Regional focus urged for higher education

A national human capital strategy must be a priority to create a culture of learning that will let the Caribbean region move ahead.

And underpinning that strategy lies inspiration: a concept tertiary education in the region needs to focus on much more assertively.

That was the warmly received message UCCI President Hassan Syed had for delegates at the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conference held recently in Grand Cayman.

In fact, it resonated so much that representatives from Barbados and the Bahamas requested that Mr. Syed’s speech be broadcast on their national radio programmes in support of their own nation’s local education reform initiatives.

Regional integration featured prominently in Mr. Syed’s remarks.

‘If a student has the economic means to choose their university, will a student choose the University of the West Indies or will they go to the States?’ he asked.

‘And where would you choose to send your kid to school?’

Mr. Syed said that the answer was likely to be an overseas education, due to a continued regional perception that even attending a third-rate institution elsewhere was superior to a local education.

He said that the problem was compounded with another issue, that local tertiary education options were limited in their scope.

‘How should we define tertiary education?’ said Mr. Syed.

‘Is it a capstone, or is it something else? In the modern definition, tertiary education is not a capstone, but rather a network of institutions that offer all kinds of higher training,’ he said.

Mr. Syed stressed the pressing need to synergize the investment in regional academic research initiatives.

‘Even when it comes to the environment, which is a major regional concern from the perspective of global warming, pollution, and conservation, it is ironic that there is not a single regional initiative,’ he said.

‘Despite having all these institutions here in the region, we rely on research done by outside bodies such as the Central Caribbean Marine Institute on Little Cayman which is funded by American universities.’

He urged countries in the region to work together to end the pervasive urge to hire outside consultants, and instead to ask themselves why the work can’t be done with regional resources.

‘There is no unified initiative, no cohesive regional policy that addresses human capital,’ he challenged.

Working together

He said countries must also not succumb to the conception that national strategies clash with regional ones.

‘If the region is to move forward you want your own people to be the guardians of its economic frontiers,’ he said.

Mr. Syed noted that UWI has three campus countries: Barbados, Jamaica and Trinidad, with a total of 18,000 students, whereas the K-12 age cohort in those three countries is 300,000. With only a nine per cent tertiary education rate, that means that only between 8,000 and 12,000 students go on to university.

He reminded attendees that nearly all Caribbean countries contribute financially to UWI, and encouraged the countries in attendance to make use of that contribution as leverage in what is being taught.

‘Our region’s countries have policies to reward the best and the brightest,’ said Mr. Syed.

‘But what about the other 91 per cent who don’t go on to higher education -it is well documented that these people form part of a delinquent population where the so-called Average Joe has no options,’ he said.

The additional allure of an overseas education, said Mr. Syed, can dim local prospects considerably. While it may cost $50,000 to send someone to Oxford for a year, it costs only $2,700 for a two-year program at UCCI.

‘Access to government funding that is not based on marks but on financial need is something that needs to be considered,’ he said.

‘In countries like Canada, for example, if a student expresses a willingness to learn, they will receive funds to educate themselves.’

Taking a cue from this philosophy, UCCI, working with Microsoft and HP, now can supply basic $350 laptops for its students, as well as free island-wide Internet access.

Local resources

Mr. Syed said Cayman’s day of reckoning happened when the school asked a simple question to local companies: Why don’t you hire local grads?

The answer from the corporate sector was that they needed workers with specific competencies – competencies they needed to source from overseas. What UCCI needed to provide was a competency-based education.

‘It’s not a bunch of curriculum and books and lectures, but units of information that can be applied,’ said Mr. Syed.

Using the example of a student who had completed a four-year computer science degree, Mr. Syed observed that the student also would still need to do an industry certification before landing a decent job.

‘If you do our 14-week MCSE course you can walk in somewhere and land a $40,000 a year job, because you have recognized competencies,’ he said.

‘So that is why we tweaked the system and moved from loading our students up with curriculum and content to providing the skills they need to get the jobs that are here.’

Once the changes were in place, UCCI’s student enrolment surged from 860 to 2,500 in 10 months, and 75 local companies have jumped in to join its new Partners in Education programme.

‘As a country, you’ve got to look ahead to grow your human capital,’ he said.

‘To do that, a three-pronged approach must be taken: the academic world has to come out of its comfort zone, business must agree to accept the competencies that are being offered, and government must be supportive,’ he said.

Dr. Syed said UCCI’s position takes guidance from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and a hierarchy of learning developed by NASA educators which places inspiration as the prime mover of educational success.

It seems to be working within the NASA context.

‘In the past, we’ve done education for the sake of education,’ NASA Acting Deputy Assistant Administrator for Education Programs James Stofan has explained.

‘In the future, every education investment will focus on driving people to achieve the strategic goals. All of our efforts within the agency, with contractors and with academia, must be focused on ensuring that those we inspire, engage and educate are capable and able to enter the workforce.’

That’s the same model now being employed by the Cayman Islands Ministry of Education when it comes to tertiary education.

It might just work in the region as well.

‘If you have a mechanism to inspire and engage people, you have the ability to become an agent of change,’ said Mr. Syed.

Pullout:

‘As a country, you’ve got to look ahead to grow your human capital. To do that, a three-pronged approach must be taken: the academic world has to come out of its comfort zone, business must agree to accept the competencies that are being offered, and government must be supportive.’

– UCCI President Hassan Syed

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