Implications for the Management of Caribbean Tertiary Institutions Beyond Covid-19

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Chapter And Authors Information

Ron Sookram

Dr. Ron Ryan Sookram is the Academic Director of the Arthur Lok Jack Global School of Business (ALJGSB), The University of the West Indies. Over his 14 years at the Business School, Ron served in various roles including senior member of faculty, Director – Client Solutions, and Deputy Academic Director. Ron has published articles in several international peer-reviewed journals as well as book chapters on corporate governance, corporate responsibility and cultural history. Before joining the ALJGSB, Ron held the position of Senior Research Specialist –Corporate Responsibility and Sustainable Development- at The Energy Chamber of Trinidad and Tobago.
Implications for the Management of Caribbean Tertiary Institutions Beyond Covid-19
From the Edited Volume
Edited By:
Dr. Nicoleta Gaciu
Content

Abstract

This chapter demonstrates that the COVID-19 pandemic served as a catalyst for change in the management of Caribbean tertiary institutions. It provides relevant insights to educational leaders, particularly those operating in developing economy contexts similar to the Caribbean, in building resilient institutions in the post-Covid pandemic era. It argues that the pandemic presented opportunities for management to reengineer and improve institutional operations, program design and delivery as well as student recruitment strategies. The research approach involved an analysis of secondary data on Caribbean tertiary institutions and a case study on one of the region’s leading business schools for empirical data on its response to the pandemic. The findings suggest that the managerial approach to core competence is applicable to improving the competitiveness of institutions and that certain short-term survival management strategies employed during the pandemic may become established practices required for the sustainability of institutions. The key implication is that tertiary institutions in the Caribbean need to restructure their business models to enhance their chances of survival. The study contributes broadly to research on developing economies but specifically informs management practice within the tertiary education sector.

Keywords

Caribbean, tertiary institutions, management, business models, sustainability

Introduction

For the purposes of this study, the Caribbean region refers to the 15 countries which comprise the regional grouping of countries known as the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). These member states are Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, Montserrat (a British overseas territory in the Leeward Islands), Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago. The total population among the 15 countries is more than 18 million. These have all been severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic which forced the physical closure of all educational institutions including colleges and universities in March 2020. With the economic challenges caused by the pandemic, enrolment numbers for tertiary institutions declined because students were unable to pay tuition and other related fees. Lower enrolment rates and the associated challenges with the collection of fees brought further financial constraints that exposed the vulnerabilities and risks to the survival of many tertiary institutions (IDB, 2020). To survive, institutions were forced to reengineer the delivery of courses and programmes as well as administrative and other operational processes. This study examines the key financial, operational and teaching and learning challenges faced by Caribbean tertiary institutions as a result of the pandemic. The corresponding strategies employed to address these challenges are also considered with insights that executives can consider for managing such institutions in the post-pandemic era.

The chapter is organised as follows: the first section gives an overview of the tertiary education landscape in Trinidad and Tobago and the wider region prior to the pandemic while the second outlines the methodological approach employed in the study. The key impacts of the pandemic on the region’s main university, The University of the West Indies (The UWI) are examined in the third section as well as the case of the Arthur Lok Jack Global School of Business (ALJGSB), the leading business school in the region. The long-term implications that senior management should consider as relevant for the sustainability of institutions beyond the pandemic are discussed in the fourth section. In general, the study contributes to research on developing economies and informs management practice within the tertiary education context.

