Over the past two weeks, both the University of Guyana (UG) and the University of the West Indies (UWI) have addressed the issues of surviving in the post COVID era. In the case of UG, the discussions centered on the construction of the Strategic Blueprint (Plan) to 2040. Its emphasis is on rolling out hybrid education placing priorities on creating viable research centres, multidisciplinary approaches and a business model for ensuring sustainability. For UWI, its focus is on implementing the Triple Strategy: Access, Alignment and Agility to revitalize Caribbean Development 2017-2022. Emphasis has been placed on its substantial research profile and global approach to partnering with institutions in Africa, Canada, China, European Union and USA. These attributes have contributed to UWI's high ranking in the 400-500 band or the top 2.5% of Universities in the world, based on the 2021 Times Educational Impact Rankings. The details of these activities reveal that both UG’s Vice Chancellor, Professor Paloma Mohamed Martin and UWI’s Vice Chancellor, Sir Hilary Beckles and their senior management teams must be congratulated for their creative leadership in confronting the challenges of these COVID-19 times.
Challenges to Overcome
The severity of the times that affect the region's higher educational institutions is articulated in " A post pandemic assessment of the SDGs", a new study by the IMF ( April 29, 2021). The study proposes a framework for developing countries to evaluate policy choices that can raise long-term growth, mobilize more revenue, and attract private investments to help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). To say that the COVID-19 pandemic has hit countries' development agendas hard, is an understatement with reference to the Caribbean. ECLAC'S Economic Development Report (April 2021) indicates that the crisis is threatening to leave the Latin America and Caribbean region with higher poverty levels, greater inequality, and higher levels of debt across virtually all countries. There are many potential reasons why the region fared poorly. Weak health infrastructure, patchy enforcement of lockdowns, high levels of informality, and a lack of connectivity to work from home worsened the health crisis.
Meanwhile, limited fiscal packages and central bank assistance of 3% - 8.5% of GDP compared with an average of 19% for advanced countries may have caused more suffering to the region’s economies. It will for example, result in shrinking government resources available for spending on achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The IMF’s study which assesses the current state of funding SDGs in five key development areas—: education, health, roads, electricity, and water and sanitation — is particularly relevant. Based on its newly developed “dynamic macroeconomic framework”, the study predicts that even with ambitious domestic reforms, most developing countries will not be able to raise the necessary resources to finance these goals. They will need decisive and extraordinary support from the international community—including private and official donors and international financial institutions.
It is in response to these circumstances that long term planning such as those undertaken by UG’s Blueprint and UWI’s Triple Strategy is commendable. They both focus on alternative revenue streams to those provided by governments, configuring new programs, fostering non- traditional partnerships and achieving greater equity in access to higher education.
The 2021 Times Educational Impact Rankings include criteria for assessing Universities on their performance around selected SDGs, thereby ensuring connections between universities and the respective national and regional communities that they serve. This is referred to by UG as "citizens success", one of the major goals in its Blueprint and the aspiration of one graduate per household by 2040. Like UWI, UG has been able to pivot to online learning and teaching with a high degree of success. UG has even increased its enrollment for 2020-2021 amid the COVID crisis. UWI has at the same time attracted the largest all time grant of US $25m through partnership with Silicon Valley to expand its digital footprint.
Some Critical Issues to be Resolved
Notwithstanding the achievements and aspirational goals of UG and UWI, there are some overarching considerations for universities contributing to the achievement of the 2030 SDGs. They raise some random thoughts in the form of the following questions:
Framing the Answers -Two Extreme cases
Answers to these questions are grounded in the experiences of a wide array of universities with special reference to articles, webinars and podcasts in several recent issues from Inside Higher Ed. Among them are two articles with diametrically opposed results: one on Fordham University, Bronx, New York on creative budgeting in the COVID era https://insight.fordham.edu/2021-anomaly-balanced-budget/. The other on the insolvency declaration at Laurentian University in Ontario, Canada:https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2021/04/29/insolvency-declaration-laurentian-throws-much-limbo
Focusing More Specifically on Differentiation
The following are some summary responses to the questions raised:
Conclusion: Toward a Comprehensive Regional Dialogue
As institutions and individuals confront the challenges of the COVID-19 era, it is becoming clear that for the CARICOM region there is much to be gained by a collective approach. It is for example heartening to note Prime Minister Keith Rowley, Chair of the Caribbean Community, appealing for vaccine supplies for the Region (not only for Trinidad and Tobago). A recent meeting of CARICOM Ministers of Health revealed the importance of the coordinating role of the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) in disseminating scientific information, linking the region's COVID-19 response through collaboration with the Pan American Health Organization and the World Health Organization. CARICOM counties are also rallying assistance for St Vincent and the Grenadines due to the Soufrière volcanic eruption that has created a national crisis. Educational institutions in various ways -- especially UWI -- have been important sources of analysis and dissemination of information on the coronavirus. This crisis has however created an awareness of the need for collaboration. It provides a most appropriate opportunity for dialogue among our national and regional institutions. Consideration could be given to a theme such as, the Future of Higher Education in the Caribbean in the Post COVID-19 era- taking collective action in support of a Community for all.
Edward and Auriol Greene Directors, GOFAD.