Reinvigorating UCCi

 Standing in the covered breeze way that connects three buildings at the University College of the Cayman Islands, there is no mistaking Roy Bodden’s excitement about young people or higher education. He has so many ideas he can’t seem to talk fast enough.

Bodden radiates so much energy at 63, it is hard to imagine that just a few weeks ago he was retired. As Bodden describes it, taking on this post will not be a predictable administrative job where the biggest challenge is to maintain the status quo.

There are the plans to bolster the bachelor’s degree programme, the traditional university track for banking, teaching and other professional white collar jobs. There are also plans to upgrade the vocational and technical programmes to fill trade jobs that are well-paid and often overlooked in Cayman: plumbing, electrical and construction.

He wants to extend the institution’s reach into the community by offering classes in outer districts or non-credit classes that would appeal to mature adults.

But he also wants to use the campus as a platform to increase cultural awareness about Cayman and the Caribbean.

Jumping on to the next subject, Bodden talks about using the campus to help students be more community-minded, more considerate of others, personal growth and building life skills.

With a background steeped in academia including a master’s degree, two published books with another one due out next year, and a former teacher, Bodden does not see why a university and vocational programmes cannot both flourish within the same institution at the same time.

“Cayman’s community is unique,” says Bodden. “With the size of the population Cayman has and the economy, a tertiary institution has to marry these two things so they can co-exist.”

Changing perceptions, gaining credibility
To increase UCCI’s credibility as a university in the private sector, he will need to deal with the elephant in the room – raising the bar for admittance into UCCI.

The current standards of getting admitted into a UCCI university programme are considered low, creating the perception the institution is admitting students who are not as academically prepared as they should be, explained Bodden.

That means UCCI faculty must fill in educational gaps left over from high school.

“UCCI needs to be more demanding at the entrance level. If we don’t then it will affect our ability to be accredited,” says Bodden

But this is not just a UCCI initiative. Some high schools will also need to step up to do their part in preparing students for university.

Academic level of many high school graduates is not a new problem says Bodden. This was a complicated issue he tried to address when he was Education Minister during his terms in office as well as other elected ministers that have followed him since.

Appointed a couple weeks ago, it was too early for Bodden to talk about the nitty-gritty details to increase the entrance into the university. It was also too early to say what the specifics details were to strengthen the university programmes.

But Bodden believes the strategy will emerge as Bodden meets with existing faculty, registrar, students, local business owners and educators.

“This is a collective effort,” he says.

With students enrolled in an existing degree programme, increasing academic levels will need to be done in a way that does not discourage students or demoralise staff, says Bodden.

This can be a delicate issue to deal with students and parents. No one wants to be made to feel that they have fallen below the academic grade. Bodden is already thinking about ways to work around that situation without students feeling disenfranchised.

Regardless of whether there are sufficient entry requirements, the bottom line is graduates need to finish their education job ready.

Bottom line job ready
There are many skills that  make a new graduate job ready, says Chamber of Commerce Wil Pineau.

Regardless of what industry or job the graduate is in, the ability to communicate and work with multiple nationalities is important in Cayman, says Pineau.

Critical thinking, problem solving, working as part of a team, conflict resolution in the work place are also highly sought after in the private sector.  These skills are particularly important, because most of the economy is service oriented.

“They need to have good interpersonal skills and accept diversity in the work place,” he said.

Computer skills on commonly used software also make a graduate job ready.

Another aspect to job readiness is the whole idea of internship and apprenticeship in the private sector, explains Pineau. It gives students practical experience and it also helps them understand the corporate culture in the environment in which they are working. And when they are ready to graduate, many students end up getting jobs where they interned.

Talking about the vocational and technical training, says Electratech owner Dave Phipps, most of the trades get left behind. But he supports efforts to upgrade vocational and technical to full apprenticeship courses in the country. Certainly, the economy is big enough to support full courses in plumbing, carpentry and electrical work.

Nearly 30 years ago, Phipps submitted a proposal for a trade apprenticeship programme to government, but that effort seemed to go nowhere. A comprehensive apprenticeship training programme in a trade typically takes 8000 hours on the tools and 2,000 hours in the classroom, he said.

To make up for lack of training for the skills he needs on the islands, Electratech conducts courses within the company.

Hassan’s shadow
UCCI seemed to be on a progressive track once before under the charismatic leadership of former president Hassan Syed in mid-2006. But two years into his term, Syed suddenly resigned and left the Islands in May 2008. Subsequently, an Auditor General’s report revealed financial irregularities relating to the former president’s spending.

It would also come out that some of his academic qualifications to get the university post were false. Brian Chapell became the acting president of the university until Bodden was recently appointed.

The Auditors General’s report on the university was a big blow to UCCI’s reputation and morale among the students and faculty reportedly sunk to an all time low.

Today, a year after the Auditor General’s report, Syed continues to be the subject of a police investigation by the Financial Crimes Unit.

Hope rising
Although the campus is nearly empty during the mid-term break, a cautious hope for the future of UCCI fills the air. Part of that comes from a community that knows who Bodden really is. They know his family. They know the neighbourhood in Bodden Town he grew up in. They know his political career. And there is a comfort in the knowledge that he does not pretend to be perfect or somebody that he is not.

Even as Bodden takes on the university’s challenges, he is also enrolling in a new doctoral programme at the University of Technology in Jamaica. Living proof that pursuing education is not just the platform for the young, but a lifelong journey.

Making good on his promise of putting UCCI back on track is still months of work ahead of him. If Bodden accomplishes the vision he has set out to do, it could have a far reaching impact on lives for generations.

He gazes across the courtyard in the late afternoon sun. He can already see multitudes of students walking towards classrooms.