Strategic plan for UWI
Professor E. Nigel Harris, Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West Indies (UWI), had many things on his mind when he spent a few days in Barbados. One was the admission of new students at the Cave Hill campus. Another was the UWI’s new five-year strategic plan.
But perhaps the most pressing issue was the $150 million debt owed by the Barbados Government to the regional body. For the first time in its history, Barbados’ indebtedness to the UWI has overshadowed other concerns.
In today’s Big Interview, Harris sat down with NATION North American Correspondent Tony Best yesterday morning to answer several questions about the current fiscal crunch and how it is being resolved by the Freundel Stuart administration and the UWI.
What can you tell us about the talks with Barbados to settle the country’s $150 million debt to the UWI?
Harris: I speak within the context of the regional university and can state since the global economic crisis of 2008, we have been having a more challenging time in terms of meeting the obligations the various governments have made to us. We have a process by which we make decisions about the degree to which the university is going to be financed. At those meetings, governments commit to paying whatever the appropriate sums based on the numbers of students registered.
Over the last three or so years, some governments have found it increasingly difficult to meet their obligations. Since Barbados has been one of the three major players within the context of the university, the increasing shortfall and arrears in payments from the Barbados Government have impacted the finances of the university as a whole.
Obviously, it has had its biggest impact on Barbados but it is felt throughout the university. It really has become an imperative at this stage that we get a clear commitment from the Barbados Government that it would meet its obligations. The ability of our auditors to feel comfortable about our finances really relies on Barbados at this point.
Did you receive a firm commitment from Barbados to pay up?
Harris: We have been in discussions with the Government over several months because we feel this is a circumstance that requires constructive engagement. I have come with teams from the regional university, joined the Cave Hill campus leadership and had meetings with the Minister of Finance (Chris Sinckler) and the finance team.
Together we have been exploring various strategies to meet what were becoming quite significant arrears in payment from the Barbados Government. It became even more of a concern as we started a new academic year and within that context we had to get a clear commitment in writing from the Barbados Government that there would be a strategy to meet the outstanding obligations.
In my discussions with the Minister of Finance and the principal of the Cave Hill campus (Sir Hilary Beckles), who spoke with both the minister and the Prime Minister, we received commitments that there is a strategy that will be rolled out shortly as to how this obligation is going to be met.
Was the strategy spelt out to you and Sir Hilary?
Harris: The Government has spelled out a plan but I don’t want to comment on it as yet because I want the Government to spell it out. From our perspective the plan seems like a reasonable one. What I am dearly hoping for is that going forward, in rolling out a plan, there will be a national consensus, first of all, on how the current obligations are going to be met. The commitment made should be for a national bipartisan discussion about the long-term funding of Cave Hill.
There should also be a broader discussion across the Caribbean which we are going to initiate about the regional university. That discussion about Cave Hill must start locally.
Would the strategy entail paying down some of the arrears over the long term while meeting current obligations?
Harris: Actually, that is the essence of what we anticipate. If current obligations are not met then it increases the arrears. There are two elements to it – meeting the current obligations and continuing to do so, and then have a long-term plan to reduce the arrears.
But is it a credible and realistic financial plan on which the university can rely?
Harris: From our perspective, yes, it sounds realistic to me. I am hopeful that it is a plan that both Government and opposition can support. I work with the belief that both . . . are very, very committed to the viability and sustainability of the university. We discussed it with our finance people, including the university bursar and the principal of Cave Hill.
What can happen if Barbados makes a commitment and then fails to live up to its promises?
Harris: Failure to pay would have a considerable negative impact on the university. It would affect our credibility with institutions that finance us and, given the leading role which Barbados plays in terms of advocacy at a regional level for the university and for tertiary level, failure to pay would hurt the university.
Barbados has been a major voice for the university. The late Prime Minister David Thompson and, before him, Mr Owen Arthur, chaired the university’s Grant Committee which hears, considers and comes to a decision about its annual financing. In a symbolic sense, Barbados has been a dominant player and if it stumbles it can have an impact regionally.
If Barbados didn’t pay, would it impact the ability of students to continue their education at Cave Hill? How about the staffing as well?
Harris: The negative impact wouldn’t simply be on the students; it would be on the university at large. The UWI impacts Barbados as a whole. It employs a significant number of Barbadians. The capital growth helps to stimulate the Barbados economy and in terms of provisions on policy advice in a broad range of advice, I would expect there would be quite an impact that would be national in scope.
