'Attempt at payback deal over missing COB $12,000' | The Tribune

ATTEMPTS were made to broker a deal with a College of the Bahamas employee to pay back $12,000 that disappeared from the college, The Tribune understands.#However, the funds were not recovered despite efforts by officials to resolve the problem internally because the employee refused to reimburse the College, insiders told this newspaper.#While both the student union and the employee union have made several calls for answers, sources at COB question how such a large sum of money could have “just gone missing.”via 'Attempt at payback deal over missing COB $12,000' | The Tribune.

The fundamental issue here, as far as I'm concerned, is the excessive centralization of administrative activities at the college, and the concomitant lack of transparency of these activities. Theft happens everywhere, but when all funds are held centrally without oversight or accountability, it becomes untethered money, money that seems to have no real purpose (or money whose dispensation is at the mercy of a handful of people who have limited connection to the primary work of the institution). That kind of situation tends to invite dishonesty.I'm glad the theft was discovered. I trust that the result of that discovery is far more than a forensic audit. I anticipate a solution of the sort that obtains in almost every other tertiary level institution beyond the postcolonial world: the decentralization of authority and the ability of individual departments to disburse funds without going through a single, central office one or two steps removed from the work we need to do.

Bahamas@40 Envisioning our (underwater) Future:

Climate ChangeI've already blogged briefly about last week's conference, and how stimulating it was, how worthwhile. I want to take some time now to talk about the things that stayed with me, things that changed me. We're a nation that doesn't talk much, or even think much, about how ideas, how thinking itself, can change people. We tend to spend a lot of time talking about feelings (if you don't believe me, just pay attention to the next time someone with a grievance is interviewed on TV and count how many time they use the term "I feel" and compare it with the number of times they use "I think") and even more time clamouring about the (re)actions those feelings produce, like the slap heard round the Bahamas (and discussed in more glowing terms, with less reflection and more vigour than any physical violence has the right to be) or the lawsuit about, of all things, the "right" of students to have a graduation ceremony.The talk that impacted me the most, I think, the one that made me think differently about myself, about my country and its future was last Wednesday evening's plenary on sustainable living. The two talks were very different in focus, but the message of them both was the same: we are at the mercy of decision-makers who do not take our needs into consideration, who play at running this archipelago of islands with more than local significance without really taking the time to understand what it is they are making decisions about. Margo Blackwell's talk about climate change, Andros and our Bahamian future ("I seriously have to ask," she said (I'm paraphrasing), "whether we will be here forty years from now") pushed me to think about just that—whether The Bahamas will be around one hundred years hence. The sea levels of the world are rising. Coasts are eroding. Our nation is among the top ten countries in the world most at risk of disappearing beneath the ocean, but for the past twenty years the philosophy of our governments has been to abdicate all responsibility for sensible development and civic duty in favour of 1980s policies of liberalization, commodification of Bahamian land, and greed.The second half of the evening, the talk given by Richard Stoffle on sustainable development, how it's expensive and time-consuming but really the only way to ensure the best outcome for the changes we want or need to see in our nation, was more familiar territory for me, but was no less life-changing. He revealed, for instance, how the Four Seasons development in Exuma was environmentally devastating to that most beautiful of all our islands: how the demands of the two golf courses broke the freshwater lens that provided Exumians with potable water and how people now have to buy all their drinking water, the way we do in Nassau; how the garbage produced by the resort has nowhere to accommodate it and so how it is simply being dumped in a blue hole, and how, had the government taken the time to involve the Exumians themselves in discussions about development, jobs and the rest, a very different scenario might have resulted, one that might have a chance of long-term success (no offence to Sandals, but how many people really believe that the Four Seasons experiment is going to survive?).The podcast of that evening is here.If you listen to it, remember that this talk, which has changed the way I think about us and our life, was ignored because on that very same day one MP slapped another and every talk show discussed that event, so fleeting, so symbolic and reinforcing of all that is wrong with our nation, and ignored this conversation that might help us think more constructively and urgently about what we need to do right.