The Tertiary Education Landscape in Trinidad and Tobago Prior to COVID-19

The landscape considered spans the period of rapid growth in higher education between the years 2000 to 2018, followed by a period of decline in the uptake of higher education from 2020 and continuing. In the initial period, there was a growing demand for higher education in the Caribbean. The gross student enrolment rate in higher education increased from 23% to 52% (UNESCO, 2020). Consequently, there was a surge in the number of tertiary institutions to meet this demand. The Caribbean tertiary education sector expanded from being limited to a single predominant regional provider –The UWI – to a multiplicity of private tertiary education institutions. From the perspective of Trinidad and Tobago (TT), the private institutions included the School of Accounting and Management (SAM); the School of Business and Computer Science (SBCS); and CTS College of Business and Computer Science that were essentially franchise operations (Allahar & Sookram, 2018). These franchise institutions established campuses across the country offering online and hybrid programmes in the region (Ali, 2007). In Trinidad and Tobago, for example, 95.56% of the country’s tertiary and post-secondary institutions are privately owned (Ministry of Science, Technology and Tertiary Education, 2010). The high demand for higher education facilitated the development of a lucrative economic market that benefited private providers of such tertiary qualifications (Leo-Rhynie, 2006; Pragg, 2014). Even foreign transnational education (TNE) institutions entered the regional market to offer degree programmes especially the Master of Business Administration (MBA). Most partnered with local private institutions to offer these foreign programmes (Allahar & Sookram, 2018).

The growing demand for tertiary education also amplified the need for governments to prioritise access to their citizens. Consequently, many governments implemented policies and programmes to ease financing for students. Even privately owned institutions benefited from such financial arrangements (Pragg, 2014). In some cases, governments established new colleges and universities. However, the vulnerable nature of the region’s economies made it difficult for governments to sustain spending to provide ongoing access to tertiary education.

With the period of economic decline, the region’s annual GDP growth had languished at 0.4 percent between 2014 and 2019, according to the United Nations Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), straining public sector budgets and forcing painful cuts at state universities. The UWI for example, which depends on regional governments to fund part of its operational costs saw this funding systematically reduced over the years, down from near 80% in 2000 to about 50% by 2020 (UWI News, 2021). In addition, regional governments were also greatly indebted to the UWI for outstanding contributions exacerbating the cash flow situation faced by campuses. Furthermore, private providers also grappled with stagnant incomes that eroded the purchasing power of tuition-paying households (Hershberg et al, 2020).

In addition to the decreasing government allocations to tertiary institutions, there were also reductions in the number of scholarships and study grants awarded to individual students. One of the most ambitious government sponsored initiatives implemented to increase tertiary education access is the Government Assistance for Tuition Expenses (GATE) program in Trinidad and Tobago. Introduced in 2004 GATE was designed to provide Trinidadian students with financial assistance for tertiary-level education. At that time GATE funded 100% of tuition expenses for undergraduate students and up to 50% of tuition expenses for postgraduate students. In 2011, the program was expanded to include technical and vocational training (JSC, 2013). GATE also covered approved programs offered at local and regional public and private institutions. Between 2004 and 2015 the Government of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago expended over TT$5.8 billion dollars (US$892 million), covering programs that ranged from Technical and Vocational Training to PhD studies. In that period over 200,000 students had benefited from the program with an average of approximately 45,0000 students receiving funding annually (GATE Task Force, 2016). The GATE program was a laudable and transformative initiative that significantly impacted the tertiary education landscape of Trinidad and Tobago, particularly with respect to the tertiary participation rate which increased from 8% in 2002 to over 65% in 2015. The level of tertiary participation compares favourably with the rate for developed countries (GATE Task Force, 2016). However, the sustainability of the GATE programme was questioned in an environment of declining revenue and allegations of abuses.

Subsequently, significant changes in conditions to accessing the GATE funding led to a downward trend in student enrolment across institutions in Trinidad and Tobago. In this context, governmental revenue was largely derived from the rents from the energy sector which, up to 2015, contributed 40% of gross domestic product and 90% of government revenues. The precipitous declines in crude oil and natural gas prices from 2014 led to drastic declines in government revenues. Government revenue from petroleum fell from TT$20.9b (US$3.3billion) in 2014 to TT$2.8b (US$430 million) in 2017. This reduction in revenue led to increased debt and reductions in expenditure by the government across many sectors. Given the country’s declining revenues, a restructuring of the GATE program began in 2017. From September 2017, a means test was introduced and funding of graduate students through GATE was reduced from 50% to 25% for those who opted out of the means testing process. With these developments and changes, student enrolment numbers began to decline from 2016 impacting the revenues of all institutions. With the COVID-19 pandemic and the continued decline of government revenues, the GATE program was further restructured by discontinuing funding for all postgraduate programs effective August 2020 (Ministry of Education, 2020). Tertiary institutions were therefore experiencing financial challenges prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Declining revenue because of lower student enrolment, reduced government funding and increased operational costs in a market that was relatively small but highly competitive.

