University of Guyana

Universities in the 21st Century

(by Professor E. Nigel Harris)

nigel harris

Professor Nigel Harris, the new Chancellor at University of Guyana

In his budget speech on August 14, 2013, the Finance Minister of Barbados announced that Barbadian students attending the University of the West Indies would be expected to pay tuition and fees with effect from academic year 2014/2015. Not unexpectedly, it caused an uproar with an opposition Member of Parliament calling the decision “an act of treason”,.There were mass meetings, students taking to the streets with petitions denouncing the decision, etc. – not quite as tumultuous as the demonstrations in the UK in 2012 following Parliament’s decision to increase university fees as recommended in Lord John Browne’s Report, but getting there.

While many other West Indian governments have asked students to pay some fees, successive Barbadian governments have, over their 50 post-independence years, firmly held to the policy that no student should pay for education. Whether primary, secondary or tertiary. However, today times are different. Faced with an uncertain economy, still suffering the effects of the global economic crisis and with arrears in payment to the University of tens of millions of dollars accumulated over the last 5 years, the government felt that they had few other options available to meet the cost of a considerably expanded university population.

Stories like this in many parts of the world have given rise to a sense that universities are in a state of turmoil and the outlook for many is grim. In an article entitled “The End of the University as we know it”, Nathan Hanlen wrote the following about Universities in the USA.

“In 50 years, if not much sooner, half of the roughly 4,500 colleges and universities now operating in the United States will have ceased to exist. The technology driving this change is already at work and nothing can stop it. The future looks like this – access to college led education will be free for everyone; the residential college campus will become largely obsolete; tens of thousands of professors will lose their jobs; the bachelor’s degree will become increasingly obsolete and ten years from now Harvard will enroll ten million students”.

To what degree are these predictions correct? Even if true for universities in the USA, is this true for universities globally?

Near global subscription in the last two decades to the ethos that higher education is a critical ingredient for national and individual competitiveness has led to massively increased demand for Tertiary Education, and today many universities the world over are struggling to cope with dramatic expansion in student enrolment and competition between an increasing and diverse array of local, regional and international institutions. Governments and the private sector in many countries, developed and developing, are demanding that degree programmes become more aligned with the “work place” -directed more at presumed employment needs in the society.

The way courses are taught and information gathered are increasingly dependent on revolutionary new communication and information technologies. The construct of the so-called “residential campuses” has changed to ones where the majority of students are commuters rather than living on the campus. The gender balance has altered with an increasing female preponderance. In the Caribbean, 70 to 75% of the student population is female and these figures may not be unlike other parts of the world where women have the same access as men to higher education.

The focus of university research is more directed at practical societal issues than basic investigator initiated subjects. The relationship of the university to their academics has also changed, with increasing numbers of part time or adjunct staff and fewer tenured members. Financing of public universities is changing, too, with many of these institutions looking more and more like private enterprises. Where many universities were relatively autonomous, many governments are exercising increasing influence over university teaching programmes, research and policy formation although providing the same or less funding.

While it is hard to predict how this will play out 50 years from now, I believe that the essential objectives and character of established universities will remain broadly the same at least for the foreseeable future.

The immediate future of universities in many developing countries will be influenced considerably by the effects of massive growth in student enrolment and in the number of universities, both public and private. Where there was only one university in Jamaica 30 years ago – The University of the West Indies,– today there exist over 100 tertiary institutions of all types – regional, national, international, public, private for profit, private not for profit or some blend of the above. In Uganda, where up to 1987 there was only one public university with 10,000 students, today there are 5 public and 24 private universities reportedly with a total of 300,000 students. The same is true in most of the developing (and doubtless, the developed) world.

There has been, in many Caribbean countries, the appearance of a unique phenomenon – off-shore Medical and Veterinary Schools. These are essentially business enterprises catering primarily to students from the USA who cannot get into medicine in their own countries. There are over 30 such schools in the Caribbean, the oldest and most prominent being St George’s University in Grenada which enrols over a thousand medical and veterinary students annually and contributes about 15% of GDP to tiny Grenada’s economy.

In St Lucia, with a population of about 160,000, there are five such off-shore schools. This is one of the ultimate examples in my mind about how education has become a commodity, an enterprise in which people invest and which can be bought and sold. Bothersome, but when one considers that in many OECD countries the attraction of overseas students to their universities is regarded as an important revenue source and the delivery of on-line programmes across geographic boundaries is often no different from huge business enterprises, criticism of the for profit motive of off-shore schools in the Caribbean may well need to be muted.

This, often unregulated, growth of tertiary institutions in developing countries may have brought gains but has resulted in significant challenges for the host societies. All too often, huge numbers of students are crammed into inadequate facilities with questionable technological support, taught by too few over-worked academics, many with questionable qualifications. It is estimated that half of the world’s academics have only Bachelor’s degrees. In China, one report states that only 9% of academics have doctoral degrees; in India it is 35% according to the same report. Up to 80% of academics in Latin America are believed to be part time and those who are full time are often said to be moonlighting at other institutions for salaries that are at best modest and not commensurate with their level of education. Research productivity is compromised in these settings.

Arguably, the greatest challenge facing countries and the citizenry where tertiary education has expanded is the ability of governments and many students to finance this growth. Governments have responded differently to this challenge. Some have kept elite public institutions small, catering to the “talented few” while shifting the responsibility for tertiary education of the wider public to private institutions. In countries like Japan, Korea, Indonesia, 70% of higher education is private; it is estimated that in Latin America, 50% of students go to private institutions, and in Central and Eastern Europe and in Africa, 15-30% are private students.

