By Larry Smith
Recently, I caught the tail-end of a polite rant on JCN-TV by College of the Bahamas professor Nicolette Bethel. She was lamenting the fact that the College's move towards university status has stalled, threatening dire consequences for the future of the country.
My first reaction was: Well, aren't we already part of the University of the West Indies?
We are indeed - have been since 1964, in fact. And we contribute about $3 million a year to this prestigious regional institution, which operates a School of Clinical Medicine & Research, a Hotel Management Programme and an Open University 'campus' in Nassau.
My second reaction was: Why does the College need to become a university anyway?
"The concept of a university is a place where ideas are encouraged, where economies are expanded, where industries are created, where jobs are multiplied," Bethel explained to me. "If the country does not show confidence in itself, in its young, in its own ability to innovate, the moment will pass. Our lack of understanding of this is a recipe for future disaster."
And apparently it's all part of the plan - the 2009-2019 strategic plan, which says the College "expects to become a university…to develop new undergraduate and graduate programmes, increase research and innovation activities and focus its work in areas crucial to national development."
In his introduction to that plan, Council Chairman T. Baswell Donaldson says a university will "support and drive national development (and) the College is ready to take that step." He told me the same thing over the phone recently: "We are ready at any time to become a university, but I have no idea what the government's timetable is."
A rather startling admission. But before we get into a discussion of that, a little background is in order.
Prior to 1974 higher education in the Bahamas was limited to basic training for teachers and tradesmen, plus the link to UWI. In that year, the government combined its teacher training facilities with a technical school and the Government High sixth form to create the College of the Bahamas.
The amalgamation was recommended by UWI professor Dr C. T. Leys, and was based on the need for greater efficiencies in building a better educated work force. For the first time, ordinary Bahamians could receive a tertiary education without leaving the country - and UWI had a local base for its extra-mural programmes.
The College was established to be a “multipurpose institution serving, as far as possible, every important need of The Bahamas”. Initially, it offered technical and professional courses, as well as pre-university academic programmes on an open entry basis (although that policy was abandoned in 1978 for cost reasons).
Back then, the College was little more than a division of the Ministry of Education, with "tightly controlled governance reflecting the context of the period". Financial matters were under the full control of the minister, who could direct the governing council as he saw fit. It was not until the early 1990s that the concept of an autonomous Bahamian university began to form.
A 1993 study laid the groundwork for the launch of four-year degree programmes. "Overall, a bachelor degree-awarding institution can expect to associate directly with universities ...on a more equable basis, and to benefit accordingly," the study committee reported. "It should be a matter of pride to recognize the College as an institution of university status."
The following year, the National Task Force on Education (headed by the late Dr Keva Bethel) called explicitly for the COB's conversion into a university college that would focus on granting degrees and conducting research.
This led to a new COB act in 1995, which gave the College significant control over planning, budgeting, hiring and firing. Since then the College has been funded by a block grant from the government (plus tuition fees and donations), and the only position requiring ministerial approval is that of the president.
The next step was to gain international recognition and accreditation. This required upgrading faculty credentials and reforming policies and procedures so that, today, the College's credits are accepted by more than 200 institutions around the world, and about a third of the faculty have doctoral degrees.
In 2002 the incoming PLP administration declared that the College would become a university by 2007, and a range of planning initiatives was launched. In 2005 a new internal review set the stage for a massive private sector fundraising campaign to support infrastructural development.
Former Education Minister Alfred Sears told me his administration had set a roadmap for the move to university status: "It was our view that the College should become a centre of teaching excellence attracting foreign students, that it should be able to conduct research into all aspects of Bahamian life, and that it should be in a position to provide advisory services on key national development issues."
Major investments in new facilities took place during this period, including a library and information centre, a performing arts centre, administrative offices and a modern bookstore. And Dr Keva Bethel was able to report that "By the middle of 2006, the process had reached a point where serious consideration could be given to the drafting of the new legislation necessary to establish formally the University of The Bahamas."
But that was still the case four years later. Shortly before her death (in February 2011), Dr Bethel said the College was "well on the way in terms of administration and infrastructure to establish a university; however, there is a need for the development of a new act in order to transition to full university status."
Under the 1995 legislation, the governing council's 11 members are appointed by the governor-general, and include the president, a student, a professor, an alumnus, and five others representing various sectors of the community. Council members and the chairman are all appointed by the governor-general.
The current state of play was outlined by Education Minister Desmond Bannister in his last budget address. About half of the College's 5,000 students are full-time, taught by 219 faculty members. And more students are now working towards four-year bachelor degrees, he said, than two-year associate degrees.
The first graduate programme - a master of business - was launched in 2010, followed by a master of science and a master of education. The College also administers the UWI law programme. A new campus was opened recently on Gand Bahama and a $10 million science complex is planned for New Providence, along with a $4 million graduate business centre.