Methodological Approach

The study’s research approach involved: (1) an exploratory phase of identifying, collecting, and analysing relevant themes from secondary literature on Caribbean tertiary institutions in order to gain a deeper understanding of the major management related issues; and (2) a case study, which is a robust research method (Yin, 2013), on the ALJGSB to obtain empirical data on the strategies employed to address the challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The published data were sourced from leading online journals databases and from Internet searches while the empirical data for the case study were obtained from a combination of interviews with senior management and faculty representatives, and student course evaluation surveys that produced contextual insights into the inner operations of the business school.

Impacts of Covid-19 on UWI Operations

The COVID-19 pandemic triggered unprecedented disruptions such as lockdowns, border closures and the physical closure of all schools including tertiary institutions. These measures were critical to reducing the spread of the virus but had devasting effects on the region’s citizens and economies because business transactions relied primarily on in-person interactions (Keith, 2021). Most of the islands of the region depend on the tourism industry as a major source of revenue but this sector was gravely hit by the international, regional, and local travel restrictions implemented. Governments recorded job losses at unprecedented rates in tourism and its associated sectors (Keith, 2021). Classified as small island developing states (SIDS), the region’s economies are highly vulnerable to external shocks. These economic challenges exist against the backdrop of balance-of-payments constraints, recurrent exchange-rate and debt crises, low growth, poverty, and heightened vulnerability to climate change and natural disasters (United Nations, 2020).

In relation to tertiary institutions, Caribbean higher edu­cation executives, like their global counterparts, were not prepared to deal with extended shutdowns like those which emerged in response to the COVID-19 pandemic (International Association of Universities, 2020). The pan­demic resulted in a full transition to working and learning in remote environments. With COVID-19 as a catalyst, executives were required to swiftly get lecturers and staff to engage in a paradigm shift that they would have otherwise taken several years (Keith, 2021). It also spirited an internal shift in institutional structures and has opened dialogue regarding the implications for and the future of higher education (HE) (Hillman, 2020).

However, in shifting to online modalities it was observed that few institutions had robust online systems. Most struggled to pivot to this new normal because the incorporation of information and communication technologies (ICTs) into tertiary education systems in the region has primarily been focused on improving administrative processes rather than pedagogical methods (Ferreyra et al, 2017; Keith, 2021). Nevertheless, while some institutions may have had relatively robust online systems these were previously underutilized for teaching. Faculty and staff, therefore, lacked experience delivering online instruction and assessing students online. Furthermore, many students and faculty lacked access to devices and the internet to connect to online classes remotely, and most had little or no experience using the platform and tools selected. This has led to inequities in the quality of educational offerings (IDB, 2020). With the financial challenges, institutions will still be challenged to find funding to invest in better technology and to prepare for reopening post-COVID which create further risks to continuity (IDB, 2020).

The economic impact threatened the financial stability of tertiary institutions. Where universities had obtained additional revenues from student accommodations and rental of commercial spaces these were also closed and so did the associated revenue streams (Christopher, 2021). In addition, student enrolment also declined. For example, new student enrollment for the 2020-2021 academic year at The UWI, St. Augustine Campus, dropped below 5000 students for the first time in 12 years (UWI, 2021). Tuition and other student fees showed a 2.5 percent decline when compared to the 2019-2020 academic year (UWI, 2021). In response, institutions were forced to implement several strategies to reduce costs. Most offered more flexible payment schemes to students to mitigate attrition which however compounded their cash flow challenges (IDB, 2020). Other cost saving strategies included the freezing of unfilled positions, staff reductions due to student attrition; limiting the duration of service contracts to part-time teaching staff, renegotiating service agreement contracts with vendors and the reorganizing of workflow to reduce overtime impact (Christopher, 2021). In short, prioritizing what were the absolutes for survival became the modus operandi of institutions.

