The pandemic has wreaked havoc on the Caribbean, inflicting massive economic damage, with many countries in the region at risk of becoming COVID-19 economic long-haulers. Recovery from this historic recession is expected to be fragmented and uncertain. It is against this backdrop that the largest and longest-standing higher education provider in the English-speaking Caribbean, the University of the West Indies, provides a glimmer of hope. Recognised as a centre of excellence in research, knowledge creation, and innovation, the UWI is well-positioned to steer the Caribbean’s “build back better” campaign, with private sector partnerships playing a vital role in the next chapter of the UWI story.
Since assuming office in 2015, Vice-Chancellor Sir Hilary Beckles — a distinguished academic and international thought leader — has championed the university’s “reputation revolution” movement. “We wanted to be ranked by the best and most respected ranking agency in the world, Times Higher Education,” says Beckles, “so we studied the pillars on which universities are assessed, and embarked on a three-year journey to fix the university within the context of that matrix, subsequently initiating our first-ever ranking in 2018.” To date, the UWI remains the only university in the English-speaking Caribbean to make the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. Using UNESCO’s base data, the Times impact ranking in fact positions the UWI in the top 2.5 per cent of the best universities globally.
Building on this success, as the university approaches its seventy-fifth anniversary in 2023, it hopes to be well on the way to realising the self-sufficiency goals set out in its ten-year Triple A strategy, founded on three pillars: access, which means increasing participation in higher education for all; agility, creating an entrepreneurial university; and alignment, creating value-added relationships with partners. As Beckles explains, “We are now in the ‘revenue revolution’ phase, where each campus will be required to have a number of bankable commercial projects, which will present opportunities to further partnerships with the private sector. In Trinidad, for instance, by 2022, the St Augustine campus will launch an offshore global medical school. It is anticipated that within three to five years, this project could generate up to twenty-five per cent of the campus’s long-term capital and revenue needs.”
Local investors will be invited to help fund this venture, when the UWI floats a US$60-million bond on the Trinidad and Tobago Stock Exchange. In addition to these project financing opportunities, the UWI also wants to partner with progressive Caribbean entrepreneurs to take innovative products to market. “We want to put our private sector relationships on a more sophisticated sustainable path. The UWI has a massive bank of intellectual property in agriculture, banking, finance, music, and tourism, to name a few, and we are eager to convert this into commercial activity by developing patents,” says Beckles. This time around, however, the university wants to ensure that it remains connected to its IP research.
Historically, the UWI has been at the forefront of pioneering industrialisation research in the Caribbean. In the 1960s and 70s, the Cave Hill campus was among the first to explore solar water heating technology. More recently, after fifty years of leading the climate change agenda, in 2019 the International Association of Universities selected the UWI as its global leader in the mobilisation of research and advocacy for the achievement of a climate-smart world. Funded by the UNDP, the UWI will be the first university to host an institute dedicated completely to climate smart studies. The soft launch of the UWI Global Institute for Climate Smart and Resilient Development is expected to take place soon.
If it is to advance its research agenda, the UWI needs to bring entrepreneurs and researchers together. Beckles is keen to establish commercial and industrial research and innovation parks at each campus. “These parks should be owned and driven by the private sector,” he says. “We will provide the facilities and they will work with our scientists to innovate products. To advance this initiative, we are working with Caribbean governments to develop a framework of incentives to encourage private sector participation in an Innovation and Research Fund, which will drive regional transformation and help convert research into industrial activity.”
Governments in the region are on board, as they get ready to award exclusive commercial licences in a number of new areas to the UWI. “We will be able to establish companies around these licences,” Beckles explains, “and this will trigger the dawn of new business relations between regional governments and the UWI. One area in which our biochemists and biologists can get to work immediately is by applying science and technology to cannabis research, developing cannabis medicinal products to go to market.” If a regional business wants to convert research into entrepreneurial efforts and develop new products, then the university wants to work with them.
There’s already a lot of joint activity taking place between Caribbean governments and the UWI in the area of research and innovation, especially with respect to re-imagining the post-COVID period, and what needs to be done to build the region back better. “The operations of the UWI must align with the strategic plans of the countries in which we operate. We want to help Caribbean countries come to an innovation ecosystem consciousness,” says Beckles. In 2017, the UWI established a partnership with the government of Jamaica to host the Global Tourism Resilience and Crisis Management Centre. Chaired by Jamaica’s Minister of Tourism, this is a transformative tool, which seeks to safeguard and protect the tourism product globally. With the decimation of many tourism-based regional markets due to the pandemic, the work by the centre on innovating tourism products and developing post-COVID marketing strategies is now critical to the re-activation of Caribbean tourism.
This encapsulates Beckles’s vision for how the university’s research should work: it must “leave the faculties and go into the factories” in order to positively impact Caribbean businesses, jobs, and economies. For innovation to take place on a wider scale in the region, the Caribbean needs to have an indigenous private sector committed to research and development. Caribbean countries must also be at a stage of economic development where they are ready for this type of cross-fertilisation.
“We are ready and driven,” says Beckles of the university’s next stage of development, “even more so by the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic. We have to get on with it. It’s a very exciting moment for us — however, we cannot do it alone, which is why the alignment pillar is very important. We can only do this with the support of the governments and a progressive private sector.”