UWI starts discussions to cut operational budgets

ALL five campuses of The University of the West Indies (The UWI) yesterday began a two-day discussion with their host governments, focused on cutting their overall operational budget.

Vice-Chancellor Sir Hilary Beckles said Monday that the campuses lost between US$80 million and US$100 million in the last decade, plunging them into debt. According to Sir Hilary, in the 2014/2015 academic year, when his tenure began, the debt owing to the university by regional governments was about US$117 million, but as at November 2020 it has been reduced to US$51 million.

“Like all public universities we are faced with financial challenges. The finest public universities are always revised and reformed and restructuring their financial model in pursuit of great efficiency. We have never wavered in our determination to prove to our stakeholders that we are using resources wisely,” Beckles told reporters Monday during a virtual media conference.

“We are a deeply audited, publicly engaging institution. Every cent, every dollar, year by year we account for. We had determined before the pandemic to look at the financial trajectory of this region and the challenges facing our Government,” he said.

Last month, a report commissioned by UWI Chancellor Robert Bermudez recommended that students pay 40 per cent of their tuition, a sizeable leap from the current 20 per cent. This angered the academic communtity as the governments were paying 80 per cent of students’ tuition.

Said Sir Hilary: “It’s a development issue. All of the governments are grappling with this. How do we educate our people at a reasonable cost? How much should we ask the students to be? My proposed model is that the Government should really keep us at about 50 per cent, stabilise so the students contribute about 15 per cent,” he said, also proposing that the private sector contribute 20 per cent, and international engagements 15 per cent.

“We have a governance report that has said the students should pay up to 40 per cent. That is going to generate tremendous conversations in the region. I don’t know how that can be done across the region, given that each country has a different policy. But I think that the more we stabilise this for the next couple years, the better we’ll be.”

All five campuses, said the vice-chancellor, would begin a “vigorous” two-day cycle of discussing their budgets with their regional governments.

“Campus by campus, we will begin that conversation. As you know, each campus engages its home Government primarily, so the Mona campus will be engaging the Jamaican Government. Each campus whose budget is supplied primarily by its host Government will be going through that process. It is this bond that has taken the university thus far.”

To assure financial viability, Sir Hilary outlined a 10-point plan geared towards generating revenue from The UWI’s “hot, elite reputation”.

The university will focus on cutting back through “expenditure containment” in point one, and there is a “one-UWI initiative” exploring cross-campus teaching. The UWI will also transition from an open campus to a global campus, under the vision: the NEW UWI. Sir Hilary said he hopes to have the business plan presented by mid-2021.

Point four, dubbed ‘The Southern Strategy”, seeks educational alliances with southern countries like Guyana, Suriname and Colombia. Similarly, ‘The Northern Strategy’ aims at sustainability through partnerships with the State University of New York (SUNY) and Brock University in Canada.

Donour partnerships, multilateral investments, establishing a private capital market, building an entrepreneurial UWI and shaping a corporate growth group are also a part of the plan.

Citing the unprecedented pandemic and a disruption of education systems globally, Sir Hilary said The UWI was challenged in 2020, and had they not acted promptly, 50,000 students would’ve been disengaged.

“We have been tested in the last year in a way that we have never been tested before, simply because this pandemic had actually caused an existential threat to the university. The forces were aligned for the shutting down of our university as a response. But we chose not to go that way. We chose to mobilise the entire university to transition to an online teaching culture. Hundreds of courses and programmes had to be quickly transitioned because our number one focus was getting our students through their programmes into a cycle of graduation,” he explained.

he added: “What this university did in the last year was absolutely phenomenal. We could only have done it if we had the technical skills, we had the sense of care, the sense of commitment and we had the courage to do it. And we did, the transitioned our institution… five campuses, hundreds of programmes, 50,000 students and moved them onto the online platform.”

Based on financial projections, said Sir Hilary, the university came up with a plan to cut expenditure under a “10 in two strategy”. He said this will allow it to cut expenditure by 10 per cent over the course of the next two years.

“That is on the expenditure side. We will increase revenue also by 10 per cent. We started the process of cutting the budget and that process has been ongoing. We cut the 2020 COVID budget by six per cent, and that process of cutting the budget will continue in this budgetary cycle that begins [Tuesday],” he said.

“So, we’ve given commitment that the university in pursuit of efficiency will indeed be cutting its operational budget by looking at all the ways in which we could gain greater efficiencies. One campus for example, in transitioning over 1,000 electrical bulbs and so, and moving to energy savers across the entire campus, that alone led to a significant cut in expenditure,” he said.

Public funding, Sir Hilary added, has also been a challenge for the regional institution.

“We have been collecting between 60 to 80 cents on each dollar that is pledged by our governments across the region. This has resulted in the accumulation of arrears, because if you’re collecting 20 to 80 cents a dollar, that means there is 20 cents that’s missing. That goes into arrears, that goes into receivables. It becomes a debt. The university has lost millions of dollars in the last 10 years,” he said, noting that student debt is also a contributing factor.

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