By Canute Thompson
There has been intense debate and discussion locally and regionally on the report of the Dennis Byron led report on the governance of the UWI. There have been editorials and contributions in the Jamaica Observer, the Jamaica Gleaner, the Trinidad Express, Point Express of Antigua and Barbuda, and the Sunday Sun and Nation News (Barbados). In addition, at least one head of state, Antigua and Barbuda’s Gaston Brown, has commented publicly on the matter, as reported in the Point Express newspaper of Antigua. Unsurprisingly, perspectives vary, ranging from support for the Chancellor Robert Bermudez to proceed with his assumed intent to reform the UWI, to critique of the Prime Minister Brown that the Chancellor “moderate his conduct” and refrain from seeking to appropriate “unto himself much authority at the expense of the Vice Chancellor.”
I examine three areas of the report, namely: the proposed governance structures, strategic planning, and financing the UWI.
Proposed Establishment of Executive Committee of Council
The report proposes the abolition of the Finance and General Purposes Committee (F&GPC) and the establishment of an Executive Committee of Council (ECC) and the delegation of some powers of Council to the ECC. (Council is the highest governing body on the University and is chaired by the Chancellor). The ECC would perform the functions currently performed by the F&GPC but would be different in at least four critical respects, namely:
- The ECC would comprise thirteen (13) members while Council comprises forty-five (45) members
- The ECC would be chaired by an external person whereas the Campus F&GPCs are chaired by the principals and the UWI (regional) by the Vice-Chancellor
- The ECC would have the power to make and recommend policy for consideration by Council
- The Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor would be ex-officio members of the ECC.
These proposals are problematic, in my view, in several respects, chief of which are that:
- By reducing the decision-making body to less than a third of its current size, the proposal seeks to concentrate power in the hands of a few. This cannot be good for governance and democracy. Interestingly, the report stated that “The Commission does not think that the delegation would undermine the…regional character of the University”. (p. 48). It is my view, however, that the creation of an ECC with the power to, among other things, “set policy” (p. 49), is likely to undermine the “regional character of the University”. In short, with about a dozen people making major decisions for the university, it means excluding members of the academy who will be obligated to implement those decisions.
- With the Chancellor being an ex-officio member of the ECC, there will be a real or perceived conflict of interests. This potential for conflict of interest arises from the fact that the Chancellor who chairs Council would be able to influence, or be perceived as influencing, deliberations and recommendations over which he / she would later preside when decisions are being made.
- The proposed structure would then remove the element of objective analysis of issues presented to Council, a matter about which the Commission expresses concerns.
- The proposed structure will likely to be perceived as a marginalisation of some stakeholders in the University and could have the effect of undermining trust at a time when mutual trust is perhaps our most important asset.
The report expresses concern about the fact that Strategic Plans are “…approved without allocation of financial resources” (p. 44). At the same time the report proposes the abolition of the University Strategy and Planning Committee and argues that the strategic plans would be reviewed by the ECC. However, the report does not state what entity would prepare strategic plans that would be reviewed by the ECC. This is an area of major oversight at a time when planning ought to be central to the operations of the university.
The report takes the position that students’ contribution should increased by 100% from 20% of the economic cost to 40% and the governments’ contribution reduced by 25% from 80% of the economic cost to 60%.
The reality is that governments’ contributions have long fallen. In some years, some governments have contributed as little as 37% , but on average, governments’ contributions hover around 45%, which means that governments are contributing nearly fifty percent less than what is expected. The gap has been closed through projects and commercial operations of the university, and where the earnings from these areas fall short, what we have are the deficits that now exist.
I proposed a new financing model for the UWI, in my 2020 book, Education and Development: Policy Imperatives for Jamaica and the Caribbean. A Committee of the Vice-Chancellor, Sir Hilary Beckles, named “Reimaging the UWI 2020/21 and Beyond, which I co-chaired, made a wide range of recommendations for the strengthening of the UWI, and in relation to finances proposed some solutions both to raise revenues and contain costs. The framing of those proposals were highlighted by the Vice-Chancellor at a townhall earlier this year.
I share three proposals on how the finances of the UWI may be addressed in the short, medium, and long-term, two of which are contained in my 2020 book, mentioned above. I suggest that:
- For the immediate term, I suggest that governments use a portion of the funds in dormant bank accounts to provide emergency funding to the UWI. Several countries of the region including Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, BVI, Cayman, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, have substantial sums in dormant bank accounts. I propose that as an emergency measure a portion of these funds be used to provide liquidity support to the UWI over the next three to five years.
- For the medium term, I recommend that the UWI pursue alternative use of some of its buildings for commercial activities. During the next three to five years, the UWI should expand its commercial operation to increase its earnings from same. This should involve retrofitting some of its buildings for commercial use. This will, of necessity, involve re-negotiating agreements with entities which are partners in the construction and use of those buildings.
- For the long-term I propose that regional governments establish a Child Opportunity Trust Fund. This initiative would involve governments opening an account in the name of each child one year after birth and seeding each account with the equivalent of USD $100.00. This account would then be financed by the parents (and in the case of wards of the State, by the State) to the tune of US$1.00 per day or $30.00 per month for eighteen years. This initiative would be supported by the banking sector which would be expected not to charge a fee for operating these accounts and the governments would not charge taxes on the earnings. At maturity, eighteen years later, each child would have access to those funds to be used to purchase their education wherever they wish, or for setting up businesses.
On the question of the current financial health of the UWI, it must be noted that when Sir Hilary Beckles assumed office in 2015, the UWI’s financial arrears was a massive USD $120M. Over the last five years, approximately, he has led a reduction of that debt by two-thirds down to USD $40M, despite crumbling financial support from regional governments and high fee receivables.
This accomplishment cannot be overlooked.
Thoughts and views expressed in guest opinions do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Observer NewsCo, its management or staff.