Cri­sis at UTech

Jamaica Gleaner - - OPINION&COMMENTARY - Ron­ald Th­waites

IF YOU look at the 21st-cen­tury in­ven­tory of skill needs and our best hopes for re­ally dra­matic job creation, the strength and sig­nif­i­cance of the Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy (UTech) can­not be over­stated. It must, there­fore, be a mat­ter of na­tional con­cern that this in­sti­tu­tion is clearly in a state of cri­sis and needs ur­gent at­ten­tion.

Last week, Richard Powell, the re­tired en­gi­neer and busi­ness leader, was in­ducted as pro-chan­cel­lor of UTech, a po­si­tion which makes him vir­tual chair­man of the univer­sity’s board of man­age­ment, the UTech Coun­cil. He is an ex­cel­lent choice, nom­i­nated by the univer­sity’s chan­cel­lor, the wise but now in­firm Ed­ward Seaga.

The UTech Coun­cil has been in a state of vir­tual grid­lock over the past few years, un­able to agree on a new pres­i­dent to suc­ceed the long-gone Errol Mor­ri­son, bleed­ing more and more of its few fac­ulty with ter­mi­nal de­grees, while try­ing to ex­pand into ever more fac­ul­ties and cour­ses, as many as a fright­en­ing 60 of them as yet not ac­cred­ited, ac­cord­ing to act­ing Pres­i­dent Gyles.

More­over, UTech has been us­ing up its fi­nan­cial re­serves and op­er­at­ing at a deficit in re­cent times.

The UTech Coun­cil has been un­able to take de­ci­sive ac­tion be­cause its de­lib­er­a­tions are am­bushed by in­ter­nal in­ter­ests, rep­re­sented by the dom­i­nance of trade union rep­re­sen­ta­tives and the rigid­ity of a gov­ern­ing statute which makes it nigh im­pos­si­ble for UTech’s owner, the Govern­ment of Ja­maica, through the Min­istry of Ed­u­ca­tion, to take cor­rec­tive ac­tion.

POOR AT­TEN­DANCE

This state of af­fairs in­evitably af­fects the qual­ity of gov­er­nance, in­struc­tion, stu­dent out­comes, and cam­pus morale. This was clearly ev­i­dent at last Monday’s func­tion. First, the at­ten­dance by all el­e­ments of the univer­sity com­mu­nity was em­bar­rass­ing. One won­dered if the ab­sence of fac­ulty, stu­dents and alumni was in­ten­tional. Then the speech of the stu­dent rep­re­sen­ta­tive was be­low univer­sity stan­dard.

There fol­lowed a dis­grace­ful pre­sen­ta­tion by a mem­ber of the aca­demic staff, on be­half of all the unionised per­son­nel who vir­tu­ally con­trol the in­sti­tu­tion, recit­ing the claims of their bar­gain­ing units and of­fer­ing a left-handed wel­come to Powell, warn­ing him that their pa­tience was “wear­ing thin” and con­tend­ing that the en­vi­ron­ment was like “a swamp of al­li­ga­tors” and that, in Trump-like gauch­eness, the pro-chan­cel­lor’s role should be to “clear the swamp”.

Those in the au­di­ence blanched at the in­ap­pro­pri­ate­ness. The poor min­is­ter opted to be sac­cha­rine and pal­lia­tive and then had to leave be­fore the fi­nal litany of woes were spo­ken. But he made a ster­ling point which is eas­ily over­looked. A univer­sity does not have to do ev­ery­thing. Our ter­tiary in­sti­tu­tions, in con­junc­tion with the Ja­maica Ter­tiary Ed­u­ca­tion Com­mis­sion, must de­ter­mine ar­eas of spe­cial­i­sa­tion and de­fine spe­cific com­pe­ten­cies.

Prof Gyles, the act­ing pres­i­dent, in­stalled at the be­hest of in­ter­nal UTech forces, an earnest man, no doubt a good scholar, but quite out of depth in deal­ing with the sharks in the cam­pus com­mu­nity, sum­marised UTech’s prob­lems as be­ing those of un­fair govern­ment al­lo­ca­tion and the ab­sence of in­sti­tu­tional ac­cred­i­ta­tion.

There is no doubt that the dis­par­ity of sup­port per stu­dent be­tween UTech and UWI is not sus­tain­able and there are se­ri­ous is­sues of qual­ity, fu­elled in part by in­ad­e­quate fund­ing, which pre­vent in­sti­tu­tional ac­cred­i­ta­tion in the near fu­ture. But the hope that the Con­sol­i­dated Fund can re­dress these prob­lems is ill-founded.

And de­spite all this, there are ma­jor achieve­ments to be at­trib­uted to both fac­ulty and stu­dents at UTech right now. Ex­cel­lence is not strange to this in­sti­tu­tion. Its po­ten­tial is what ex­cites this con­struc­tive crit­i­cism.

MY DREAM FOR UTECH

My dream is for UTech to be­come the MIT of the Caribbean. For this to be achieved, Govern­ment will have to re­think the block grants to UWI and UTech each year and con­sider schol­ar­ships to qual­i­fied and needy stu­dents, with pri­or­ity for stud­ies in ar­eas of great­est na­tional need. Ap­pro­pri­ate bond­ing for ser­vice in Ja­maica will be a con­di­tion of all grants.The ben­e­fi­cia­ries will then choose the best in­sti­tu­tion for their course. The Stu­dents’ Loan Bu­reau and op­por­tu­ni­ties for work/study should fill out re­main­ing ar­eas of fi­nan­cial need.

Be­yond this, Govern­ment and pri­vate en­ter­prise should pro­vide re­search grants to univer­si­ties for spe­cific ar­eas of na­tional, or en­ter­prise and so­cial needs.

These di­rec­tions will en­cour­age com­pe­ti­tion; en­hance the cru­cial link­ages be­tween the ter­tiary sec­tor and pub­lic pur­poses; dis­cour­age un­de­served ten­ure; pro­mote ef­fi­ciency in the de­liv­ery of ed­u­ca­tion and train­ing to masses more Ja­maicans and for­eign­ers and, in­ci­den­tally, re­move from UTech its poor-cousin crutch so grimly ev­i­dent last Monday.

I am not sure of the cal­i­bre of the coun­cil Richard Powell will pre­side over. I hope it is not a ‘set hand’, full of po­lit­i­cal and other spe­cial in­ter­ests and un­de­served by prac­ti­cal vi­sion­ar­ies and thinkers.

But I am sure of three things: first, that Powell is the best man to lead the trans­for­ma­tion; and sec­ond, that this in­sti­tu­tion is far too cru­cial to re­main in any ‘swamp’, and, most im­me­di­ately, the UTech statute has to be over­hauled and the con­sti­tu­tion of the coun­cil re­cal­i­brated.

Once again, on the eve of the sign­ing of some kind of Magna Carta by the Govern­ment and the Eco­nomic Growth Coun­cil, a sim­ple truth: there will be no sus­tain­able, in­clu­sive eco­nomic growth or so­cial co­he­sion with­out rad­i­cal change in all sec­tors of our in­sti­tu­tions of ed­u­ca­tion and train­ing.

Start at Pap­ine.

Ron­ald Th­waites is mem­ber of par­lia­ment for Kingston Cen­tral and op­po­si­tion spokesman on ed­u­ca­tion and train­ing. Email feed­back to col­umns@glean­erjm.com.

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