The results of the strategies are that institutions made efforts to adapt quickly by shifting to online program delivery and introducing flexi-work policies for staff to work remotely. Institutions also found creative ways to stay connected with their staff and students (IDB, 2020) employing virtual platforms for counselling, program updates and other related communication and engagement.

The ALJGSB New Business Model

While the B-school is part of the overall UWI system, it operates as a semiautonomous school that offers standard MBA programs, a relatively wide range of specialized masters programs, and an undergraduate program in International and Sustainable Business. Ostensibly, these programs provide a platform for developing management professionals and potential entrepreneurs in various fields (Allahar & Sookram, 2019b). Its MBA programs are accredited by the Association of MBAs (AMBA) and the institution is accredited by the Accreditation Council of Trinidad and Tobago. Like other tertiary institutions, the ALJGSB experienced a decline in its student enrolment and revenues prior to COVID-19. The ease of funding tertiary education through the GATE program encouraged the development of a proliferation of products resulting in 11 new programs being introduced in the period 2009-2018. Such a large portfolio partly caused the cannibalization of programs and contributed to a decline in student enrolment in the period 2013-2019. Increasing competition from other providers also led to a decline in student enrolment. However, the significant changes in GATE played a major role in the downward trend in student enrolment. The cumulative total student population decreased from 701 in 2014 to 597 in 2019 representing a 15% drop in the total student population of the school (Recruitment Advisor, personal communication, November 4, 2021). This drop directly impacted its financial performance but corrective measures were not swiftly taken leading to a change in management. Preparations for corrective actions began in early 2020 and the unexpected arrival of COVID-19 in March 2020 served as a catalyst to expedite the changes needed.

With the unexpected arrival of COVID-19 the school’s financial position quickly worsened since most of its students requested to be placed on monthly payment arrangements compounding its cash flow challenges. Consequently, the school found it difficult to generate cash to meet its monthly commitments. To ease cash flow management decided to reduce salaries for all staff (over 70% in some cases) from the months of April – August 2020 (HR Manager, personal communication November 18, 2021). Facing this precarious situation, the school decided to expedite plans to ensure its survival. Accordingly, a restructuring plan was developed and approved by the board of directors in July 2020.

Notwithstanding the initial slow response to its financial situation, the school’s actions during the pandemic arguably demonstrated the application of the managerial concept of core competence defined by Prahalad and Hamel (1990) as ‘a harmonised combination of multiple resources and skills that distinguish a firm in the marketplace’. Core competencies are the foundation of a company’s competitiveness. Core competence is therefore considered to be ‘something that the company does as at least as well as, and preferably better than, any other company in the market (Holmes &Hooper, 2000); it is a defining capability or advantage that distinguishes an enterprise from its competitors. Applying this managerial concept to the case of ALJGSB is relevant to understanding how it developed its business strategy in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Being agile as well as capable of designing original academic programs are two of the core competencies or practice strengths of the ALJGSB which ultimately led to the bold and swift business strategy implemented to survive the pandemic in the short-term with an outlook for life after. The strategy was applied in three main areas: program reengineering; organizational restructuring; and leveraging on technology (CFO, personal communication October 28, 2020) which initiatives constitute the core of the case and this chapter with the summary results consolidated at the end.

