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UTech and economic growth

Stephen
Vasciannie

Sunday, February 17, 2019

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What role does the University of Technology, Jamaica play in promoting economic growth in Jamaica? What is our mandate, and how do we go about delivering on that mandate? As the University approaches the end of its 60th year, it may be a good time to recall the University's role in national life.

I am also prompted to offer the following observations because some commentators are apt to speak as if a University is a supermarket into which you may walk to purchase ready-made solutions for problems. They look at heavily-funded institutions with highly specialised facilities subsidised by industry in the metropole and assume that such institutions can be reproduced in Jamaica overnight, without a serious infusion of money.

Mandate

The University of Technology, Jamaica is mandated by law to be a “teaching, research and examining body,” and to carry out a specified list of functions. These functions include:

(a) the advancement of education and development of technology;

(b) preservation, advancement and dissemination of knowledge and culture through teaching, scholarship and research;

(c) making available the results of such research and service; and

(d) promotion of wisdom and understanding by the example and influence of corporate life.

In keeping with the terms of our mandate, and with the name of the institution, the University has traditionally sought to emphasise “Technology” in its curriculum. Thus, by our estimate, more than 70 per cent of the programmes on offer at the University are in the area of technology.

But, again in keeping with our mandate, the University does not confine itself only to technology programmes. Rather, the University offers technology courses at our core, and presents a number of other courses – such as management studies and law - which contribute to the advancement of Jamaican culture and promote wisdom and understanding.

The faculties

For the Academic Year 2017/2018, the graduate numbers from the University, based on faculties or colleges, were as follows:

• Faculty of the Built Environment 136 (7%)

• Faculty of Engineering & Computing 328 (16%)

• College of Health Sciences 327 (16%)

• Faculty of Science & Sport 115 (6%)

• College of Oral Health Sciences 404 (8%)

• Faculty of Education & Liberal Studies 172 (8%)

• Faculty of Law 80 (4%)

• College of Business & Management 720 (35%)

For the current academic year, the total student intake at the University is approximately 11,500 undergraduates and 169 postgraduates.

Training

The University contributes to economic growth in several ways. These include:

(a) We train a significant number of students who are technologically adept and work ready. UTech, Ja students are prepared for the labour market through practical exposure to various fields of learning. Several UTech, Ja courses are structured to ensure that students learn not only the theoretical aspects of their programmes, but also obtain “hands-on” training.

Practical

(b) We provide practical, high quality education. While we attach considerable importance to practical training, we also believe that high quality education is a public good in itself. Persons with a good education will almost always be willing to adapt to changing environmental circumstances, will have the capacity to think critically, and will contribute usefully to scientific, technological and other intellectual debates in society.

The University of Technology, Jamaica is confident that our educational standards are high. In December 2018, the University Council of Jamaica, the Government of Jamaica's independent quality standards body, granted institutional accreditation to UTech, Ja for seven years, the longest period open to the Council.

(c) Our education is relevant. All of the University's courses are grounded in Jamaican and Caribbean experience, and of direct relevance to Jamaican society. This ensures the work readiness of our graduates and equips them to tackle national problems with special knowledge of our cultural and social circumstances. The Caribbean School of Architecture at UTech, Ja provides study tours for students in different parts of the Caribbean (and beyond), while our Caribbean School of Nursing ensures practical exposure to students on the realities of Jamaican hospitals.

Opportunities

(d) UTech, Ja provides opportunities to some persons who may not have otherwise earned a place at university. Some of the 11,500 undergraduates at UTech, Ja come into our programmes with CSEC passes and equivalent qualifications. UTech, Ja then offers a four-year programme which brings graduates up to world standards.

The University also makes special efforts to retain its students. For 2017/18, the retention rate for UTech, Ja students was approximately 84 per cent (when assessing movement from Year 1 to Year II). Also, for the four-year degree programme, approximately 51 per cent of the students graduated in the specified period. The fact that approximately 49 per cent did not complete in four years is at least in part a reflection of financial challenges faced by students.

Accordingly, the University has in place scholarship programmes funded by internal and external persons and entities, a Work and Study Programme and welfare initiatives. We contribute to economic growth and equity by looking out for the economically challenged, to the extent that we can. For 2017/18 - 4,079 students received sponsorship from the Students Loan Bureau, the Government of Jamaica, local private or international sources (out of 11,500). And for the same period 2,652 students received financial aid from the University.

Knowledge

(e) The University seeks to spread knowledge and understanding within society. The University has an active Community Service Programme which requires students to spend a minimum number of hours pursuing voluntary activity in certain communities. At the same time, the Department of Community Service has worked in recent years on initiatives such as the United States-funded “Fi Wi Jamaica” Project which aimed at promoting tolerance and reducing tension in particular areas of Jamaica.

Solutions

(f) We provide practical solutions to problems. Various University staff members have contributed to the resolution on community problems by the practical application of their knowledge. For example, members of the Faculty of Engineering and Computing have contributed the expertise to make Electricity “Ready Boards” for the service of households that may not be able to afford access to conventional power supply.

Similarly, UTech professionals in the Faculty of the Built Environment and the Faculty of Engineering and Computing have taken part in the Government of Jamaica's Safe Schools Project by providing expertise on best practices in school design and construction.

Again, the University contributes to economic growth by providing solutions for particular projects. In the Urban Development Corporation's recent competition concerning the design of a new Parliament Complex for the National Heroes Park and environs, all of the finalists in the competition included UTech, Ja graduates, lecturers or students associated with the Caribbean School of Architecture on their respective teams.

