THE ISSUE: Sir Hilary: Cave Hill expansion strategic
Of the more than $400 million in fiscal measures announced by Minister of Finance and Economic Affairs Chris Sinckler in August, there was one policy shift which, more than any other, made many Barbadians sit up and take notice.
Some reacted with disbelief. Others were angry and made this known loudly and repeatedly. Then there were those who said it was overdue and made sense considering the hard economic times the island faced.
The source of the furore was Government’s decision to cease paying tuition fees for Barbadians attending the University of the West Indies (UWI) in and outside of Barbados.
This move would allow the state to save an estimated $42 million in expenditure, Sinckler said, as part of a package of measures aimed at solving Barbados’ fiscal problems over the next year and a half. But more than simply being a debate about dollars and cents, some commentators shifted the discussion to whether UWI was giving value for money from the point of view of producing graduates who were meeting the country’s needs.
Such talk is not new, as evidenced by concerns raised more than six years ago by various officials, who were either concerned that the university’s Cave Hill Campus was not meeting the needs of Barbadian employers, or that the number of graduates being produced outstripped available employment opportunities.
Some of these issues were addressed by a specially assembled group of “experts” called the Consultative Commission for Programme Development and Design.
Chaired by prominent businessman Sir Allan Fields and including some other leading names from the private sector, the body released a report in July 2007 calling for changes in the way UWI was educating its students, specifically to make them more employable.
Sir Allan said part of the mandate was “to look at the jobs of the future and to look at what the university was producing now and how they could shift to creating classes where they did not exist and programmes where they did not exist, to satisfy jobs that will be here five and six and ten years from today that are not necessarily with us today”.
In a July 16, 2007 DAILY NATION report, principal Hilary Beckles (now Sir Hilary) said the private sector had a vital role to play in ensuring UWI graduates were moulded to fit the world of work.
“The employer class has a responsibility also to train graduates into the specifics of their organization. It is not always possible for a university to produce an individual who can land on an industrial floor and run straight away,” he said.
Before this statement, trade union boss Sir Roy Trotman had voiced another concern, which was that unless the economy improved, Barbados’ rate of job creation would not keep pace with the number of tertiary graduates entering the workforce annually.
In April 2007 the Barbados Workers’ Union general secretary told BARBADOS BUSINESS AUTHORITY this was an ongoing concern of his organization.
He said the fact that people with university-level degrees or even advanced-level certificates were compelled to take primary or even secondary-level jobs was one of the “contradictions” that would exist in the society until this issue was resolved.
“We have a very vigorous educational programme that we are promoting in the Caribbean, and it should be so, because the masses of people should get the chance to have the same education, so they have equal opportunity to take the jobs that are available. But the economy is not growing and will not be expected to grow so fast that we can increase the number of jobs to keep pace,” he said then.
Fast forward to 2013 and these types of discussions are continuing, and in fact have become more critical, given the even stricter budget constraints Barbados faces six years after Sir Roy raised his concerns.
UWI officials have said they understand that not everyone leaving the university with a degree will find employment easily. One of the ways they have demonstrated this is by focusing more on getting its graduates to work for themselves. This has been done in various ways, with the most publicized of them being the Student Entrepreneurial Empowerment Development project.
Launched in 2008, its overall aim as enunciated by Sir Hilary is to enable people enrolled at UWI to make the transition from graduate to entrepreneur, creating jobs for themselves, families and friends.
That said, some analysts believe it is likely that the majority of individuals leaving the university with the various forms of qualifications will still need to find employment with Government and at private companies and organizations either locally or through migration.
And all of this will take place in an environment where financial support to UWI might be further reduced.
Government spokesmen, including Prime Minister Freundel Stuart, Sinckler, and Minister of Education Ronald Jones, have all pledged Government’s continued support to the campus, but have said the state’s resources and attention must be shared more equitably with other tertiary institutions, including the Barbados Community College and Samuel Jackman Prescod Polytechnic.
The various arguments aside, in October last year Sir Hilary provided what he considered proof that the organization he led was on the right path as far as getting students ready for the job market was concerned.
He pointed to statistics showing that 80 per cent of people graduating from the Cave Hill Campus were finding employment within the first six months of trying.
“When you hear comments such as ‘Cave Hill has expanded its population’, it was not random – we didn’t go out in the streets and pick up people. We focused the growth in areas where we knew the economy needed to be supported and where the students in turn on graduating could find jobs. So it was a planned and strategic expansion,” he said.