By Yvonne Reynolds,

Why do we need universities?  What are the benefits and costsassociated with having a university or tertiary institutions located in a country?

Two years ago I wrote an article discussing the perspicacity for investing in a physical campus of the University of the West Indies (UWI) in Antigua and Barbuda (A&B).  My reasoning was based on the quality of education found at the lower levels of the education system (elementary and secondary).  Tertiary education is primarily fed by local graduates from lower levels. Several years of Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC) exam results have exposed the rot at the root, as tens of thousands of students per cohort fail these exams. 

CXC- CSEC and CAPEare the principal admissions criteria for incoming university/tertiary level freshmen.  Unsatisfactory student outcomes are Caribbean-wide (includes OECS).  As such, the principal pool for mining matriculated applicants for a landed campus in Antigua and Barbuda is smaller than expected.  Hanushek’s researchhighlights pitfalls for a country’s future expectations of human capital growth, innovation capacity, economic advancement and citizenry well-being, if primary education is allowed to decline. 

Education is the sine qua non of human development and economic growth, the basis of technological advancement and the philosophical pillars of humanity’s values which frame our collective objective reality.  Education is the source of jobs, life quality, and advancement opportunities (determines the fate of a person and the environment).  Universities are charged with great responsibility as the engine for new ideas that impact and change the world.  Universities are in the businessof education – developing human capital, the labor input of an economy.  

Research evidence confirms the positive relationship between tertiary institutions and the increased economic, cultural, intellectual and social capital of nations. Economists agree that acquisition of higher educationis overwhelmingly beneficial to a nation, especially for domestic economies (physical location).  Problems arise when governments are required to fund these institutions, and this funding then competes with other national budget priorities. Reputation based on education quality, research output and the diversity of course offerings by a tertiary entity, then rises atop the evaluation criteria chart.

Before making such a momentous decision, leaders of countries, especially small states, are expected to do due diligence, and obtain feasibility study data that supports the decision-making process, so as to demonstrate good stewardship of the money (taxes) their citizens have entrusted to them.  Hard questions must be asked and thoroughly answered.  What is the landed country gaining now and in the future?  What is it giving (financial, human capital trade-offs, projections)?

Where will the feeder source pool come from to ensure sustained growth?  (demographic declines, local non-matriculation)  What level of local employment should be expected? How will the decision impact the taxpayer, now and in the future?  Will intellectual property rights from created products be shared?  Will seeking solutions to national/regional problems be an integral part of student learning?  Which budget policy priorities/imperatives will be positively/negatively affected?  Will more higher education improve domestic economic growth?  

Without proper planning, incorporating twenty-first century SWOT analyses, (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats – internal/external), incoming tertiary entities may, in the long run, prove to be more expensive to taxpayers, who underwrite, directly or indirectly, a failed education institution. (explore debates on effects of subsidized/free education, and non-performing institutions, on public budgets).  Once created, an existing institution will always seek to survive, regardless of failed programs and low student outcomes, and will pursue any means necessary to ensure its continued existence.  

Taxes are a coercive form of financial acquisition and collection from a captive people.  Taxes are a commitment by the governed to collective goals, in an agreed upon social contract, which must be implemented and funded.  Citizens entrust leaders with the responsibility to identify areas for investment action which will create, maintain and expand national and individual security, human development, economic growth for wealth aggregation, and social capital aggrandizement.  These factors facilitate citizenry’ quality-of-life maximization in their pursuit of happiness.

Evolution theory proposes that for all living things, the over-arching principle is survival of the fittest.  Economic migration is an international reality facing countries with prosperous economies, and/or stable societies.  Corporations shop around for countries which allow them to keep their profits, tax avoiding loopholes are a thriving world-wide industry. Individuals re-locate to jurisdictions with lower taxes or to places where they get the most services for the taxes they pay.  

Taxes and regulatory fees are guaranteed revenue sources to underwrite policy choices embedded in public budget items.  Social unrest erupts when citizens believe they are overburdened, ignored, ill- or under- served by policy choices.  Now-a-days, democratic“for the people”is not interpreted as “for allthe people”.  Caveat Emptor: Eric A. Hanushek(2016), cautioned,

“Calls for expanded university education are frequently based on arguments that more graduates will lead to faster growth. Empirical analysis does not, however, support this general proposition. Differences in cognitive skills—the knowledge capital of countries—can explain most of the differences in growth rates across countries, but just adding more years of schooling without increasing cognitive skills historically has had little systematic influence on growth.”

Tertiary Education: Access and Internationalization

Higher education (HE), aka tertiary education, is big business – estimated in 2016, as $1.9 trillion with a projected 8% growth for 2017. (Joshua Kim, 2017)  “For a comparison of the higher education market with other large global markets: – Healthcare – $1.7 trillion. Information technology – $3.4 trillion. Transportation – $4.7 trillion.”(2U.com) Others estimate this global sector at US$6.3 trillion with estimated growth rate of 7%. This ever growing inventory demonstrates HE’s allure as an area for academia data collection and meta-analyses. 

