Sir Hilary ‘right man to lead UWI’
Questions abound about the future of the University of the West Indies (UWI) as Sir Hilary Beckles prepares to become the next vice chancellor.
But even before Professor Nigel Harris steps down in April as leader of the region’s premiere tertiary school, there is one about choice: Is the Barbadian, Cave Hill’s principal for more than a decade, the best person for the job?
Professor Harris doesn’t have a doubt in the world.
“I believe he is very well qualified to lead our university,” Professor Harris told the SUNDAY SUN in New York. “I have worked with him for several years and I have seen him function from close up. He is an outstanding scholar and a transformative leader. We have seen that at the Cave Hill campus, which has changed dramatically for the better since Sir Hilary became its principal. He is an able administrator and an academic with an international reputation, qualities which will help to enhance our university.”
“Sir Hilary has contributed to the growth of the UWI as a regional educational institution,” added the vice chancellor. “Another vital asset is that he has the confidence of the private sector, especially in Barbados and I would like to see him bring that confidence to the UWI as a whole. In other words, we would wish to see him do for the UWI what he has done at Cave Hill.”
Professor Harris says the UWI has undergone significant change since the turn of the 21st century and that’s a factor which shouldn’t be ignored and which can affect Sir Hilary’s approach to the job. For one thing, the student population has more than doubled, going from 24 000 to about 50 000.
For another, the infrastructure at Cave Hill, Mona and St Augustine has been “enhanced considerably,” so much so, for instance that Cave Hill can best be described as a “boutique campus” with distinct characteristics. Next are the programmes the university offers.
They have been significantly expanded to meet the region’s galloping needs. In addition, he asserted, the “university has a greater sense of cohesion and direction in terms of strategic planning and so on” than it had a decade or so ago. As if those factors weren’t enough, the introduction of sophisticated technology in and out of the classroom and the administration has enabled the UWI to keep pace with its peers.
“We are a much larger institution, we are offering larger numbers of programmes and classes that are better suited to the world of work,” the vice chancellor went on. “The research we do is more relevant to many of the issues that are ongoing within our society and the physical plant is something we can all be proud of. I call the Cave Hill campus a boutique campus, nicely laid out, lovely buildings that are well placed.
“Then there is Mona. People from around the world come to Jamaica and talk about the aesthetics of the campus. St Augustine has also grown.”
But there are some challenges Sir Hilary will face.
At the top of the list is the university’s relatively poor financial picture, which, by the way, “wasn’t unique” to the school. Universities around the world are confronting them.
“The source of that problem is the inability of our Governments to meet their obligation to the UWI and that has been so over a number of years, five or six years in some instances,” he pointed out. “In any circumstance that limits what a university can do.”
For instance, Barbados owes it tens of millions of dollars, a debt the country has acknowledged and promises to pay when its economy turns around from recession to growth. Other states are also deeply indebted, financially to the UWI as well.
The UWI is addressing the problem by reducing its dependence on governments for its financial lifeblood, he points out.
“We have shifted our revenue generating capacity so that where we might have been dependent on governments for about 70 to 80 per cent of our revenue a decade ago that number is now down to 50 per cent,” Professor Harris explained.
“Every campus has moved to reduce that reliance and they have done it through master’s programmes, the provision of some undergraduate programmes for which fees are charged, commercial ventures, links with the private sector, and through winning a lot more international funding for research. We have been able to expand the revenues we bring in.”
Under Sir Hilary’s administration, that approach should continue and even accelerate, he says.
How much time will the new vice chancellor have to change things, financially?
“It will depend on how long it takes governments to become robust in terms of their economic growth,” he replied.
“We are well aware of the competitive challenges Caribbean governments are facing and we are well aware of the increasing removal of subsidies. My guess is that it will be another three to five years. We are also heightening our efforts to cut the costs of our operations.”
Professor Harris said his successor recognises he must tackle head-on the financial issues confronting the institution.
“He should build around him a strong, committed and capable leadership team from across the region,” was the way Harris put it. “I am confident he will succeed. He will have the intellectual resources on which to rely.”
As a matter of fact, Sir Hilary’s track record at Cave Hill was clear and convincing evidence of his capability.
“He has been very good at working with the private sector and that’s something he should put to the university’s advantage,” the vice chancellor said.
But finances aren’t the only issue on Sir Hilary’s plate.
“He will have to confront the challenge of keeping the UWI a regional institution and avoid any fragmentation into national universities,” he said.
“Maintaining the UWI’s cohesion will be crucial.”
Next is maintaining the links between the UWI and the Eastern Caribbean countries served by the Open Campus. That too must be preserved.
At the same time, said Professor Harris, Sir Hilary should consider extending the UWI’s links to tertiary schools in Latin America, North America, Europe and the African, Caribbean and Pacific states, and the European Union.
“The UWI has enhanced its international standing and I am sure that effort will receive an even greater boost under the new vice chancellor who has an outstanding international reputation as a scholar and a transformative leader,” he said.
He complains far too often the UWI’s economists are not given due credit for their outstanding work in helping governments, Barbados’ included, to plan their development strategies and managing their affairs.
“They have worked with national governments, regional and international institutions and the private sector,” he said. “In other words, their contributions are often underrated.”
Professor Harris, a Guyanese by birth, plans to retire in St Lucia where he has a home and where he may consider returning to medical practice as a rheumatologist.