Posted: Monday, February 7, 2022. 3:25 pm CST.
Тhе vіеwѕ ехрrеѕѕеd іn this аrtісlе аrе those оf the writer аnd nоt nесеѕѕаrіlу those оf Вrеаkіng Веlіzе Nеwѕ or the Institution he serves.
By Dorian A. Barrow, Ph.D., Florida State University: The Consortium For Belize Educational Cooperation (COBEC) might well be a unique organization among higher education collaborations. It includes all the significant level tertiary-level institutions in Belize and most US higher education institutions engaged with projects in Belize. COBEC has been in existence since the late 1980s. The mission has remained that the US Universities would help Belize with the formation of its higher education policies, the strengthening and growth of the tertiary education sector, and building of human capacities to deliver higher education services in the nation. At the time of its conception in 1989, apart from the University College of Belize (UCB) and the University of the West Indies (UWI), higher education in Belize is comprised of a handful of two-year institutions and so in return Belize would formally support the US University partners to recruit students to complete their other two years of their degree programs at COBEC Institutions at in-State tuition rates. Additionally, US Institutions had preferential access to carry out joint research in the field of education with Belizean institutions and to implement collaborative projects in Belize for which they obtain State and Federal funding to carry out.
Though the impact in human capacity building among those who teach in the higher education sector in Belize and providing in-State tuition for many Belizean students has been significant and visible, the impacts in the other two areas have been slight or barely visible. The current question is, therefore, with the Belize higher education complex having much greater capacity to offer Bachelor’s and some Master’s degree programs whether or not COBEC as originally conceived should be allowed to continue with its current mission or should it now be revisited to allow for a better fit between the new realities facing higher education in Belize and the vision and mission of COBEC? In his speech at this year’s COBEC conference in Benque, the Minister of Education, the Honorable Francis Fonseca, seem to strongly believe that the time and space is right for a new COBEC.
Fonseca’s message to the COBEC Conference delegates was blunt: Belize’s higher education system has been in crisis for a long time. Crisis in quality. Crisis in Access. But most importantly crisis in equity. It is therefore now time ‘for COBEC to move beyond information sharing and to join the National Framework’ that is regional and global in its reach, designed to increasing access to quality higher education for all. So, the question that I raise in this piece is this: Is the Minister correct in his assessment and has COBEC in its current formulation outgrown its usefulness in Belize?
Though some the higher education sector thinks otherwise, my preliminary answer to this question is yes, it is time for COBEC to be re-aligned, but this can only be done in a sustainable way if the COBEC US Institutions, The Ministry of Education, the University of Belize, ATLIB, UWI and Galen University meet to formulate a new vision and mission for the COBEC Alliance. A ministerial decree alone, though helpful, simply won’t cut it, as too much cleansing and purifying is required. The medieval Roman Catholic Doctrine would compare higher education in Belize today as being in that place they called purgatory – that place between heaven and hell where the soul goes to for cleansing and purification. The good thing about this purgatory construct is that purgatory is a place where imagined souls experience ‘joy as well as pain!’ After all purgatory isn’t the outermost room of hell, but rather the ante-room of heaven and every soul in purgatory is bound for glory, which makes the stay a joyful pain. So education in a purgatorial state is not all bad, even though you have difficulty remembering your past.
Tertiary level institutions in Belize are facing unexpected change in circumstances that threatens their ways of working or even their existence. These include quality education, budget for education, affordability of education, dropout rate, mismatch, brain drain, social divide, lack of facilities, as well as barriers to a quality education workforce, learning loss and widening academic gaps, existing systemic inequalities and well as barriers to demonstrate meaningful growth and change. For example, our tertiary institutions have been under lockdown for almost two years, with students having access to only online instruction, while most of the COBEC US Institutions have opened up to face-to-face instruction from the Fall of 2021. Furthermore, the Belize higher education scene today is radically different from what it was in 1989 when COBEC was established. Now we have 10 junior colleges, and four major local universities including Saint John’s College Junior College (SJCJC) that is now a fully fledged degree granting 4-year college. Belize over the last 32 years have developed the capacity to offer 4-year degree to most of its citizens in some core fields of study, though the country lags behind in offering degree programs in Law, Medicine and Engineering.
But collaboration and capacity building in the latter three areas are not within the current terms of cooperation and so COBEC urgently needs to expand its focus beyond education and teacher training to these new high demand areas. Additionally, a lot more focus must now placed on the areas of postgraduate teaching and research. The collaborative research record on COBEC has been one-sided and spotty at best and therefore much more effort and focus must be given to ‘advancing the professionalization of Belizean Higher Education’ and to encourage ‘study abroad programs in Belize’. So although a lot has been done over the past 32 years to strengthen collaboration among all COBEC institutions, much more needs to be done to assist Belizean institutions in meeting accreditation criteria, especially in the fields of law, medicine and engineering.
But as they say in purgatory cleansing and purification doesn’t happen immediately, as it is a state where the education systems need to be cleansed of their ‘sins’ before entering heaven. But our education system cannot remain in this state for eternity. We must get out before Pope Francis, according to Scaffari, makes good on his promise “to abolish the places where souls can go after death: hell, purgatory, heaven”.
Feel free to challenge any or all of the claims made in this essay and let’s get the national dialogue on the future and relevance of COBEC going.
Dr. Dorian Barrow is currently working at Galen University as the Dean of the Department of Education. He has a long history of involvement in education in Belize, having served as a Lecturer at the University of Belize, and as Chief Executive Officer in the Ministry of Education. Dr. Barrow is an eminent professional who is well respected both locally and abroad. He is serving as an editorial member and reviewer of several international reputed journals and has authored many research articles/books related to education. Apart from education, he is also a sports enthusiast.
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