The value of higher education is expected to increase dramatically as Cayman seeks to expand its ‘knowledge-based’ economy in the aftermath of COVID-19.
Currently around only one in four Caymanians in the workforce has a university degree. The figure rises to 35% for work-permit holders and nearly 50% for permanent residents.
Increasing that ratio will be pivotal to ensuring access to high-paying jobs as the economy continues to develop, business and education leaders believe.
Mike Mannisto, a partner at EY and a former chair and current trustee of the International College of the Cayman Islands, believes a world-class university that offers accredited programmes tailored to the needs of key economic sectors, like tourism, healthcare, technology and financial services, is an attainable goal for Cayman.
He said education could be a new pillar of the economy, developing talent locally that could supply the business community with a steady stream of skilled labour while also attracting international students.
Significant investment in higher education on island could also help fuel the creation of new sectors of the economy, he added.
“I think the best answer for the country when it comes to higher education is to have one university, and I think there is an opportunity to potentially combine ICCI and [the University College of the Cayman Islands] into one privately run not-for-profit university,” he said.
“Higher education is more important today than it has ever been in the past and we need to make sure we are developing the right skills to meet the future needs of employers.”
Though he acknowledges that not everyone needs a degree and that vocational programmes have a big role to play in Cayman’s future, he said the island has a knowledge-based economy, with many jobs requiring significant skills and qualifications.
He expects that to continue as Cayman develops new sectors centred around digital identity and cutting-edge technology.
“Artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotics are going to transform people’s jobs and education has to play a big part in making sure our citizens have the right skills to have meaningful careers in this economy,” he said.
Mannisto believes it is a realistic goal to create an accredited world-class university in Cayman that specialises in the key courses needed for the islands’ economy.
Cayman is a centre of excellence for business, tourism, financial services and, to some extent, healthcare, and is seeking to develop its technology and renewable-energy sectors.
Why shouldn’t there be more training on island that matches the needs and ambitions of the economy?
“Is it really unrealistic to aim to have the best tourism school in the world, for example? Not when you think about our tourism product and the reputation we have globally,” he said.
Stacy McAfee, president of UCCI, sees talent development as another element of the conversation about resource security that has surfaced amid the global shutdown caused by the pandemic. If talent, like food or energy, can be homegrown, why would you rely on imports?
McAfee was previously part of a higher education task force in Silicon Valley, California. She sees some similarities in Cayman in terms of the reliance on importing highly skilled labour to support the key pillars of the economy.
Reform in California was partially driven by businesses threatening to leave, unless the higher education system developed to provide a more secure supply line of qualified workers.
It took collaboration between government, industry and education to meet that demand, she said.
With the right investment, the right data and the right partnerships, McAfee believes the university college can expand its offerings to help meet the future needs of the economy.
She said investment in internships, mentorship and training in partnership with employers would be central to developing world-class programmes tailored to Cayman’s primary economic niches. The ability to work and train in a meaningful way at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman or at a ‘big four’ audit firm could give Cayman-based higher education programmes an edge.
“There has to be a real partnership with industry in terms of creating a more competitive learning experience,” she said.
Ultimately, she hopes Cayman students will not have to go overseas to develop the higher learning skills they need to succeed in their own country. If that happens, she said, businesses could have the security of being able to source talent locally.
“If there are core programmes that are integral to this nation’s success, why don’t we build them here at UCCI and create a clear pathway into the workforce?” she said.