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Point and Counter Point: The State of Higher Education in Belize – Governance, Quality and Access

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Posted: Wednesday, March 30, 2022. 9:51 am 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: According to J. Alexander Bennett, a formal and systemic approach to Higher Education in Belize had its origins around 1979, with the formation of the Belize College of Arts, Science, and Technology (BELCAST). Though Bennett quickly adds that higher education institutions such as The Belize Teachers College, The Bliss School of Nursing, The Belize College of Agriculture, The Belize Technical College, St. John’s College 6th Form, Wesley College 6th Form, St. Michael’s College 6th Form, to name a few, “…existed in Belize long before 1979, but they were singular, independent institutions each with their own unique singular mission and vision”, as oppose to being apart of a National Higher Education System, since such a system, according to Bennett, simply did not exist. So, for the purposes of this essay, I would like to reflect on the evolution of higher education in Belize over the past 40 years. In this essay I would like to focus on the question: how robust is the Higher Education System in Belize after 40 years of evolution?

The purpose of this essay is, therefore, to try to accurately describe the state of higher education in Belize and to identify the most significant opportunities and threats it currently faces, and by listening to some of the voices of some of those significant others in the field, to suggests some possible ways forward.

The questions to be addressed then are: How resilient is the current system of Higher Education in Belize? What are some of the salient opportunities that are presenting themselves and how well are we embracing those opportunities? And what are some of the eminent threats that our higher education system must confront if it is going to blossom and bloom into that citadel of Higher Education System in the region and the world? But before we try to answer these questions, it might be instructive to try and describe what currently persists in the Higher Education Sector in Belize.

First of all, the Higher Education Sector in Belize is a relatively small one, with about 8,000 -10,000 students at any one time, doing mostly Associate Degrees, and Bachelor’s Degrees, in the ten Junior Colleges and three local universities (The University of Belize (UB), Galen University, and The University of the West Indies Open Campus), with a few others pursuing certificates, diplomas and a handful of master’s degree programs. This represents a participation rate of about 20% of the age-cohort in our current higher education system. Incidentally, developed nation status requires about 55% of the age cohort to be actively involved in the higher education system of a developed nation state. According to the Ministry of Economic Development, 86% of current university educated workforce in the country, have associates, bachelors, and master’s degrees in business administration, with the miniscule 14% with all the other higher education qualifications including teachers, nurses, medical doctors, lawyers and engineers!

This is not in sync with the current labor market demands of the country. According to Dr Osman Martinez, CEO of the Ministry of Economic Development and former Economist at Galen University, the country’s current labor market needs includes expertise in project management, procurement specialists, logistics and supply chain managers, experts in digitization (computer technology), experts in monitoring and evaluation, Big Data and Business Analytics, Developmental Specialist, Research and Development Specialists in specific areas such as science and technology, medical and allied health professionals, large scale scientific agriculturalists and agri-business personnel, lawyers, surveyors, and engineers. Clearly from a labor market demand perspective the higher education system in the country is failing us badly!

But there are other structural and functional challenges that our current system of higher education faces. In a recent conversation I had with three prominent leaders in higher education in the country viz. Dr Cynthia Aird (Provost of Galen University), Dr. Cynthia Thompson (current Chair-person of the Belize Board of Teacher Education) and Dr Karen Martinez (Dean of the Ecumenical Junior College), they pointed out some of the gaps in our current Higher Education System. By gaps we mean the differences between what is needed and what currently pertains. These breaches include gaps in the Governance Structure, gaps in the Quality and Relevance of the products (the graduates) that the system is producing and the many challenges those eligible students have in Accessing our Higher Education System. They indicated that there is an urgent need for a formal Higher Education Legal Framework, as there is little or no rules in place to guide how the higher education system should work.

They also indicated that there is an urgent need for the establishment of a National Certification Framework and a Quality Assurance mechanism that would set and monitor standards for program development and program delivery. That there is an urgent need for Strategic Collaboration among the fourteen (14) higher education institutions in the country. Finally, they pointed out that there is an urgent need for more “planned chaos and bounded instability” in the delivery of the higher education curriculum and much greater emphasis must be placed on “Equity of Access” to include much more of our marginalized citizenry.

The long and short of it is this: though there has been some motion in the development of the Higher Education Sector in the Country, the sector continues to face formidable challenges with having in place a clearly articulated governance structure, with issues of guaranteed consistent quality, and most importantly with limited access, especially for the prospective students coming from the most disadvantaged house holds and communities. So, what are some of the things that could be done now to turn things around?

It clear that organizations like The Association of Tertiary Level Institutions of Belize (ATLIB) will have to step up and become a much stronger and more forceful advocate to the Government of Belize to put in place the legal higher education governance framework, including policies on higher education in how the country is going to be financing the system. Furthermore, more planned chaos and bounded instability are needed from our higher education instructors to attract and retain more students, especially those students coming from marginalized communities. But most importantly, more ‘strategic collaboration’ is urgently needed among the current fourteen (14) Tertiary Level Institutions operating in the country. Only then will we begin to see the type of movement in our Higher Education Sector that will help to propel it towards the type of sustainable development that the country longs for and deserves.

Feel free to use the column below to challenge any or all the issues raised in the piece above, and let’s get the conversation on Higher Education in Belize 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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