The UWI Regional Headquarters, Jamaica. Monday 19 October 2020—The crisis being faced by the higher education sector in the Caribbean brought regional Prime Ministers, Ministers, senior policy makers, representatives from the United Nations, international donor agencies and development banks together virtually on Wednesday, October 14, 2020. This pivotal meeting themed, “Investing in higher education to build more diversified and resilient post-COVID economies”, which drew over 100 participants was convened jointly with the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLAC) to put a spotlight on the urgent need for investment in the region’s higher education sector.
Among the outcomes at the high level meeting was a call from Professor Sir Hilary Beckles, Vice-Chancellor of The University of the West Indies (The UWI) for a multi-donor trust fund to invest 600 million US dollars over three years for the Caribbean’s human capital development and the establishment of a regional working group to work through the modalities for setting up this critical fund. Qualifying the proposal, he declared that the governments have been doing the best they can and thanked them for their steadfast support to The UWI for over seventy years, but with the economic contraction precipitated by the pandemic, the Caribbean’s higher education system is at risk of systemic decline unless there is urgent investment in the sector.
Wednesday’s virtual Forum was opened by Dr 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. She 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.