KINGSTON — COVID-19 has dealt Caribbean universities funding and enrollment challenges that they have never faced before.
In light of that, the University of the West Indies (The UWI) held a “landmark” meeting to find solutions to the mounting problems.
This first-ever virtual Development Partner Forum focused on “Investing in higher education to build more diversified and resilient post-COVID economies” and was organized jointly with the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLAC).
As part of the emergency investment in the Caribbean region is a proposal by the Vice-Chancellor of The UWI, Professor Sir Hilary Beckles, to establish a $600 million multi-donor trust fund to prevent “systemic decline in the region’s higher education and research sector.”
This pivotal meeting drew at least 100 participants to hear Beckles declare that the governments have been doing the best they can with what they have. He thanked them for their steadfast support to The UWI for over seventy years, but said that with the economic contraction precipitated by the pandemic, the Caribbean’s higher education system needs an emergency infusion of funds in order to stave off cutbacks.
Wednesday’s virtual Forum was opened by Stacy Richards-Kennedy, Director of the Office of Global Partnerships and Sustainable Futures at The UWI who outlined that the Caribbean Development Roundtable (CDR) and the Caribbean Development and Cooperation Committee (CDCC) convened by ECLAC last month helped to set both the tone and trajectory for this development partner forum.
Richards-Kennedy noted that the Caribbean is facing an “unimaginable conflation of crippling factors and forces” and that there is an urgent need for partnership and collaboration that will provide “tangible opportunities to uplift the millions of young people who are deserving of a higher education but may fall through the cracks opened up by the pandemic, if we fail to act decisively.” Dr Richards-Kennedy commended ECLAC for being swift in its response to support a focused discussion on higher education.
In his opening remarks, the Forum’s Chairperson, Premier and Minister of Finance of the British Virgin Islands, the Honourable Andrew Fahie, who also serves as a Vice Chair of the ECLAC Caribbean Development and Cooperation Committee, acknowledged that critics may view the forum as another talk shop, but urged participants that it was an opportunity for things to be different. “I believe we have no choice but to work more closely as partners in the Caribbean to survive this crisis and go on to thrive in multiple economic sectors. I am very encouraged by the partnership already in action today by ECLAC and The UWI…they have brought us to this virtual table during this unprecedented moment in history. Let their partnership be an example to us as we go forward.”
The Honourable Mia Amor Mottley, Prime Minister of Barbados, in her feature address, thanked The UWI and ECLAC for bringing this critical discourse to fruition. She admitted it is not a normal discourse in the middle of a pandemic setting, saying “I don’t think that most persons across the world are looking at the stabilisation of investment in tertiary education.” She added, “Investment ought to be the prism in which we see our expenditure in education…and we must craft a new vision for education in general, inclusive of higher education.” She also emphasized that she was looking forward to seeing the discussions translated into policies that can influence decisions not just regionally, but through UN ECLAC internationally.
Following presentations by ECLAC, the IDB and World Bank, Professor Sir Hilary Beckles, who is also President of Universities Caribbean, Chairman of the Caribbean Examinations Council and Chairman of the CARICOM Reparations Commission, underscored the importance for the ideas emanating from the discussion to migrate from academic discourse into “practical solutions of an emergency nature required right now to save the region.” Sir Hilary asserted that many individual universities have done well through strategic initiatives, self-help and assistance from development partners but unfortunately, in spite of their self-help culture and responsibility, external shocks have given a sharp blow to Caribbean economies and governments do not have the resources. He shared concern that the university sector is at risk of collapse given the dire current circumstances and called upon multilateral development partners, donor agencies and developed countries to help strengthen the resilience of the Caribbean through investment in human capital development with a special carve out for the higher education and research sector.
Responding to the Vice-Chancellor’s proposal, Chief of the ECLAC subregional headquarters for the Caribbean, Diane Quarless affirmed the importance of ensuring that the positive outcome of this dialogue among development partners results ultimately in durable support for tertiary education in the region through strategic action and resource mobilization. In this ECLAC resolved to remain engaged to explore with all partners a productive way forward.