Probing proposals of the UWI Chancellor’s Commission Report(first published in the Jamaica Observer)
The 2020 Governance Report on the UWI by the Dennis Byron-led Commission, was unfortunately viewed as an assessment of the stewardship of Sir Hilary Beckles, whose contract was, at the time of the report, up for renewal. The delay in confirming whether his contract would be renewed, was not only contrary to UWI Ordinances, but led some to believe that there was the intention of not renewing the contract. The UWI is owned by seventeen Caribbean countries, and fifteen voted in favour of having the VC’s contract renewed.
Now that the matter of the contract is fully resolved, it is well that the debate on the recommendations of the Commission continue. There are some key areas of the report which have not been given adequate attention in the debate and I wish to highlight three of them and offer some suggestions for consideration of both the university and Caribbean Governments.
- Establishment of Executive Committee of Council
The report proposes the abolition of the Finance and General Purposes Committee (F&GPC) and the establishment of an Executive Committee of Council (ECC) and the delegation of some powers of Council to the ECC. (Council is the highest governing body on the University and is chaired by the Chancellor). The ECC would perform the functions currently performed by the F&GPC but would be different in at least four critical respects, namely:
- The ECC would comprise thirteen (13) members while Council comprises forty-five (45) members
- The ECC would be chaired by an external person whereas the Campus F&GPCs are chaired by the principals and the UWI (regional) by the Vice-Chancellor
- The ECC would have the power to make and recommend policy for consideration by Council
- The Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor would be ex-officio members of the ECC.
These proposals are problematic, in my view, in several respects, including that:
- By reducing the decision-making body to less than a third of its current size, the proposal seeks to concentrate power in the hands of a few. This cannot be good for governance and democracy. Interestingly, the report stated that “The Commission does not think that the delegation would undermine the…regional character of the University”. (p. 48). It is my view, however, that the creation of an ECC with the power to, among other things, “set policy” (p. 49), is likely to undermine the “regional character of the University”.
- With the Chancellor being an ex-officio member of the proposed ECC, there is a real, or potential for a conflict of interests. This potential for conflict of interest arises from the fact that the Chancellor who chairs Council would be in a position in which he could influence or be perceived as influencing recommendations over which he / she would later decide.
- The proposed structure would then remove the element of arms-length analysis of issues presented to Council and could likely to be also perceived as a marginalization of stakeholders of the University. This move could have the effect of undermining trust, at a time when mutual trust is perhaps our most important asset.
- Strategic Planning
The report expresses concern about the fact that Strategic Plans are “…approved without allocation of financial resources” (p. 44). At the same time the report proposes the abolition of the University Strategy and Planning Committee and argues that the strategic plans would be reviewed by the ECC. However, the report does not state what entity would prepare strategic plans. This is an area of major oversight at a time when planning ought to be central to the operations of the university.
The report takes the position that students’ contribution should increased by 100% from 20% of the economic cost to 40% and the governments’ contribution reduced by 25% from 80% of the economic cost to 60%.
The reality is that governments’ contributions have long fallen. In some years, some governments have contributed as little as 37% , but on average governments’ contributions hover around 45%, which means that governments are contributing nearly fifty per cent less than what is expected. The gap has been closed through projects and commercial operations of the university and where the earnings from these areas fall short what we have are the deficits that now exist.
I share three proposals on how the finances of the UWI may be addressed in the short, medium, and long-term:
- For the immediate term, I suggest that governments use a portion of the funds in dormant bank accounts to provide emergency funding to the UWI. Several countries of the region including Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, BVI, Cayman, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, have substantial sums in dormant bank accounts. I propose that as an emergency measure a portion of these funds be used to provide liquidity support to the UWI over the next one to three years.
On the question of the current financial health of the UWI, it must be noted that when Sir Hilary Beckles assumed office in 2015, the UWI’s financial arrears was a massive USD $120M. Over the last five years, approximately, he has led a reduction of that debt by two-thirds down to USD $40M, despite crumbling financial support from regional governments and high fee receivables.
- For the medium term, I recommend that the UWI pursues alternative use of some of its buildings for commercial activities. During the next three to five years, the UWI should expand its commercial operation to increase its earnings from same. This should involve retrofitting some of its buildings for commercial use. This will, of necessity, involve re-negotiating agreements with entities which are partners in the construction and use of those buildings.
For the long-term I propose that regional governments establish a Child Opportunity Trust Fund. This initiative would involve governments opening an account in the name of each child one year after birth and seeding each account with the equivalent of USD $100.00. This account would then be financed by the parents (and in the case of wards of the state, by the state) to the tune of US$1.00 per day or $30.00 per month for eighteen years. This initiative would be supported by the banking sector which would be expected not to charge a fee for operating these accounts and the governments would not charge taxes on the earnings. At maturity, eighteen years later, each child would have access to those funds to be used to purchase their education wherever they wish, or for setting up businesses.