Tertiary education has grown along with a deregulated, leveraged, globalized world. It is embraced by the free market as a monetizable solution to the decline in education quality found at lower levels (K-12: primary/secondary).  Roser and Ortiz-Ospinacharts/graphs the global spread and growth of tertiary education from 1970 to 2014with projections up to 2050based on population data and education capacity in various countries.  If their upward projections prove true, this global growth industry will be a gold mine for markets, institutional owners, investors and hedge fund managers. (innovation-entreprenuers, IPOs, pensions)

Economic growth is now unshakably tied to higher education expansion.  “Private average global return to a year of schooling is 9% a year. Increased private returns to higher education raise issues of financing and equity, and social returns to schooling remain high.”  (Psacharopoulos and Patrinos, 2018).  Blessinger,Senguptaand Makhanya (2018) affirm the importance of HE as an interdependent global phenomenon, wherequality education, at all levels, along with equity and inclusion, a causal determinant to global sustainable development.  (Higher education plays a key role in sustainable development).

As the number of universities explode world-wide, to meet the demands of a growing global population and a multilateral world, higher education has become internationalized.  More universities fiercely compete for bigger slices of this education sector’s financial pie.  “University strategic plans, national policy statements, regionalisation initiatives, international declarations and academic articles all indicate the centrality of internationalization in the world of higher education.”  (Knight & Witt, 2018)  

Internationalization involves student mobility or mobility of programs.  Students either go to institutions outside their country or universities build an extension in other countries.  Alook on the bright side of HE internationalisationreveals that “more than 130 countries are involved in international program and provider mobility (IPPM), and in some host IPPM countries up to 30% or 40% of the local students are accessing some form of higher education through IPPM”.  (online, MOOCs, international student fees)  Academia is beginning to question the efficacy of internationalization, actively collecting data for analysis, interpretation, and conclusions. 

                                    The Rankings Systems Fame Game

New thinking has driven momentum for creating ranking systems which compare universities across countries.  Rankings are a highly sought prize by higher education institutions, as it is parlayed into more students, higher tuition fees, greater research dollars and attract reputable professors.  Ranking has spawned intense competition among evaluation monitoring systems seeking legitimacy and supremacy.  An example from a rankings’ website:- “Welcome to the Washington Monthly’s annual College Guide and Rankings,where we rate schools based on what they are doing for the country.”

Traditional approaches to assessing higher education have relied on collegiality, expert judgment and peer review.” (Hazelkornet. al, 2018)  The quality of higher education offered is a big determinant in the rank positioning game.  The interpretive definition as well as constitutive elements of this evaluative factor (quality) is still evolving and heavily debated. (Braček Lalić, 2017)  A definitive case can be made that empirical variables such as value addedand value for money(rate of return on investment) are valid and justified, given the reality of a changing world.  Hess and Martin’s (2018) controversial policy solution for ameliorating the individual and national economic burden imposed by college dropouts, is to place the responsibility (blame) squarely on higher education institutions.  For them, “it doesn’t matter how many students enroll in college — what matters is how many earn a degree.” 

HE scandals have gained media and hence societal (government/populace) attention. Questions of quality and efficacy mandate evidence based answers.  Intended and unintended consequencesof public policies within the education sector come under greater scrutiny for effects at both the micro (taxpayers -individual, business) and macro (GDP, stock market, labor, national security) levels.  Loukas N Anninos meta study, University Performance Evaluation Approaches: The Case of Ranking Systems, explores scholarly perspectives on rankings systems.  He concludes there is no reliable ranking system, given the number of qualifying conditions. 

In an article, Rethink role of HE beyond rankings’, (October 2018) Singaporean minister, Kalinga Seneviratnereportedly questioned the international university ranking systems’ ability to take into account the “varied and profound roles of universities today”. (debate on preeminence of theoretical research over life-long learning/experiential learning). Regarding HE institutions, Seneviratne stated, 

“key performance indicators should not necessarily be how they perform in rankings but “how well they serve Singapore. Whether they are academically and intellectually rigorous and vibrant, yet develop an authentic Singaporean character. Whether they give Singaporeans a good education, not just academically but holistically, building skill sets relevant to the economy so that people can get good jobs and fulfil their aspirations.”

Measuring the Effectiveness of HE Evaluation Variables

The newest trend in evaluating the benefits of tertiary education is found in debates about lifelong learningand workplace readiness. (Borg, Turner, Scott-Young, 2017)  The current battle cry is that universities must connect education to the real world(2015 WISE Survey: Connecting Education to the Real World)  As higher education institutions have proliferated, new economic realitieshave forced a rearrangement in funding sources.  The need for specific performance measurement evaluation criteria, engendering transparency and accountability, have gained new urgency for governmentsas well as students. 

