McLaughlin: We were misled

Former University College of the Cayman Islands President Hassan Syed misled the Board of Governors and the Ministry of Education into thinking more students were attending the university than actually were, Minister of Education Alden McLaughlin said last week.

Responding to a question from Opposition Leader McKeeva Bush during Finance Committee, acting UCCI President Brian Chapell said 1,377 unique students registered at the university for the fall 2007 semester and 1,331 unique students registered for the spring 2008 semester.

He said those figures including both full-time and part-time students, taking as few as one class or as many as six classes during the semesters.

In Legislative Assembly last November, Mr. McLaughlin said in a statement to the House that enrolment figures at UCCI had surpassed 3,600 students at the beginning of the 2007/08 school year.

‘What Hassan was doing was reporting registrations as students,’ Mr. McLaughlin told the Caymanian Compass.

Registrations are the number of classes for which students register. Mr. Chapell said that if a student registers for four classes, that would count as four registrations.

Going back to May 2007, Mr. McLaughlin had been reporting on a growth spurt in the number of students at UCCI, and both he and his government colleagues have cited over-stated student enrolment numbers in Legislative Assembly. The higher numbers have also been reported in the press.

Mr. McLaughlin said Mr. Syed never informed him the number of students said to be enrolled at UCCI was being confused with the number of registrations.

‘I am absolutely satisfied we were deliberately misled, especially considering what else has come to light,’ Mr. McLaughlin said.

Mr. Syed in now under investigation for unsubstantiated financial transactions uncovered during a routine audit of UCCI’s accounts. Mr. Syed said he needed medical treatment and left the university shortly after he received a draft of the auditor general’s audit report. He later resigned from his post as president, citing health reasons.

In addition to the discovery of the unsubstantiated financial transactions, the university where Mr. Syed said he received his doctorate degree has no record of a person with his name receiving such a degree.

The recent revelations have cast a pall on what was otherwise considered a great success story at UCCI.

‘I’m devastated by this whole thing,’ Mr. McLaughlin said. ‘But the important thing to remember here is there is no question the profile of the university has been hugely increased and its offerings greatly improved.’

Mr. McLaughlin said people should not judge UCCI on the basis of the personal conduct of Mr. Syed.

‘The institution is so critical to Cayman because of the opportunities it provides to our young people,’ he said.

Not every Caymanian has the ability or means to go overseas to attend university, Mr. McLaughlin said.

‘UCCI provides the opportunity for some of our young people to stay at home and build the foundation they need to either get a job or to move on to an overseas university so they can make a better life for themselves.’

Despite the revelations with respect to Mr. Syed, Mr. McLaughlin said he had some positive impacts on UCCI.

‘His energy, drive and charisma attracted a range of students that wouldn’t have been attracted otherwise,’ he said.

‘That’s what makes this situation all the more tragic.’

Mr. Chapell also wanted people to think past what has transpired with Mr. Syed.

‘UCCI has made some tremendous achievements in the last couple of years,’ he said. ‘Our focus right now is to maintain the momentum we have generated and to continue to provide the top quality education that the people of the Cayman Islands have come to expect.’

Some of those achievements include upgrading the UCCI campus; the establishment of new programmes and improvements to existing ones; and the opening of the Cayman Brac campus earlier this year.

Mr. Chapell said the two press releases issued by UCCI with regard to Mr. Syed have come as a surprise.

‘But we have a talented staff of dedicated professionals and the releases are not affecting the delivery of classes at all,’ he said.

Mr. Chapell pointed out that even though the increases in student numbers weren’t as high as thought, they did increase from 817 in the fall of 2006 to 1,377 a year later, an increase of 68 per cent.

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