Bahamas@40: the College of The Bahamas' Fortieth Anniversary Conference

It happened last week. From Wednesday to Friday, a modest number of Bahamians attended the Bahamas@40 Conference mounted by the School of Social Sciences. The full title of the conference wasThe Bahamas at Forty: Reflecting on the Past, Envisioning the Futureand the three days of sessions did just that.First of all, put aside your preconceptions and prejudices about our local university. Never mind that our governments (none of them) haven't yet seen fit to recognize and enshrine our university's status, or that your perception of the college is of a glorified high school, or that you haven't been on campus either since you graduated (whether that was graduating from GHS pre 1975 or graduating from COB pre 2000). Never mind that you might still have stuck in your head that this is a place where people go to do A levels or Pitman exams or their Associates' Degrees. Do me a favour as you read this post and assume just for a moment that the College of The Bahamas is a university—because it is.Second, bookmark this site, because I'm going to use it to share some of the sessions. If you didn't get to the conference, I'm sorry, but several of the sessions were broadcast live over the internet and several of them are available as podcasts.Third, check out this link for the full outline of the sessions:Bahamas@Forty ScheduleAnd check back later for more discussion.Yes, I'm always running to go somewhere.  

The College of The Bahamas, COBUS, and a crisis of vision

Over the past several weeks, the College of The Bahamas Union of Students has worked tirelessly to resist the college's proposal to raise fees in response to proposed government cutbacks in subvention.

Their work has included attempts to meet or speak with senior administration, with the college council, with the minister of education, and with the minister of state for finance. Their most recent press release may be found here; I encourage those people who may be quick to dismiss the students for their passion to read it, as it will show you another side of them, and may encourage us to treat them with the respect that is due to adults who are legitimately questioning their rights to participate in our democracy and their place in our society.

To Pay or Not to Pay Tuition

I will be the first person to say that, given the fact that our society has decided that the only education offered freely to its citizens is that which stops at the secondary level, I am not opposed to the principle of raising tuition. Here are my reasons.

A powerpoint presentation recently uploaded to the COB website provides a history of tuition increases over the college's 39 years of existence. In the beginning, the government was the primary subsidizer of tertiary-level education. Fees were never non-existent, but until 1998, they were a mere $25 per credit hour. The result was the persistent underfunding of the institution, as until 1995 that money was released through the Ministry of Education, presumably through Budget Head 39, which can be viewed here. In 1998, recognizing the move to university and the development of bachelor's degree courses, the college raised tuition over the course of three years from the $25 per credit hour to the present $100 per credit hour for lower-level (100-200) courses, and $150 per credit hour for upper-level (300-400) courses.

No other increases in tuition have been applied since 2000. Students today still study for the same cost as students in 2000, but the purchasing power of the Bahamian dollar today is worth only 80¢ of the 2000 dollar. The tuition increase originally proposed by the college administration (from $100 to $120 per credit hour) can be seen as merely making up for that lost revenue. But that is not all. Not only does the 2013 Bahamian dollar buy 20% less than the 2000 dollar, what students get for that price is considerably more than what students got in 2000. Tuition for the college has not increased in that time, but what is provided to the students has consistently been expanded over the past 13 years. Improvements include (but aren't limited to, as they're off top of my head):

  • The acquisition and renovation of the Michael Eldon Building

  • The creation of Chapter One Bookstore

  • The renovation of the Performing Arts Centre

  • The construction of the Bandshell

  • The construction of the Wellness Centre and gym

  • The construction of the HCM library

  • The installation of WIFI (at least at the Oakes Field campus)

  • The installation of multimedia in the majority of the classrooms

  • The air-conditioning of classrooms

  • The acquisition of the property earmarked for the Wilson Business Centre

  • The construction and building of the Northern Bahamas Campus

  • The introduction of BA programmes in every faculty of the college

  • The introduction of master's degrees offerings

  • The expansion of course offerings across the board

  • The installation of PowerCampus/Self-Service to improve registration woes

  • The refurbishment of the existing dorms

  • The hiring of PhDs

  • The granting of study leave to faculty to pursue doctorates

  • Faculty reclassification and salary increases

  • The conducting of and the investment in ongoing Bahamian research

  • The establishment of college varsity teams and athletic scholarships

  • The establishment of the Small Island Sustainability programme

Given the fact that these improvements have taken place while the fee structure has remained exactly the same, that recurrent costs across the board have increased along with these improvements, and that students in 2013 are getting considerably more for their credit dollar than the students did in 2000, I can see the rationale behind the increase. All things being equal, I would even support it, even though I am theoretically persuaded by arguments that tertiary level education is worth being fully subsidised by our government. My pragmatic perspective in this country at this point in time recognizes that our culture, so heavily influenced by the USA, tends to devalue those things that we do not pay for; on the contrary, the more we pay for something here in The Bahamas, the more we tend to respect it.