Past, evaluation variables were internal, based on curricular course contentand teacher reputation. This approach is being reviewed and reconfigured. (e.g. Notre Dame, Travis Dove 2018)  As heat on effectiveness metrics rises, new employabilityand learning throughout life variables are being added. Professor Chen Swee Engnotes, “More recent developments in education have demonstrated a shift away from looking at the input side of the educational equation (e.g. prescribed curricula, teacher reputation) to the outcomes of the process”(e.g. competencies of graduates).  Causation/correlation measurement variables: – education attained with lifetime earnings; employment opportunities offered and accessed; or contribution to aggregate economic growth; are needed additions to the HE empirical variables used by research scholars.  

The Financial Accountability Angle

Student loans have become a generation defining issue.  Over-indebtedness by individuals or governments which results in passing a debt burden to succeeding generations – many times with no tangible improvement to human and economic development – must be considered in discussions on the benefits of tertiary education.  University effectiveness evaluation criterion of “value for money”now rely on data for interpretations, conclusions, recommendations and predictions.

Thomas Hale (2018)’ highlights the analytical complexities for definitively determining taxpayers’ benefits in terms of “marketization”, “value for money”, and “graduate degree’ valuations”. He proposes that the valid measuring of benefits include considerations of human development – social and cultural capital calculations and-should not just be based on a Gradgrindiannotion which values education “in terms of labor market performance” (raw productivity data only).  

Consideration of students who“earn relatively low amounts over their careers.” is also relevant. (repayment concerns due to low disposable income, privatization of collections).  He predicts a “problem of shifting labor market priorities … which  (will) force continual reassessments of a degree’s employment value.” 

UWI Strategic Plan 2022– A3PLAN = ACCESS, ALIGNMENT, AGILITY

As a Caribbean regionalist, I was proud and happy to read about two exciting events regarding the University of the West Indies (UWI).  The first was the publication of a new strategic plan 2017-2022; and the second was the announcement that UWI had made the listof universities in the highly regarded, 2019 Times World University Ranking.  

UWI’s stated goal is two-fold, “to revitalize Caribbean development and to ensure its own long-term survival.”  Its current plan is grounded in three concepts – Access, Alignment, Agility. Its Triple A Strategy Framework (Figure 1) reveals components which align/comport with the evaluation variables (criteria indicators) used by global ranking systems. [performance indicators are grouped into five areas: teaching (the learning environment); research (volume, income and reputation); citations (research influence); international outlook (staff, students and research); and industry income (knowledge transfer)]  Internationalization seems a priority focus for UWI expansion, growth and survival.

Recently, (2018) Sir Hilary Beckles, UWI Chancellor, publicly expressed skepticismabout making UWI more responsive to experiential, reality based educationand less wedded to theoretical research.  Nevertheless, it would seem that new value added thinking is informally permeating UWI consciousness, as a quick review of current initiatives/programs being conducted, shows much experiential learning embedded in courses offered. (refer to UWI magazines and TV)  As the jury is still out on the validity of current criteria used by world-wide university ranking systems, a quick scan of the sub-components outlined in UWI’s strategic plan, to check relevancy to emerging thinking, seems in order.

With regard to teaching, student learning and development, (AC3), new thinking embodies utilization of Backward Design strategies in all classrooms. (Burkholder, 2018).  New thinking involves re-examining professor effectivenesscourse contentand assignmentsto ensure pertinence, relevance and student understanding.  Teaching must demand critical thinkingin all subject areas for as John Muresianu(2018) notes “Activism is meaningless if it’s not backed by a well-informed understanding of all sides of an issue.”  

The new thinking as incorporated in AL2of the plan must ensure that in commercializing research, local economies/businesses are a priority.  HE is required to facilitate higher levels of business formation, successful scaleups, job creation,and, enable government share in financial rewards. 

Research universities fulfill their mission by creating new knowledge and disseminating it. Universities achieve this by transferring human capital they develop and translating research to existing firms or startups via the commercialization process.”  (DeVol , 2018

In their pursuit of internationalization dominance (AG1), UWI seems cognizant of the potential problems it faces – competition in alternative sources for higher education access, the expanding number of HE institutions actively seeking students worldwide, and a changing political environment (interdependent multi-lateralism versus nationalist isolationism),   As of this date (January, 2019), I have not seen publication of the promised first annual balanced score card report on the progress of goals and performance objectives outlined in the report.

