Friday, February 20, 2015

Higher education: Towards a more visionary UCCI

The recently released report, “Towards a Viable UCCI,” is admirable in its intent but limited in its scope. When it comes to higher education in Cayman, the watchword should be vision, not viability.

Nevertheless, we applaud University College of the Cayman Islands President Roy Bodden and his joint

study team — led by Linford Pierson and composed of UCCI board members, administration and faculty — for their efforts and intentions.

The team took a long look at UCCI’s balance sheets, survey results and other data, and then made several recommendations — including eliminating courses, programs and salaried staff — that altogether could save UCCI $500,000 per year, out of its annual budget of approximately $7 million (about $4 million of which is provided directly by Cabinet).

It is entirely appropriate — in fact, desirable — for any organization to undertake internally instigated examinations of costs and possible cost savings. We find no fault in the study team’s methodologies or its conclusions.

Our issue with the UCCI report, frankly, is more fundamental. It relates to UCCI’s $7 million annual budget.

Considering UCCI’s mission as our country’s “flagship” institute of higher learning, we are woefully underfunding it.

It isn’t often that we find ourselves arguing for greater government spending, but in the context of the public sector’s total budget of $744 million (including $9.5 million for the Cayman Turtle Farm, $20 million-plus for Cayman Airways, and $1.5 million for the Cayman Islands Development Bank), UCCI’s annual budget — less than 1 percent of total government spending — could be described as a mere pittance. Heavens, the new campus of Clifton Hunter High School cost more than $100 million to construct and millions more to maintain.

By comparison, the UCCI campus is, well, not necessarily a dump but certainly a neglected educational sibling.

This UCCI report focuses on the need to preserve, hopefully even strengthen, the status quo. The report provides cogent insights into UCCI’s financial operations. However, what is really needed is a high-level assessment of where, and how, UCCI fits into the overall educational needs of the Cayman Islands.

Before officials begin to eviscerate UCCI in the interest of saving a few nickels, dimes or even a half-million dollars, we should contemplate the following simple but nonetheless fundamental question: As an educational institution, what should UCCI be?

Unlike public consultation on, say, the minimum wage, the issue of tertiary education in Cayman might really be worth a town hall meeting or two.

We applaud President Roy Bodden’s total commitment to UCCI. His passion for the school and its students, many of whom he knows by first name, is palpable. He is an historian of note, a prolific author, a former politician, and, by nature of his position, the islands’ pre-eminent educator. What remains to be seen is whether he has the drive, or even the desire, to elevate UCCI to a higher level.

Lacking resources, reputation, even basic accreditation, UCCI is nowhere near where it needs to be. And it’s never going to get there solely through budget cuts. UCCI needs to be more, not less.