Given the present situation, can you envisage a situation that requires Barbadian students who can afford it to pay something towards their education in the form of fees?
Harris: Barbados and the rest of the region have committed themselves to a considerable growth in access to tertiary level education. The value of that access is without debate. That’s a global commitment and there is an understanding within the Caribbean that if we don’t expand the access, then we are not going to be competitive.
There are three forces that are in equilibrium with each other. There is an increase in access, maintaining quality and there is cost. You can’t adjust one without affecting the other. If you increase access and you do nothing else, your cost will have to increase.
This is a matter not simply for Barbados. It is a regional question. It is one facing many countries in the world today. There are different options facing all countries. The issue of charging fees may be an option for those able to pay but that should be part of a national discussion on how to finance tertiary education. The question then is how about the poor who can’t pay?
How did this large debt arise? Did it creep up on you and just keep growing?
Harris: Like other Caribbean economies, the Barbados economy took a beating because of the global financial crisis. [It] has suffered considerably and in terms of meeting its obligations to the university it became increasingly difficult. The slippage took place over a period of time. It began in 2009. That was when the first shortfall occurred at a time of a crisis within the Caribbean. We were suffering from cuts in Jamaica, but Barbados’ first shortfall began in 2009. We must also be clear that up until 2008-2009, Barbados met its full obligations to the university.
I must also explain that some other countries were not meeting their obligations. We certainly have been looking at it privately for over a year, working with the Government on strategies to meet the debt obligation. One of the first approaches used was to look at the National Insurance Scheme. We did that. But in truth that wasn’t the ideal route in which we should go. It has been an ongoing discussion to pin down the appropriate strategy.
Are other countries, say Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica, current in their payments?
Harris: At this moment, Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica are largely current. But this is not the first time in the history of the university that something like this has occurred. Many years ago, Trinidad and Tobago, long before my time, had deficits and there were considerable issues with respect to payments to the university. There were times in the recent past when Jamaica had issues with arrears and payments. What I can say is that this is the most significant shortfall in the last eight years.
How are the financial difficulties with Barbados affecting your long-term planning?
Harris: We are just about to start our next five-year strategic plan and within the context of that plan there will be considerable efforts to enrich the quality of education to broaden the research and contributions to national growth that we make to our region. We want to be able to attract much larger numbers of students from the outside world and academics as well. We believe that we are at the stage of bringing a larger number of students from outside the Caribbean.
One of the key elements of the plan is financing the university. We knew going forward that we must expand our non-governmental support. We don’t want to do so at the cost of current government support. We are going to be utilizing a number of approaches, one of which is the link with the private sector. We want to design programmes for continuing education and professional development.
There is going to be a much larger basket of programmes that are going to be self-financing that we anticipate people will pay for. We are looking at various modalities to enhance our own financial strength.
There is a view that the Cave Hill campus expanded too quickly and that was part of the problem. Do you agree?
Harris: I can tell you no. I don’t accept that view. I know that view is current but I don’t agree with it. There was a decision made at Caricom to grow the number of tertiary educated students and the university deliberately embarked on that as policy to increase access with the understanding that a knowledgeable, educated workforce would put the Caribbean in a more competitive mode. The question of expansion is not being asked in Taiwan, South Korea, Malaysia or Australia.
The second thing to point out is that the growth in the numbers of students at UWI had been larger in Trinidad and Tobago in percentage than happened in Barbados. It has been large in Barbados but percentage wise larger in Trinidad and Tobago. The government of Trinidad and Tobago in terms of percentage to GDP (gross domestic product) has made as much an investment as Barbados. Jamaica is not far behind. Maybe theirs has not been as large but it has grown. Barbados is not an isolated phenomenon. The growth took place between 2003-2009. Since then there has been a levelling-off on all of the campuses and the reason for it is to consolidate our position.
Doesn’t that demand a specific strategy for Barbados to absorb the growing number of university-educated students?
Harris: Yes, it does. The question is precisely that: what strategies do the Barbadian Government and the private sector need to develop to absorb the college-educated graduates? If that doesn’t happen, then people would do what they did in Jamaica and Guyana and they are going to go to the First World. So, it isn’t a matter of Cave Hill developing too fast but it must be a matter of developing policies and programmes to absorb people. That may involve bringing in foreign investors or widening the business sector.