So what's the bottom line here? Four-year degrees, relative autonomy, graduate programmes, international accreditation, research facilities, highly qualified professors - it seems clear that the College is already a university in all but name.
But Nicolette Bethel wonders why "we still have leaders who quibble about, who even actively oppose, the creation of a university out of the College of The Bahamas. We are still using the phrase 'transition to university status' almost 20 years after we began the process. For how many more generations will this transition extend?"
Good question, I thought. So I asked Education Minister Desmond Bannister for an explanation. He told me the government remains "fully committed" to the transition to university status.
"Graduate programmes were the last major criteria. The next step is for legislation to be drafted and stakeholder consultation to take place. We seek to be both methodical and inclusive in this process, but there is no timetable. The government sees no magic in rushing the process and coming up with flawed legislation just to say that we did it."
However, in 2007, Dr Keva Bethel, the College's president emerita, had produced a 45-page report on governance that covered all the bases. She led a committee of 25 experts from both the public and private sectors who reviewed international practices, conducted a score of interviews, and held three major stakeholder consultations over a period of many months.
That committee issued comprehensive recommendations for new legislation to transform the College into a university, including a new governing council that would have "final authority over all affairs of the university."
In her report Dr Bethel said a university would "stimulate greater critical, creative and innovative thinking that could be of significant national value...provide a space for divergent views, demonstrate tolerance for diversity, and be free of political bias."
According to outspoken COB professor Ian Strachan, a university is a no-brainer: "We need a university that can serve as an engine for development; that can fill the gaps in so many areas of our national life; a university that improves the methods by which we educate and govern ourselves, do business, protect and conserve our environment and our resources, and address social and cultural problems. It has the potential to almost single-handedly improve the Bahamian way of life."
This sounds very much like what other leading edge commentators are saying around the world. Author Thomas Friedman, for example, has written that cities combining a university, an educated populace, a dynamic business community and the fastest broadband connections available will be the success stories and job factories of the 21st century - intellectual ecosystems, they are called.
Currently, the government finances COB to the tune of almost $25 million a year (compared to less than $20 million under the last PLP administration). Added to this is revenue from tuition fees and private donors like the Lyford Cay Foundation and major commercial banks. The College's strategic plan calls for some $55 million in new public and private funding to build a training hotel, a student centre, athletic facilities, a research centre in Andros, and a science and technology complex, among other projects.
So, like ZNS, the lion's share of COB's budget is a government subvention allocated yearly, and the president and council chairman are essentially political appointments (as is the governor-general himself). And although the 1995 legislation makes the College responsible for its own finances, it's a safe bet that most decisions are made in a political context, even if there is no overt interference.
As Professor Strachan put it: "The Ministry of Finance (which means the PM) decides what we get and don't get. Tuition increases, for example, have political impact. The instinct of those who would decide this at COB is to ask for permission, not forgiveness. There would be no forgiveness. They know this instinctively. Such a raise, were it advanced by the president would not be approved by the chairman unless he first got the OK of his boss (the PM)."
But according to one former faculty member, the College is its own worst enemy in this regard. "There's no need for an act to change the name. Why are they are so afraid of what the government will say or do? Why don't they just go ahead? All governments have delayed, so just go ahead. They are a university in everything but name anyway.
"If we had done what government told us to do in the early days there wouldn't even be a College today. We were supposed to be an A-level institution originally, and when we started offering associate degrees we were instructed by the Cabinet secretary to 'cease and desist immediately'. But we went ahead and did what we thought we should do - and that was under the original act."
Former Education Minister Alfred Sears (who will not be running in the next election) also acknowledged that the political process is too partisan. "We need a stronger civil society voice so that the politicians can't dominate the conversation," he told me. "There must be more structural collaboration so that the views of civil society are taken fully into account."
An autonomous university would be a big step to achieving such a counterweight to political inertia (and I suspect that's the real issue here). It is certainly worth noting that I was unable to obtain a copy of the College's statutory annual report to help me research this article, and the new president - Dr Betsy Vogel Boze - declined to respond to, or even acknowledge, my inquiries, although she would obviously be a key player in any transformation process. One has to ask 'why?'
In a recent Tribune article, financial advisor Richard Coulson argued that the College should become the hub of our development efforts: "With proper stimulus it can act as the intellectual driver of the country. Its magnificent new Harry Moore Library now provides a physical nexus around which satellite centres of learning can be added, in many disciplines from sciences to the humanities. This can lead to new manufacturing and service industries."
Or, as Nicolette Bethel put it: "We invest in all sorts of nonsense that fades away in short order -- after, indeed, the next election. In my perfect Bahamas, we would invest in our brains. We have a real shortage of bright ideas. And universities generate ideas."
It seems clear from this review that all the necessary preparatory work to turn the College into a university has been completed, and all parties concerned appreciate the benefits. So what's the hold-up? This is hardly a tough call.