human resources. It is what distinguishes this country; it is what has given it (its high) reputation. “

Pointing to the Barbados Cabinet which comprises several UWI alumni, Sir Hilary said: “… I do not believe for a moment that a collection of men and women who have had 65 years between them of free publicly funded tertiary education at UWI will in any way do anything to prevent others from having the same.”

High marks for campus

The principal said the findings of an international body of quality assurance professionals gave high marks to the campus which underwent a just-conducted accreditation exercise. Those findings rebutted recent criticisms that the campus was in the throes of a quality crisis.

He also addressed what he termed a number of mythologies “that are shaping the conversation about higher education, development and (the) university in this country.” Among them, that students take an inordinate length of time to complete their degrees thus exacerbating a higher education drain on public finances. Sir Hilary added that a study of the throughput rate in the last 15 years showed that only 13 per cent of students do not complete their degrees within the specified time and this compares favourably with universities in Britain and the United States.

Addressing the growth of the campus’ budget from $96 million to $146 million in the past ten years, he pointed out that enrollment grew correspondingly during that period from 3,000 to 8, 000. Of this enrollment, 80 per cent comes from the working class. He argued that anyone seeing this purely as an expenditure without seeing the investment potential did not understand development.

In spite of the growth, he noted, studies showed the campus has the lowest per capita cost – some $13 000 per year – among all UWI campuses.

With regard to criticisms about the cheaper cost of educating a student at a community college vis a vis a university, the principal asked: “How can you compare the education of students in a college with an international university and make comparisons of cost?”

Sir Hilary who assumed the principalship in 2002 said that ten years ago 60 per cent of eligible students were denied access to university because of capacity constraints and queried whether this was what society wanted.

On the issue of student admissions, and in the wake of charges that Cave Hill circumvented admission regulations, Sir Hilary made it clear that these could not be flouted since they were not set arbitrarily by any individual campus. All UWI campuses had to abide by the same matriculation rules prescribed by the UWI Senate.

Question to ponder

He added that a question for society to ponder was whether Barbados which has a nine billion dollar economy could not afford to education 8000 citizens at university.

Addressing the near $200 million debt owed to the entire UWI by the Barbados Government, he said: “The budget of this Campus is $146 million. The Government owes this campus more than $146 million. 

“Some people believe it is a subvention that is given to this University. It is not a subvention, it is an invoice (which) the University sends … to the Government. We educate(d) your citizens, this is the bill for the students we have educated from your society. We send the bill to Jamaica, we send the bill to Barbados, we send the bill to Trinidad, we send the bill to all the countries…

“If one government does not pay the invoice, who then is paying for the education of the citizens? This is the question that all the other governments are asking. In other words the debt which the Barbados government owes the University is the equivalent of the last 5000 students.  …The University has not been paid for the last 5000 students it has graduated from Barbados… That’s what it works out to. And if the Government has not paid for the last 5000 students it has graduated who has paid for them? It is a regional University. These are the kinds of conversations that we have to have.”


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