Program Reengineering

The program reengineering exercise led to the school’s academic portfolio being reduced from 14 to 5 postgraduate programs. The exercise provided clear insights for selecting and redesigning programs most relevant to the student market. Hence the school focused on offerings that would attract higher student enrolment numbers and can be mainly delivered by its fulltime faculty. The programs shared a common core of courses encouraging both cross-disciplinary interactions for students as well as greater delivery efficiency. The 5 programs were also redesigned for greater alignment with student and industry expectations including reducing the program duration from 24 to14 months as well as greater flexibility to attend classes. Each program was designed to be delivered via multi-model formats which enhanced the school to expand its student reach across regional and international markets. Even international faculty could be easily engaged without the need for physical travel. In the pandemic context, these programs can be fully delivered online but can be easily adapted for a hybrid delivery approach after COVID-19, that is, a mixture of in-person and virtual/remote learning. The school also retrained its faculty to improve student engagement and classroom impact (Faculty Member, personal communication, May 15, 2021).

With this approach, the direct costs as a percentage of revenue moved from 49% in 2019-2020 to 15% in 2020-2021 for the same level of revenue (CFO, personal communication, February 16, 2021). Further, fulltime faculty delivered 60% of the teaching requirements compared to 30% in previous years. Through the program reengineering the school derived greater cost efficiency which allowed it to revise student tuition downwards, making programs more affordable as well as improving the school’s competitiveness in the sector.

Organizational Restructuring

Similarly, its agility allowed it to quickly conduct a deep-dive assessment into its operations and business model. This exercise caused an organizational restructuring that was more appropriate to the fluid contexts of the pandemic as well as suitable for a longer-term perspective. Centres, units and departments were consolidated, operational activities that added little value were discontinued creating a more streamlined organization. The reorganizing exercise led to the downsizing of staff including faculty from 129 to 55. Administrative and overheads costs and expenses prior to the restructuring represented 44% of revenue but was significantly reduced to around 26% in the first year following the restructuring and expected to further decline to 21% in 2021-2022. Program cost structures such as direct sales, management, and administrative support were directly related to each program. The reengineering and restructuring exercises reduced this overall program costs from 32% in 2020 to around 18% in 2021 (CFO, personal communication, February 16, 2021).

In general, the costs for programs have been significantly lower compared to the pre-COVID period. A streamed lined institution that can adequately support the operations and services of the school was the aim of the reorganizing exercise. Albeit the new structure required stretched resources, especially among employees. The executive management team engaged and communicated with the remaining staff on the need for survival. To a large extent, there was alignment among executives and staff which drove the commitment required to successfully navigate through the pandemic. There were key management lessons in the experience. For example, the restructuring demonstrated to the school’s executives the importance of ongoing evaluation of decisions on revenue, expenses, and institutional sustainability. By so doing, the business model could be accordingly refined to avoid drastic changes and to mitigate against operational complacency.

Leveraging Technology

Prior to the pandemic, the ALJGSB had a relatively robust online teaching and learning system using Black Board Collaborate (BBC) and E-Learning. Pre-pandemic programs were delivered using a blended approach but with a greater emphasis on in-person classes except for regional students who attended fully online. With its physical closure on 13 March 2020, the school seamlessly shifted to full online teaching and learning by 14 March 2020. This was a result of years of using this technology by faculty and students. However, further training was provided to faculty to improve teaching and learning in this environment.

Evidence from student evaluation surveys demonstrates that this was successfully undertaken during the pandemic. The evaluation captures student feedback mainly on the quality of faculty, the online learning experience and student support.

A total of 293 out of 445 students participated in the course evaluations. When asked whether “the faculty was proficient in the use of the online tools and media deployed in the course”, 250 agreed, 26 were neutral and 15 disagreed. This is an indication that approximately 88% of students considered faculty members as effective in teaching in the online context. Further, 82% of the students believed that the faculty created and maintained an environment that facilitated learning; 240 agreed, 29 were neutral and 24 disagreed. In relation to “the school providing adequate technical support to ensure their attendance was not compromised in the online environment” 196 agreed, 76 were neutral while 20 disagreed. This indicates that 67% of students felt that they had adequate support, 26% were neutral and 7% disagree (ALJGSB Course Evaluation Reports, 2020/2021). The general satisfaction among students with the online experience at the ALJGSB facilitated their continued engagement in their course of study and mitigated attrition. It also provided insights for executives to improve the student and faculty experience in this area. Moreover, linked to its new academic portfolio because of the reengineering exercise leveraging learning technologies can increase flexibility in attendance and access to students.