Change in the external environment is a certainty.  The future demands “entreprenuerial universities” with workplace readinessas a core value.  A reckoning of evaluation monitors’ credibility and integrity, may be near – changing evaluation measurements and weights. Lest we forget, the global 2008 recession exposed corrupt financial grading monitors and their complicity in the economic crash that ruined numerous entities (private and public). 

Implications for Antigua and Barbuda Taxpayers and Government Stewardship

The decision by the A&B government to locate the fourth landed campus of UWI there, is on its face, a sound one given the studies which show that HE engenders economic growth for locations, especially when they attract out-of-area students. (housing, businesses, economic multiplier) However, UWI is essentially a public university, largely dependent on member government subsidy.  (UWI has three sources of income)  As such, how the local government chooses to fund this obligation is very important for taxpayers.  UWI is very clear about its goal to restore financial health and ensure its survival.  It behooves the partnering government to ensure that their citizens get value for money.

Debates about actual location (Five Islands) have given way to questions of funding.  The government must find a considerable sum of money to capitalize campus actualization and ensure continuation of agreed upon financial obligations.  The government of Antigua and Barbuda proposes to fund the UWI campus via a combination of CIP (Citizenship by Investment Program) revenuesand a Windfall taxon telecommunications, financial, energy and insurance companies. (taxing “excessive” profits)  It should be noted, that studies on alternative sources for financing higher education, specifically UWI, have been done.  Recently, (November, 2018), the University Grants Committee -UWI met to figure out alternative funding models which would ease the financial pressure on member-governments and students.  

A call to establish a University Trust Fund for asset management purposes and the the capital transfer of physical assets or other revenue-performing assets to UWI by member-governments, to settle outstanding debts, was suggested.  Fungible, monetizable gifts to the university was also encouraged to help grow a proposed endowment fund.  Although recommendations from this session are not yet formally approved, these proposed measures should positively impact budget allocations and better facilitate financial dependent choices for UWI, member governments and taxpayers. 

UWI’s preliminary examination has identified a deficit of information technology specialists.  Who will fill these jobs?  Is Antigua currently preparing locals for these jobs or will they have to import expertise?  In the feasibility study done by Antigua State College as a back-story to the decisions made, it is hoped that the questions being asked are the right ones. [“The most serious mistakes are not being made as a result of wrong answers. The truly dangerous thing is asking the wrong question.” Peter Drucker]  

What is the cost-benefit justification for a fourth landed campus versus attracting private HE institutions (off shore extensions) which do not get, government subsidizes.  How will UWI Open Campus and Antigua State College be synchronized with the new landed campus in particular, and all the landed campuses in general?  

How will localities be able to leverage their human capital gains into entrepreneurial optimization?  What is UWI’s track record vis a vis economic growth and development of local member countries?  (UWI Open campus was largely created to address complaints by non-campus countries (NCC).  How well has UWI collaborated with local and regional entities to upgrade the education attainment of citizens, – at all levels – for future jobs.  In some American states, data about job needs (skills set assessment demands by businesses) are being used to determine the coursesand/or degrees HE institutions located in their jurisdiction, should teach/offer residents, to fill the higher paying jobs.  

Declining local demographics and the high failure rate of CXC exam takers must be factored into future projections of student enrollment.  For the new landed campus, how do they intend to ensure sustainable levels of incoming students and high retention rates.  What is UWI’s track record for attracting international students? Will all graduates be workplace ready? 

What mechanisms are in place to prevent (unintentional) cannibalism between campuses and resolve issues of equality and equity? What is the identified niche for the campus, i.e.-What is the innovation-focused cornerstone? Will the goal of a university for alltranslate into dumb downed education standards? Will the tide of quality education offered/expected at UWI be one which lifts all the other tertiary education boats located on the islands?

Can we project that years in the future when an audit is done, and data is measured and tallied, it is definitive that the country did indeed have an increase in the well-being of its citizens. The country did transition into the economic powerhouse status it seeks, due to money multipliers in the local economy. Can we say that individual taxpayers were better off – (net personal assets increase, sustainable quality employment, higher disposable income and savings). Will businesses have achieved greater sales targets and local communities realized more and better housing stock along with diversified quality of life amenities. Did the national revenues and economic activities show satisfactory growth. 

Having a vision of the future is important, but in public policy, it is the planning and implementation phases -the alpha and omega- which determine success or failure. Getting it right depends on the quality and quantity of diligence, creative thinking, research information and intellectual power, engaged. The purpose of this article is to create a discussion framework to push greater transparency within the decision-making process of this crucial planning phase. Taxpayer-stakeholders are fundamental partners who can provide out-of-the-box input and valuable oversight monitoring to ensure that this promised value added entity provides value for money. Opening up the debate is a good thing.

The author is a longtime educationist (MPA, MSc.) with experience in tertiary, as well as K-12 education.  She may be contacted at conbelach15@gmail.com