Moving Targets:Responding to Reduced Budgets
By Professor Gordon Shirley
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As we expand, we find ourselves in a position where we have to offer all the specialisations on each campus. People say the regional spirit is being lost because students are largely confined to their home campuses. In my opinion, regionality for the founding fathers meant the opportunity to have equal access to the various disciplines, regardless of your country of birth.
I think regionalism is as important as it was 60 years ago. We may ask if it has worked in terms of market access as some of our intra-regional markets are still evidently too closed to each other. I think the intention was for us to move forward together, but there is limited political will to share resources. A case in point: our systems of governance require an independent civil service. It is not clear to me that the public service in our countries talks or interacts effectively in a way which facilitates sharing of knowledge and a more uniform development across the region. I do not think the private sector sees this region as one bloc dealing with the rest of the world.
What I would like to see of The University of the West Indies within the next five years is that it becomes more of an institution that facilitates this kind of integration between public and private sectors across the region; that it is an engine of growth; a place that creates knowledge and facilitates the sharing of ideas, and that it becomes an international hub for this kind of intellectual activity. I would like to see us further along the path to self-sustainability, developing truly viable business models for our operators. Then I think we will be able to realise the goals that have eluded us up to this point. I am a deep regionalist, but I think my views on regionalism may not be the same as those of other people. I don’t think my views are to hark back to the past, and I don’t think you have to have political integration as a condition of regionalism. The focus, I think, has to be on sustainability and growth.
The Mona Campus has had to make strategic shifts in its approach to sustainability, especially in light of reductions in its government subventions. One characteristic of this reduction is the emphasis by the government on early childhood education as a development thrust, which is widely recommended by international bodies. Our own School of Education has been a leader in the research supporting this as a way forward, so it is difficult for the Campus to separate itself from this philosophy. However, it has meant less financial support for tertiary level institutions and because I am not interested in barely surviving, we have found innovative ways to recalibrate our approaches so that we position ourselves at the cutting edge. As we require knowledge-based societies, we are not necessarily creating leaders as we did in the past when the mandate was to produce replacements for the colonial administrators; rather we are producing citizens who can make contributions at all levels. I don’t think we should be asking if The UWI has failed in the past 60 years to fulfil its mandate, but whether we need to renew that mandate. It is more relevant to ask how we can transform ourselves into a university that better meets the needs of the region. We have to find the right balance. Yes, we have to produce more job-ready graduates, but we also have to encourage research, because this is an environment that is rapidly changing, complex and sometimes confusing. Economic realities have meant changing roles for universities and campuses – it is not unique to Jamaica – it is happening in the US and Europe where some universities are doing away with entire departments. We would be reluctant to go down that path, preferring to reposition the curriculum. For instance, we think that Humanities are as vitally important as they were 60 years ago because they really help our students to think creatively and to express themselves effectively.