Other governments, like those in the Caribbean, have largely supported public institutions, some paying all the economic costs and others asking their students to pay a small portion of those costs. While this may be agreeable to students and their parents, invariably, these public institutions are under-funded; the numbers and educational level of academic staff are inadequate, as are libraries and other facilities.

Faced with the same challenges, our own institution (the University of the West Indies (UWI)) has introduced several revenue generating activities including taught Master’s degree programmes for which students pay full fees, an evening university to attract part-time working students who pay full fees, provision of incremental numbers of places in Medicine or Law for students willing to pay full costs of their education, commercialisation of student dormitories, outsourcing of eating facilities to businesses and other commercial endeavours as well as expanding philanthropic activities.

Where governments accounted for about 70% of our university’s revenues a decade ago, today it is 45%. I should point out that we have little access to funding for research and have had to rely on international donor agencies for such support, or on links developed by more aggressive academics to colleagues in the North with access to funding. Despite best efforts everywhere to expand access to tertiary institutions there is still a large unmet demand, which includes working adults wishing to continue education, as well as persons living in rural or other remote places.

Invariably authorities are turning to e-learning options to enable these persons access – hence the creation of the Open Campus at the UWI.

Advances in Information and Communication technologies to deliver an education, which utilises teaching modalities in written and interactive video streaming formats, as well as accessing vast sources of information electronically provide rich opportunities for instruction and learning by students who cannot be physically present in a classroom. E-learning opportunities exist even in the least developed parts of the world.

When one considers that in some countries in Africa, or in Haiti and other lesser developed countries 80% of banking and other financial transactions are conducted using cell phones, it is easy to imagine how the same people, utilising a variety of mobile devices could access E-learning opportunities. At The UWI, students are provided access to online courses and degree programmes, considerable library resources and recently, some groups of students have been provided tablets which enable them to access all their text book materials and other sources of information at a fraction of the cost of hard copies of the same material. The opportunity to reach large numbers of students anywhere at any time at much lower cost is an alluring one.

The number of students taking degree granting programmes online is considerable and growing the world over. There are estimated to be 24 mega-universities worldwide, some like the Indira Gandhi National Open University and the University of South Africa, with hundreds of thousands of students. Many traditional public universities, including our own, launched on-line degree programmes more than a decade ago. This has been happening long before the excitement about Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs).

But e-learning is not a panacea. The majority of enrolled students today tend to be older, working adults, studying part-time and without the option or a desire to be present on residential campuses. While there are ample studies showing that the quality of a well-conceived on-line education is equivalent to face-to-face offerings, business owners and others prefer to hire graduates of traditional universities. The same biases exist in determining who will be accepted to postgraduate programmes.

Of course, if on-line degrees come from “reputable institutions” prejudices against these degrees will probably diminish, hence the appeal of MOOCs. Other challenges include the difficulty with preparation of on-line courses, the need for instructors to be constantly available to students and the lack of buy–in by many, many academics teaching in traditional academic settings. I read a piece written by one academic who argued that the senior administrators were the only ones in the academic community sold on On-Line education.

To date and, I believe, for the foreseeable future, 16-24 year olds, although demanding more technological infrastructure and other learning modalities in the classroom and on campuses, still prefer an education on residential campuses. It is noteworthy that application numbers to our campuses continue to grow exponentially, outstripping applications for our on-line degree programmes. In truth, I believe that preparing students today for the world in which they will live is best done within student communities on a campus.

In a future where the work students do will likely change several times in a life time, it will not be the knowledge that is acquired in a first degree that will count, but the ability to keep learning, to question, analyse and synthesise, to communicate and interact with diverse people and ideas. I believe that the setting in which young people can best be moulded and enriched is where face-to-face interaction can take place. Invariably what we remember about our universities is not what we were taught, but the people we came to know and in some cases to love, the opportunities for debate and reflection on every and all things important and unimportant. In the last few years, I have visited universities in Latin America, South Africa, the Grand Canary Islands, Hong Kong, Australia and elsewhere and I am struck by how alive and vibrant those campus communities are – none look like they will disappear tomorrow.

We may be in the midst of a revolution, but one does not have to be at a Harvard, Yale, or Oxford to appreciate the immense value of universities as we have come to know them. Whatever the changes that may be taking place, we must fight to preserve the richness of a good education, the excitement of discovery of the new and inventive, the value of connecting with communities we serve to enhance their growth and development.

The new thrust of universities from all parts of the world to establish links internationally not only for student and academic exchanges, but for sharing of ideas and discovery about issues affecting all of humanity such as climate change, and the efforts by organisations such as the EU through programmes such as EDULINK and Erasmus Mundus to promote those links provide the promise that universities in developing countries can become solid places of learning and discovery, no matter their current challenges. I close with a quotation from Nelson Mandela, which I believe is universally applicable.

“Education is the great driver of personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that the son of a mine worker can become the head of the mine that a child of farm workers can become the president of a great nation. It is what we achieve not what we are given that separates one person from another.”

Professor E. Nigel Harris was the former Vice Chancellor of the University of the West Indies and has recently been appointed the ninth Chancellor of the University of Guyana

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