To Pay or Not to Pay Incidental Fees

That said, however, I do not support the principle of raising incidental fees in an attempt to recover costs.

In the first place, student amenities at the college are sub-standard, even with all the improvements; in the same period of time, although the investment in tuition and the quality of education has improved, changes in student life have been mixed. Students have lost their access to much of the Student Union Building, some of which has been repurposed as offices; there is no on-campus cafeteria and students have to purchase their food from the fast food franchises that flourish around the campus; while the dorms have been upgraded, they have not been expanded; there are no student lounges or interior spaces in which people can gather and relax or rejuvenate; communications with the student body is difficult, as student emails are so unreliable that virtually none of the students use them and there is no central congregating place where notices can be shared and discussions held. In all, the approach to student life at COB is still far more in keeping with that of a fancy high school than that of a university.

In the second place, the pervading attitude towards students on campus appears to be that they are a necessary evil—or, to use more gentle language, that they are simply overgrown, misbehaving high-schoolers who should be seen and not heard, and who should be deferential to their elders, accepting of whatever treatment is meted out to them, unquestioning of inefficiencies, and uncritical of mediocrity. Unlike the quality of the education provided at the College (which is, against all odds, high—and some of the best value for money in the hemisphere), the quality of student (and faculty) life is low. To ask students to pay additional fees without addressing these shortcomings is asking a bit much.

Higher Education and the Bahamian Nation

I said above that all things being equal, I would support an increase in tuition fees. For example, if that increase was linked to the College's full and legal transition to university status, I would have no quarrel with the proposal. But it is not. It is a desperate move on the part of a college administration faced with drastic and untenable cuts to its subvention to find ways to maintain the services currently being offered.

So to me, the real question is whether or not The Bahamas as a whole, and its representative, the government, sees any real value in Bahamian tertiary-level education. As with most other things, the lip-service is certainly paid. In his mid-year budget communication to Parliament this year, the Minister of Education reiterated his ministry's "commitment" to COB's university status:

The transition of the College of The Bahamas to University status is a national imperative. This remains an important and fundamental objective of my Ministry and by extension the Government of The Bahamas. We share the collective belief that we cannot have any expectations for a progressive nation if we do not provide the means for higher learning and scholarship reflective of successful, progressive and first world countries.

But these are just words. I should like at least to raise the question of our nation's investment—or lack thereof—in higher education on the whole. As many have said before me, there is something fundamentally visionless and absurd about the government's proposed reduction of the COB subvention. While the government itself is faced with the need to reduce its own expenditure by the 25%-over-two-years that it is passing onto its agencies, it is not making those cuts across the board; certain agencies have been deemed to be exempt. That the College of The Bahamas, poised by promise on the verge of the university status that the government has yet to grant it, is not also exempt speaks volumes to the place of the intellect in Bahamian society, and to the real commitment of the government to Bahamian university education.

Consider the following facts.

  • The government's subvention to the College stands at just under $25,000,000 for 2012-2013 ($24,994,543, to be exact). There are 4884 students enrolled.

    • This is approximately $5100 per student.

    • This is approximately $70 per capita.

    • The government's budget for the prison is just over $23,000,000 for 2012-2013 ($23,036,978, to be exact). There are 1,550 inmates.

      • This is approximately $14,863 per inmate.

      • This is approximately $64 per capita.

      • The government's total expenditure on education (including the Department of Education, the Bahamas Technical and Vocational Institute, the Ministry of Education and the College of The Bahamas) is $281,503,462.

      • According to both the World Bank and the IDB, the greatest single obstacle to doing business in The Bahamas is the lack of an educated workforce. Worse yet, businesses in The Bahamas were almost 3 times as likely to make that observation than other nations in the Latin American and Caribbean region. Given the fact that 61.8% of the Bahamian population has a high school education, the problem is at the tertiary level.

