THIS WEEK SIGNALS a significant change for the University of the West Indies (UWI), with a number of new executive positions being filled.

Primary among the moments will be Sir Hilary Beckles’ shift from principal at Cave Hill campus to become the university’s vice chancellor from May 1. He takes up the challenge at a time when the learning and research environment is experiencing change at the speed of cyberspace.

Sir Hilary and his team must recognise their role in assisting the region to build its economies through job creation, entrepreneurship, strengthening of businesses and by undertaking research with meaningful outcomes.

The UWI must embrace the entire society and not only the elite; it must maintain its tradition of facilitating divergent views while staying firm to its mandate of delivering the best education and training.

Technology and access to it could drive the greatest changes at the UWI and its learning environment. This must be understood and embraced to deal with costs – the UWI’s and the public’s biggest concern.

The UWI is not unique among universities worldwide having to deal with reduced support from the public purse. Cost management will therefore be key. The university will have to look more at employers’ needs across the region as economies return to growth. It must therefore understand and respond to workforce needs, competency-based education and credentialing and cost-value comparisons that many potential students will consider given what employers are demanding.

Sir Hilary and his team must therefore expect demands for greater accountability and transparency, so they cannot look to simply present the traditional scorecard of growing student intakes and graduation rates, but must offer a complete picture outlining what is best for students, the region and taxpayers.

Keeping the UWI intact as one institution and not three universities operating under the UWI name may turn out to be one of Sir Hilary’s biggest challenges, given the robust rivalry which has taken place amongst the campuses over the past decade. The duplication and overlapping now evident has come at a price.

At the same time, the shift in student demographics – now older, working part-time, and increasingly using the Internet for their studies – means that assumptions cannot be based on traditional approaches.

The UWI must understand its competition, set new priorities, link programmes to outcomes and rethink infrastructure. Failure to do so could render this week’s manpower changes inconsequential.

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