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Need to renew institutions

By Janelle De Souza Thursday, April 11 2013

UNIVERSITIES should constantly challenge themselves to renew their institutions, keep improving, and have a sense of urgency, even when they are doing well.

That was the advice of tertiary education expert, Jamil Salmi, to representatives of local tertiary education on Wednesday last at a UWI breakfast meeting at the Trinidad Hilton. He encouraged them to keep updating their curriculum, administration, infrastructure, and other aspects of their institutions. “If we stand still, we will fall behind, because the others are not standing still,” he declared.

Salmi stated there were three characteristics of a world-class university — top graduates recognised by local and international labour markets, leading edge research, as well as dynamic knowledge and technology transfer.

According to Salmi, to attain this, three things were necessary. The first is a concentration of talent, which includes teachers, students and researchers. However he noted both faculty and students should have international dimensions, that is, a percentage should be foreign nationals.

Secondly, an abundance of resources is important. This should include government funding, endowments, tuition fees, and research funding. And lastly, favourable governance with freedom from civil service rules in terms of human resource procurement and finance management, as well as management autonomy. That would mean flexibility to respond to a changing world and being able to select a management team on a professional basis.

Illustrating the importance of governance, Salmi compared running an educational institute with that of running a football team, Barcelona to be exact. He said, “So imagine that their players are civil servants with the civil service salary scale — that they would not be able to attract top players from other countries and pay them high salaries. That they would not be able to reward the best performing players, or to punish those who are not very productive. Imagine that before a big championship game, instead of having the coach of the team collaborating the strategy for the match, they would have to follow instructions from the Minister of Sport. Do you think they would still be a great team? Now is football more or less important than the education of our daughters and sons?”

However, Salmi warned against aiming to be a top ranked institution, instead of aiming to have a unique, world class system. “Rankings were very dangerous because they define this concept of excellence or a world class university. Dare to be different rather than try to copy everybody else,” he advised. Salmi noted that some ranking surveys were not very scientific, and those that were could not measure excellence in different forms. “It’s much easier to measure research production than to measure the quality of teaching and learning. We don’t have an instrument to measure the added value that a university brings to the students and the community,” he pointed out.

Professor Clement Sankat, Principal of the University of the West Indies (UWI) St Augustine Campus readily agreed with Salmi, saying that the country needed to build a higher education system where institutions have clearly defined missions that relate to the needs of the society. “We need a higher education landscape that is stratigified, that is diversified that meets the needs of our country. For example you may need vocational skills, technical skills, technological skills, strong professional or research skills. It is difficult for one institution to do all of that. But one gets the sense that all these institutions want to be in the ranking of world-class universities, they all want to do the same thing,” said Sankat.

“The institutes have to stay their course. If they all feel they going to drift to become comprehensive or research universities of one kind, then we’re going to have a real challenge. The country would not benefit,” he continued.

Sankat added that although UWI was “on solid ground,” Salmi gave the audience a lot to think about with respect to adopting best practices to build relevant, world-class educational institutions.

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