Mathematics

(g) The University, with its technological focus, is mindful that Mathematics is critical to the delivery of our outcomes. In this regard, we note that most of the Mathematics coaches in secondary schools today are graduates of the University of Technology, Jamaica. We are also mindful of the emphasis being placed on the improvement of Mathematical skills by the Government of Jamaica.

With this in mind, the University has introduced an annual Mathematics outreach project in the form of a National Secondary Schools Competition. This competition, organised by our Faculty of Science and Sports, has helped to raise interest in Mathematics among students who wish to pursue university studies.

At the same time, the Faculty of Science and Sports also provides Mathematics workshops for the benefit of hundreds of secondary school students at CAPE Levels I and II. Other workshops in the Pure and Applied Sciences are also available for CAPE students, but we emphasise Mathematics because of its key role in opening up the scientific and managerial worlds.

Research

The University is mandated to contribute to society through research in various issues. The University has an in-house journal for the promotion of research, The Journal of Arts, Science and Technology, some Faculties also produce occasional special publications, and some University lecturers publish their research results in regional or international journals.

In recent times, the University has introduced incentives for research and publications, and has increased the availability of funding for research purposes. The University has also established a University Press, which is designed to promote especially in-house research and writing. Dr Adella Campbell's book on The Jamaica Public Health System from the 17th to 21st Centuries is the first to roll successfully off the press.

There are signs that the research culture is improving. This should redound to the benefit of the wider society, as some of the fruits of our research may lead to scientific breakthroughs, or strengthen our understanding of aspects of life in Jamaica.

Funding

The Government of Jamaica contributes approximately $2 billion per annum to the University of Technology, Jamaica. The annual costs of the University are in the region of J$7 billion. Generally, the University has had to seek approximately J$4.5 billion from student fees, and about J$0.5 billion from third sources. The financial situation is quite tight, for many students face economic challenges and are not, therefore, the best source of secure financing.

One consequence of the tight financial situation is that salaries for UTech, Ja academic and administrative staff members are in many instances decidedly low. This affects staff morale and could engender relatively low productivity among some staff members. Many University members of staff work for comparatively low wages because of their commitment to the institution, or out of a desire to contribute to national development. One has the pronounced sense, however, that the lack of parity in the treatment of UTech staff is not justifiable.

If the University wishes to enhance its contribution to economic growth, it may have to rely upon increased Government funding or seek alternative sources of funding. But while it is possible to reflect on third party sources of funding, this cannot readily be generated on a recurrent basis in the short run.

Engineering

It is sometimes noted that economic growth in Jamaica will require greater societal emphasis on STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). In recent times, as well, the Government of Jamaica has placed importance on STEAM, by adding “the Arts” to the list of priorities. In either case, the University of Technology, Jamaica is well placed to assist the Government in meeting its main objectives, bearing in mind the University's mandate.

Significantly, however, the University may not be operating on a scale which will have a marked impact on Governmental objectives pertaining to STEM. Take, for example, Engineering and Computing. Various business operations have indicated that they need significant numbers of engineers to work on major capital development projects for the long term. In that context, it is sometimes said that local universities are not keeping up with the likely demand for Engineering skills.

As noted above, in 2018/19, UTech, Ja graduated 328 Engineers or Computer Scientists. On the assumption that this number (when combined with other universities) is insufficient, we have sought to develop the capacity to train approximately additional Engineers each year. This increased capacity is premised on the implementation of certain projects under consideration.

Science and Sports

The University's contribution to athletic development in Jamaica has been a matter of note. The internationally renowned MVP Track Club is based at the University of Technology, Jamaica, and the institution houses the Dennis Johnson Hall of Residence which accommodates predominantly student athletes.

Athletic stars who have become household names have been or remain students at the University: among numerous others, Shelly-Ann Fraser Pryce, Sherone Simpson, Elaine Thompson and Asafa Powell all emerged from UTech, Ja. There can be no doubt about the impact of athletic success on national unity within Jamaica, and to some extent, we may say that UTech, Ja by building on the legacy of Dennis Johnson and by working with the MVP has contributed substantially to development.

But there is more doubt that we want to do more, and should work towards developing our facilities to match our international standing. The Faculty of Science and Sports, the first of its kind in the Caribbean, has plans that could enhance our contribution to sporting success, relying on scientific principles and the latest technological methods.

Health Sciences

The University provides opportunities in the health sciences for persons pursuing Health and Wellness courses and research, Nursing, and Pharmacy-related subjects. So, for example, Dr Lawrence Williams, a University researcher, has recently obtained a patent relating to the possible effects of the Guinea Hen Weed in cancer treatment, while another – Professor Fitzroy Henry - has led research on the impact of obesity in the wider society.

Within the College of Health Sciences, however, the space reserved for research and teaching facilities is relatively limited. The case, therefore, for expansion at the University in this area is easily made.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

Most of the University's challenges may be traced back to financial considerations. The subvention from the Government — received with gratitude — is insufficient to safeguard salaries which are in any way competitive; and some facilities at the University may be inadequate fully to meet the requirements of a world-class, Technology-based University.

Nevertheless, the University has proceeded in achieving its objectives, largely through the commitment and dedication of its staff members. Our contribution to economic growth is not always immediately measurable, but by providing work ready graduates in a wide variety of areas, we are making our mark.

This mark can be enhanced, particularly in the area of Technology: some initiatives necessary to bring about this enhancement are in place, but others will require financial support from the public and private sectors. This presentation has mentioned some matters that require further deliberation, but, in the nature of things, this list is not comprehensive.

Stephen Vasciannie is the President of the University of Technology, Jamaica.


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