      • COB's budget subvention of $24,994,543 is 8.9% of the government's overall budget for education. If we add in BTVI's $5,641,622, this brings the percentage spent on local tertiary level education by the Bahamas government to 11%.

        • Barbados spends 41% of its annual education budget on tertiary level education.

          • Jamaica spends 20% of its annual education budget on tertiary level education.

          • Trinidad and Tobago spends 22% of its annual education budget on tertiary level education.

These facts, together with the relative lack of outrage about the government's proposal to cut COB's subvention, suggest that the Bahamian government, together with the society that supports it, does not in fact take the idea of Bahamian higher education seriously at all. What the College of The Bahamas is being asked to do, at the same time as it is being moved to university status, is to cut just under $6.25 million from its current budget over the next 2 years. This is to be done "without any reduction in quality and level of services to the public". Now consider this.

  • 70%, or some $35 million, of COB's current budget goes to pay personal emoluments. (Contrary to popular belief, the College employs more than just faculty; this percentage covers all the people who work at the college.)

  • This leaves $8.75 million (assuming salaries remain exactly the same as they are today--i.e. no promotions, no increments, no further investment in PhDs, etc) to provide what is currently costing the college $15 million to provide.

Sleight of hand and double-speak aside, what the government has just demanded the college do is carry water in a sieve. Do I object to the raising of fees for tertiary education? In principle, no. But when this is the only way in which the services currently provided can hope to be maintained, I am left with grave and serious questions about the proposal indeed.

Joey Gaskins: How Not to Be A University: Lessons from the College of the Bahamas Playbook

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.”via thebahamasweekly.com - How Not to Be A University: Lessons from the College of the Bahamas Playbook.

thebahamasweekly.com - COBUS: "Let's Build a University Where Students are Afforded Quality Education at Low Cost"

This is worth reading from beginning to end: thebahamasweekly.com - COBUS Press Statement.The press in general has focussed on one small part of the document, that relating to the House of Assembly; the original title of this document online is "COBUS: 'Would like an apology from the Speaker of the House and Royal Bahamas Police Force'", but that is only part of the concerns of this press release. The refusal by the RBPF to admit members of the College of The Bahamas Union of Students to enter the House of Assembly (doubly ironic, given the fact that that day's proceedings were dedicated to Sir Randol Fawkes, the father of the labour movement in The Bahamas and a supporter of all unions) puts broader issues of democracy into question, and it is those issues that are at stake here, not the relatively trivial call for an apology. The apology is incidental. The question is the value we place on the young adults in our society who have chosen to educate themselves at home,, and the value we place on their place in our so-called democracy.In regard to that issue, here is what the President-Elect, Alphonso Major, had to say:

We have many questions about what that transpired that day: what laws gives them police such authority to pick and choose who enters into the House of Assembly? How exactly were we a threat? Who exactly was in danger? Or is the crux of the matter simply that any time a group of educated College students assembles to stand up for something within this country, they are immediately perceived as a threat that must be contained. Even if there was intent to disrupt the proceedings which we maintain we did not have, Members of Parliament disrupt each other all the time within the House of Assembly - why aren’t they being denied access to the proceedings?Is this still a democratic nation that we live in where fundamental rights apply? -- Alphonso Major, President-Elect

But that was not all that transpired at the press conference. Indeed, the meat of this release treats the proposed cuts in subvention to the College and the resultant raising of fees. If you are not a student at the College of The Bahamas, I challenge you to read the whole thing before you come to any conclusion.Some of the highlights, for me:

In the absence of substantiated data, it is our goal to bring these inefficiencies to your attention, and to show all that a solution can be found through our critical assessment and assistance by providing practical, logical solutions, not as idealists: rather as students who recognizes the direction where we as a College should beheading and who wish to insure our futures within the nation as a whole, even before we consider transitioning to University. -- Donovan Harding, PR Director-ElectLet us build a University together one where students are afforded a quality education at low to no cost! We must build on the 21st Century learning skills with the technology and resources that are needed to move the country’s level of education from the bottom of the list to the top with Barbados, Singapore and Finland. -- Ernesto Williams, outgoing COBUS President

Once again, go read it. The whole thing. I challenge you.