My Cayman 2.0: ‘Higher education can be new economic sector’

Former UCCI professor makes the case for education reform

Higher education will change forever as a result of COVID-19 and that means opportunity for Cayman, says Thomas Phillips.

In the first of our ‘My Cayman 2.0’ series of guest columns, economist and former UCCI professor Thomas Phillips makes the case for transformative change in the way higher education is delivered in Cayman.

Over the past 16 years, Cayman has stood up to the challenges of the physical devastation of Hurricane Ivan in September 2004 and the instability of international finance that came with the Great Recession that began in 2007. Now, like the rest of the world, Cayman must face the unknown prospects of the post-COVID-19 era.

The consequences of COVID-19 seem to be quite different than the challenges of Ivan and the Great Recession. There is a generally held sentiment that the disruption from COVID-19 will be deeper and longer lasting than either of the previous shocks.

When I arrived in Cayman in August 2004, I was part of an ambitious initiative to launch the University College of the Cayman Islands. Even with Ivan’s intervention, UCCI survived and continues to grow – albeit slowly.

Thomas Phillips

Contemplating post-COVID-19 Cayman, one of the opportunities being discussed is how higher education could play a greater role in Cayman.

I believe that this is the perfect time for Cayman to take advantage of the opportunity and set its sights on becoming an international higher education destination.

COVID-19 has, to date, had a disproportionately, negative impact on Caymanian tourism. Tourist activity is unlikely to reach pre-COVID-19 Cayman levels even in 2021.

The devastating impact of this on the Cayman economy is an indication of the economic vulnerability of an economy dominated by only two sectors – tourism and international financial services. Cayman needs economic diversification.

Economies of scope

To pursue a new sector, it is not necessary to grow it from scratch. One approach is to determine how existing resources can be recombined to serve a new sector. 

This, in economics, is seeking economies of scope. Economies of scope are distinctively different, and much more relevant to Cayman’s current circumstances, than economies of scale.

Cayman has no option other than to build on its human resources – the skill and expertise of its labour. There is no doubt that Cayman is abundant in highly skilled labour in its primary sectors.

Due to the technological needs of its primary sectors, Cayman is fortunate to have sophisticated telecommunications and computing technologies. And Cayman is blessed with its natural environment and culture.

The question in terms of economies of scope is: How can Cayman’s existing resources be combined to serve a different market? Higher education must be considered for the sake of Cayman’s internal growth and its potential for being a higher education centre.

Globally, higher education will not be returning to its pre-COVID-19 ‘reality,’ ever.

Successful higher education institutions will offer a varied set of hybrid learning experiences. That is, combinations of online learning using the technologies and its ability to access information and people, with face-to-face, hands-on, learning that will be delivered intensively rather than gradually over traditional academic terms.

With the inevitable changes in the delivery of higher education, this is an ideal time for Cayman to take advantage of its existing resources to make a concerted effort to build on its reputation of excellence in tourism and financial services to take a competitive position in higher education.

The voyage into higher education

With the COVID-19 outbreak, governments, businesses, schools, universities, and families quickly moved to online interactions – by necessity. To the surprise of many, it worked quite well.

So well, in fact, that there are more and more organisations giving up office space and the traditional, in-place workweek because the recent experience has demonstrated the effectiveness of the once feared technological alternative.

Higher education, around the world, has been forever changed over the past six months. The post-COVID-19 era of higher education is uncertain, however, there are new opportunities in higher education for Cayman.   

While higher education should serve to prepare students for the workplace, it is much more than simply training graduates to perform specific skills.

Cayman’s higher education has an obligation to prepare graduates for Cayman’s labour market needs. However, this requires much more than delivering the training required to do the jobs of today. Graduates must also be able to adapt to new demands, find ways to improve – rather than simply repeat – tasks, and to discover the innovative technologies and practices of the future.

See also:

Higher education key to success in Cayman’s ‘knowledge economy’

Re-educating Cayman: Economic crash highlights gaps in workforce development

Science and tech education could shape Cayman’s future


Cayman’s workforce in international financial services and tourism combine the practical skills necessary to excel in executing the practical tasks with the education necessary to be innovative and at the leading edge of the fields.

This successful combination of training and education must be the foundation of Cayman’s opportunity in higher education.

To be independent and financially sustainable, Cayman’s higher education must serve more than just Cayman’s needs.

To be an international higher education destination, there will need to be more graduates than Cayman could possibly absorb into its labour market. Excellence in higher education will ensure the retention of Caymanian students and the attraction of international students.   

The experience of the last six months has left the traditional model of higher education behind. This does not mean that the best of the traditional model will be abandoned.  What will emerge will be more varied methods of delivery.

Some delivery will be completely online; some will be completely face-to-face. The majority will be a combination of the two depending on the differing educational philosophies of the institutions, and the practical nature of the subject. That is, some academic fields require more hands-on learning and assessment than others.

Cayman should consider undertaking its own higher education transformation. Choosing an innovative approach to academic delivery that combines online learning – that can be done anywhere – with face-to-face delivery can be the starting point of a transformation.

Success in this time of transformation will require bold strategies to redefine how students will learn.

The start and end dates of terms, the length of courses, the proper balance of online and face-to-face learning, and the intensity of delivery (e.g., more hours of instruction per week for fewer weeks) will be the defining characteristics of the successful higher education institutions of the future.

Cayman has all the components necessary to redefine its place, internationally, in higher education. The time is ripe. This is an opportunity with considerable economic and social benefits that Cayman could enjoy for generations to come. Carpe diem.   

My Cayman 2.0: Your vision for Cayman’s future

We’re seeking contributions from guest columnists along the theme of ‘My Cayman 2.0’.

Contributions should focus on the one big idea you think Cayman should adopt as part of its vision for the future. Ideally, contributions should be around 500-1,000 words.

Submissions can be sent to [email protected]

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