Small island states, which are increasingly vulnerable to global problems, need to have their universities play a stronger role in national development. "A small island nation has limited tools for driving its own development," said Janyne Hodder, former president of the College of the Bahamas and an administrative board member of the International Association of Universities, at the OECD's 2010 higher education conference, Higher Education in a World Changed Utterly: Doing more with less.
"One of the tools, however, must be the overall level of education and skill of its population."
Speaking at the Institutional Management in Higher Education general conference, held in Paris from 13-15 September, Hodder said there was a case for "tying national development to the development of national institutions", given the specific problems that many small island nations face.
Such problems include increases in crime, economies buffeted by the global financial crisis, the effects of climate change and a labour force currently unqualified for a rapidly changing market.
The Bahamas, with a population of 350,000 people, had 59 murders up to August of this year, for instance. In 2009 there were 87 murders throughout the archipelago, an annual rate that has doubled in five years. Most involve young people, and mostly men, who are now outnumbered at university by women by a ratio of three-to-one, Hodder said.
"We now have a situation where higher-educated young women who have access to jobs are dating lower-educated young men with access to none," she commented.
A recent Unesco report echoed this concern. The Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2010 said the Caribbean and Latin America was the only developing region in which "it is the boys who are being left behind in both general secondary and technical and vocational education".
The rising crime rate on the islands is one consequence of this situation. Another is unemployment, which now stands at around 14% in the Bahamas, according to official statistics.
The Bahamian economy, based primarily on tourism and financial services, is greatly dependent on the North American economy. Like its Caribbean neighbours, the country has experienced a drop in foreign visitors and foreign investment over the past two years.
"The general sense in the country is that poverty, inadequate educational success and the lack of long-term goals and hope are fuelling crime," Hodder said.
"As the highest level of criminal activity is to be found within the young adult age group, it is reasonable to assume that there are not nearly enough well-paying jobs to absorb this unskilled labour force - one whose salary expectations are relatively high for the region," she added.
Faced with these issues, both government policy-makers and higher education officials were trying to find solutions, but there seemed to be an "absence of a clear vision" about the future.
"The first challenge is to successfully make the case that policy attention must be given to planning a long-term strategy of economic and social development founded on education, research and innovation," Hodder said.
This summary could easily apply to other states in the Caribbean, as universities struggle to redefine their roles and to assist in national development, according to analysts.
Still, the Caribbean and Latin America do "continue to lead all other developing regions in progress towards Education for All", according to the Unesco report.
But it pointed out that "many of the gains made towards Education for All and other human development goals are under threat from the global economic downturn".
A further issue facing higher-education experts in the Bahamas and the wider Caribbean is how to increase the number of high school students who are prepared for university. In general, only about 9% of 15-19 year-olds in the Bahamas "obtained the necessary qualifications for direct entry into college" based on census figures for 2000, Hodder said.
"Concern over the educational attainment of high school leavers is a major matter of public policy debate," she added. "While successive governments and ministers have attempted to address this issue, it is not clear that there is an effective long-term integrated strategy that ties educational attainment to national prosperity and invests in it accordingly."
In the absence of reliable data, "it is estimated that more than 50% of young people between the ages of 15 and 19 who have left high school have no qualifications at all," she said.
This is an alarming problem for government, given that both the financial services and the tourism sectors are changing and will need employees with higher levels of skill.
With climate change, innovation will be required in the areas of eco-tourism, solar energy and marine sciences, for instance. But the Bahamas and many other islands currently have to rely on overseas experts in these fields.
"Simply responding to the educational needs of an existing labour market no longer seems to be adequate for planning long-term prosperity in a very rapidly changing world," Hodder said. "The changing global context suggests that sustainable development...will require the creation of new labour market opportunities in addition to continued service to existing labour market needs."
With this in mind, the College of the Bahamas has created new degrees in small island sustainability, pharmacy and marine sciences.
Continued development of an academic programme "requires a vision built on the premise that the best future for a small island nation will be different from its post-independence path for reasons that have more to do with the global economy than with national policy," Hodder said.
But like many other higher education institutions attending the OECD conference, with its theme of 'Doing More with Less', the College of the Bahamas has seen its government funding reduced and will have to find inventive ways to realise its vision.
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