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PEOPLE & THINGS: A closer look at the university

Peter Wickham

PEOPLE & THINGS: A closer look at the university

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The other major factor which is related to the now notorious University of the West Indies (UWI) fees issue is the extent to which the university has itself contributed to this problem by becoming less efficient than one would like. 
While not suggesting that UWI’s management has been involved in any form of deception, one might argue that the UWI “train” is moving faster along the tracks than many of us might like. It is therefore important that while we reflect upon Government’s decision to impose user fees, we also examine the UWI’s efficiency.
UWI’s complex management system is entangled in a committee system that reflects representation by the student body as well as national governments. Its day-to-day operations are directly under the control of the principal. However, he and all administrative leaders answer to a supervisory council of which the Barbados Government is part. As such, it would be virtually impossible for the UWI to develop and implement expensive plans without our Government being aware, and to this extent the principal is entirely correct in his assertion that the university has been transparent.
At the same time, however, this is only half of the story and a closer examination will reveal a UWI spending problem that is not unlike that of this Government, which has too infrequently been placed under the microscope. If we are going to be critical of this Government’s commitment to education, it is only fair that we examine the UWI’s contribution to escalating cost by way of its inefficiency. Such an analysis needs to begin with the UWI’s approach to staffing, which one former registrar once admitted (to me) has been reviewed more times than he cared to remember. He quipped that each time there was a review in the past, the net effect was an increase in staff numbers and associated cost.
This staffing situation is a major contributor to UWI’s escalating cost. UWI appears to have a disproportionally larger administration than is necessary in these times and these functionaries amuse themselves executing functions, the necessity of which can be questioned. 
A case in point is the UWI examination system which is supervised by an entire department, while that of the University of California (with which I have some familiarity) is considerably less cumbersome and relies on teaching staff to administer their own examinations.
At the broader level, the UWI has spawned departments for quality control, planning, marketing and even business development. It would be interesting to see a cost benefit analysis of these departments reflecting their cost and the potential revenue generated and/or saved by them. The conclusion of such an analysis is uncertain. However, the fact that the cost of a UWI degree compares unfavourably with the cost of external degrees demonstrates the extent to which UWI’s per student cost needs urgent attention.
Perhaps the single largest impact on this current issue is the arrangement for funding Barbadian students, which gives UWI the unchallenged right to admit a student for whom the Government of Barbados is committed to pay. This system is clearly problematic since UWI can effectively increase its budget by enrolling more students and presenting Government with a bill which could easily take it by “surprise”. Matriculation levels and the extent to which a student adheres to academic discipline are all matters that no government can interfere with, but these issues have economic implications. Certainly this system worked well over the years, but it is now clear that the arrangement needs to be revised in the interest of containing the UWI’s budget.
Another major contributor of recent vintage is the establishment of the Cave Hill Medical Faculty, since statistics reveal a significant increase in the cost to Government at the time of its establishment. Although this faculty would have been set up with the blessing of a previous Barbados Government, logical thinkers must question the extent to which this development was necessary, affordable and is a dilution of UWI’s regional mission.
In much the same way that the Mount Hope Faculty represented a fundamental shift away from UWI’s regional philosophy more than 20 years ago, this faculty reflects a similar shift being taken by a country that has considerably less resources. One acknowledges that the faculty is a legacy to its founder, but this does not make its establishment any more logical. An increase in the quantity of doctors could easily have been achieved less expensively and in a way that is more manageable.
Although these issues might not cumulatively have removed the need to impose user fees, it is important that UWI approaches this issue with “clean hands” and explores its own inefficiencies while challenging Government’s commitment to it.
• Peter W. Wickham is a political consultant and a director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES).