Editorial | Way forward for UWI Mona
Having removed its reservations to Densil Williams’ appointment as principal of the Mona campus of The University of the West Indies (UWI), the Jamaican Government will hopefully not place obstacles in his way. It should not attempt to manufacture Professor Williams’ failure.
Rather, the administration should, within the limits of the rules, work closely with the new principal to address the financial and other problems facing the campus, so as to lift access to tertiary education in Jamaica and contribute to the island’s development. Should the Government take this approach, there are good reasons why it should work. Professor Williams is not only a sound academic, but a pragmatic, though creative, administrator with a reputation for getting things done. Moreover, his background as a professor of international business and in strategic planning for the wider university should be of value to the campus. He also has the experience of launching and managing UWI’s newest campus, Five Islands, in Antigua and Barbuda.
The University of the West Indies is owned by Caribbean governments, and Mona, Jamaica, is its first and largest campus. But while UWI is a regional institution, governments, which primarily fund them, have increasingly gained influence over the campuses in their territories, which are attended mostly by their nationals.
But notwithstanding the wishes of Jamaica’s education minister, Fayval Williams, who was a member of the team, a search committee, made up largely of top UWI administrators and faculty, overwhelmingly recommended Professor Williams, himself a Jamaican, to be Mona’s new principal, replacing the marine scientist, Dale Webber, who steps down at the end of July. The Jamaican Government’s reported preference was another Mona professor, whose psychometric and other scores placed him near the bottom of the shortlisted candidates.
The final selection of campus principals rests with UWI’s top decision-making body, the University Council. At a meeting in April, Jamaica requested that the council defer its selection on Professor Webber’s successor to allow it more time for “consultations”, although with whom and about what was not disclosed.
Whatever concerns the Jamaican Government might have entertained about Professor Williams, or the fact that its man did not come through, have hopefully now been placed to rest. Funding must not be used as a cudgel against the new principal.
Jamaica, in that respect, should take three factors into account as it goes forward. First, the academy, of which Mona is a component part, is a regional university to which Jamaica is obligated to contribute. Further, it should recognise in Professor Williams an ambitious, pragmatic and hard-working man who wants to succeed. And importantly, he has good ideas. If all those attributes come together, it will be good for Mona, good for Jamaica, and good for UWI.
Professor Williams’ immediate priorities, however, must be continued stabilisation of Mona’s finances, as well as making the campus more affordable to Jamaican students, fewer than three in 10 (27 per cent) of whom are enrolled in tertiary institutions.
Last year, Mona reported an operating deficit to J$287 million, which, on the face of it, was a stupendous improvement from the J$1.3-billion operating loss in 2021. But that turnaround was substantially the result of the remeasurement of its employee benefit reserve of J$1.475 billion. Indeed, the campus’ current liabilities increased by three per cent to J$12.3 billion, largely because students, who account for 12 per cent of Mona’s income, were not paying on time.
The increasing inability of students to meet their obligations is compounded by cutbacks by Caribbean governments in their funding of the university in the face of fiscal crises. With respect to Mona, regional governments meet 41 per cent of its costs, of which around 80 per cent come from Jamaica, whose allocation to the entire UWI this fiscal year is approximately J$11 billion.
Professor Williams has to find ways to close the funding gaps, which includes attracting endowments and making Mona more entrepreneurial. His suggestion for private sector-supported income-contingent loans to students is also an idea that holds promise. It should be explored by the Government in partnership with the university.
Income-contingent loans would be one way to drive enrolment of students, who could pay their fees, without the short-term burden of having to clear huge debts, while at the same time establishing a new asset class for long-horizon lenders.
Fayval Williams, the education minister, and Nigel Clarke, the finance minister, should be in conversation with Professor Williams.