How Not to Be a University: Lessons from the College of the Bahamas Playbook
By Joseph Gaskins
Apr 25, 2013 - 11:03:58 PM
"Our government spends more per inmate in Fox Hill prison than it does on COB students"
Over the last decade a debate about the purpose of higher education, and namely the university, has arisen among intellectuals, policymakers, activists and young people. The importance of this debate has been exacerbated by the global economic downturn. As governments look for places to cut public funding, or make smarter investments, the question of the value of the university has been catapulted front and center.
Here at home, as we watch the unfolding debacle around the reduction of government subventions to the nation’s flagship institution, the College of the Bahamas, the question of the value of this institution, now soon to be a university, has been dwarfed by the misdirection and downright doublespeak of policymakers, and the multitude of failures by the institution’s leadership in this time of crisis.
There is no singular, universally agreed upon treatise on the purpose of the university. In the so called Third World, institutions of higher learning have a reputation for exalting form over function, mimicking their counterparts in the developed world instead of catering to the needs of the communities of which they are apart.
Governments in the first world have begun to focus heavily on funding math and science programs in the hopes that this will help to fuel greater commercial innovation. Students seem to mostly see a university degree as merely a career boost-- getting a degree means getting a better job which ultimately means a more comfortable life.
Steven Schwartz, Vice Chancellor at Brunel University, suggests that these utilitarian perspectives of the purpose of a university is a function of moral abandonment. “We have put so much emphasis on [the economic] aspect of our activities that the government now believes that universities exist mainly to bolster the economy.”
I believe that while the contribution of the university to the economy is an important one, there is a higher purpose. Instead of taking a utilitarian view, I want to reflect on words of Wendell Berry, an American scholar, economic critic, activist and farmer. He says, “The thing being made in a university is humanity...what universities, at least the public-supported ones, are mandated to make or to help to make is human beings in the fullest sense of those words — not just trained workers or knowledgeable citizens but responsible heirs and members of human culture.”
This is no doubt a tall order. Berry is suggesting that the purpose of a university is not to pump out citizens that fit neatly into the cogs of society’s machinery, but that the products of a university should be stewards of culture and country, that they should be able to exercise the full scope of their humanity.
As I interpret it, students must not only be trained in their field of study, they must also be able sort through difficult problems, work together, innovate, be attuned to issues of social justice, understand their history and engage with their intellectual, political, social and cultural selves in the complex world around them.
This requires critical thinking, the ability to communicate clearly, a deep appreciation for their economic and socio-political context and a desire to be a transformative part of their society.
Can we say the College of the Bahamas is place where our young people can live this experience? Does the culture of the institution reflect a movement toward this higher purpose? If not, what kind of human, what kind of Bahamian are we fashioning at the College of the Bahamas?
One need only take a look at how the college has handled the reduction in subventions to answer these questions.
Here is an institution with a vibrant student union, with faculty who, for the most part, seem invested in the development of their students, and a staff that is dedicated to the college. Yet, this is also an institution where access to information is restricted, questions are discouraged, conformity is rewarded and innovation is absent.
What kind of university does not fight for its public funding but instead bends to the will of a government that is set on reactionary austerity-- thoughtless slash and burn economic policy that does not consider the value of a true investment in education?
What kind of university willingly conspires with the very policymakers who would starve it, who would have us believe there would be no raise in tuition and, in act of political prestidigitation, increases “non-tuition fees” instead?
What kind of university would then engage its stakeholders mere hours before submitting a budget that shifts the burden of debt to the students, not taking into consideration the suggestion of its stakeholders to raise or save funds, failing to provide access to the documents necessary for informed decision making and then call this “doing their due diligence to consult with the college community’?
What can we gather about this soon-to-be university, whose leadership team has resisted at almost every turn the voice of the community, who has fostered an environment of frustration, low morale, and division; who can walk around a campus that is falling apart and who seem comfortable with the inadequate resources available to those whose interests they should be serving?
I know that for many, the increase in non-tuition fees is nothing compared to tuition in the United States and students should be happy that a college education in the Bahamas is still cheap. For those who believe this you should be careful; your privilege is showing.
Economic inequality in this country has led to a growing underclass for whom COB’s “cheap” tuition is still burdensome. As Alison Lowe makes clear in her Tribune article, “The Bahamas is becoming Increasingly Unequal,” after 1999 there is a clear negative trend that shows the gap between the poorest and wealthiest Bahamians is growing.
Besides, why use the U.S. as an example? Americans have been trying to make sense of Finland’s educational success but seem to keep ignoring a key factor. Finland’s Minister of Education, Pasi Sahlberg, points out that one of the most significant things about Finland’s educational system is that no school, from kindergarden to the PhD level, is allowed to charge tuition. All institutions are publicly funded. Finland ranks higher than the United States and most of the world in its students’ math, reading and science competencies.
"What kind of
university does not fight for its public funding but instead bends to
the will of a government that is set on reactionary austerity--
thoughtless slash and burn economic policy that does not consider the
value of a true investment in education?"
We’re a small country and this may seem impossible for us to do. You may even be aware that our government spends more on education than on anything else in its budget. However, compared to other government’s we’re already being sold short.
COB’s subvention is 13% of recurrent expenditure on education. W. Fielding’s research shows that this figure in Jamaica is 20%, in the US it’s 26% and in Barbados, with a smaller population and gross domestic product, it’s 30.2%. Barbados also ranks high globally when it comes to education.
Our government spends more per inmate in Fox Hill prison than it does on COB students, while only 6.4% of inmates in prison have a college education. Something about this should tell you that our priorities need a little adjusting.
The clear neglect by our government, however, is not the point of this article, it is the response of the college that is even more disturbing.
The college, as an institution, has been a passive participant in its underfunding. It has opted to pass the burden off to students instead of showing the country how to channel intellectual resources to find a solution to this serious problem. It has literally shut out its stakeholders, circled the wagons, occluded any attempt at democratic decision making and cannibalized what ever fighting spirit it had in exchange for less of what was already too little.
This does not speak to the higher purpose of the university and this is not the character of an institution that should prepare students to be the “heirs and members of human culture.” This is an institution that makes it clear that fighting for what is most certainly right is futile.
What we have is an institution that shows a disregard for the needs of those it should serve.
This is an institution that has failed to purposefully use its resources, an institution that professes a focus on innovation, community engagement and service but operates within confines of a suffocating autocracy.
By the way, this should all sound familiar to you. Successive governments of the Bahamas share these same character flaws and so it is no wonder Bahamians are so comfortable with this abusive relationship-- they’ve learned well.
So while the institution may be failing its stakeholders, the stakeholders have taken the fate of their institution into their own hands. They’ve joined together-- they’ve protested, wrote letters, questioned policymakers and challenged the silence and indifference of the institution’s leadership.
If we are to think of our students as heirs, the future stewards of Bahamian society, then we should proud of the fight they’ve put on to protect what is important to them.
This makes me hopeful that despite the shortcomings of the institution they fight for perhaps new and different lessons are being learned. Chief among these should be that education is a right not a privilege, it should be affordable for all and this is something worth fighting for.
Joey Gaskins is
a graduate of Ithaca College, Ithaca, NY with a BA in Politics. He was
born in Grand Bahama Island, studied at the London
School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) where he attained
his MSc in Race, Ethnicity and Post-Colonial Studies and has begun a
Doctoral Degree in Sociology. Joey lives in Nassau and is a part-time lecturer at College of the Bahamas. He also writes for
and The Tribune.
You can reach him at
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