In the realm of student administrative support services, the school had to rely on technological solutions such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet including WhatsApp. However, there were issues related to delayed responses via email due to the reduction in the number of administrative staff. Students were very comfortable with the use of these digital options which would be utilized in the future. Online payment facilities were limited prior to the pandemic but became a primary option with COVID-19. It suggests that the ease of doing business with the school was previously inadequate.

Summary of Results from Applying the Strategies

The agility to quickly design relevant original programs and course content made it easy to rationalize its academic portfolio. With this core competence, the school can continue to be easily responsive to market trends and or disruptions in the future. In short, the school’s agility enabled it to quickly adapt to the circumstances encountered. Further, the restructuring demonstrated the importance of ongoing evaluation of decisions on revenue, expenses, and institutional sustainability. By so doing, the business model could be accordingly refined to avoid drastic changes and to mitigate against operational complacency.

However, it was clear to the management team opportunities for enhancing the integration of work processes particularly in finance and communication will be elements of customer service critical to its future success. These are areas that the school is currently working to improve. In addition, all student recruitment events were virtual. Information sessions, consultations, webinars, and other initiatives were conducted using an online interface. These enabled a wider marketing reach which positioned the school to penetrate untapped markets.

Lessons and Implications for Post COVID-19

The case of the ALJGSB provides four important managerial lessons that have implications for tertiary institutional leaders. Firstly, tertiary education leaders should develop the discipline to be future focused and highly responsive to competently deal with other crises (Gurr, 2020). Given the unpredictability of the pandemic and its repercussions, educational leaders should develop comprehensive medium and longer-term action plans that consider alternative scenarios, such as “best-and-worst-case” scenarios to ensure efficient and effective service delivery beyond the pandemic. To this end, Becerra et al. (2020) recommend that guidance and protocols be developed and all stakeholders, including faculty, staff, and students, be informed about these plans beforehand. Developing crisis management expertise is also paramount. This requires a greater appreciation for risk management in the context of tertiary institutions.

Secondly, the application of the managerial approach to core competencies was valuable. The traditional “core competencies” in education such as subject knowledge/experience, creation of new knowledge, and transmission of knowledge, are important but not suitable for formulating a business strategy that can impact the growth and sustainability of tertiary institutions. These are not unique to a particular institution or to tertiary institutions. Arguably, tertiary institutions such as universities have few, if any, unique competencies based on this traditional perspective of core competencies. Consequently, for educational institutions to be sustainable within a more and more competitive and disruptive landscape, an alternative approach to core competence in this sector is required (Holmes & Hooper, 2000). It is within this context that the managerial approach to core competence is applicable. Executives should be seeking to understand which practices in their institutions that create a significant contribution to student benefits and experience; and what do they do that is difficult for other institutions to replicate or imitate (Prahalad & Hamel, 1990). By so doing, educational leaders would be able to identify and leverage on their institution’s core competencies which facilitate developing a relevant business strategy that would enhance competitiveness.

Thirdly, tertiary institutions in developing economies need to invest more in the use of technology. Prior to COVID-19, the incorporation of ICTs into tertiary education systems was low and has primarily concentrated on administrative processes rather than pedagogical methods. Cost is the primary barrier to the investment in technology for Caribbean institutions. The pandemic has provided an opportunity for institutions to move towards establishing strategic partnerships with the private sector or other tertiary institutions to implement technology for teaching and learning as well as improving operational efficiencies. The post-pandemic era will demand more services through technology, and institutions unable to do so would be at a severe disadvantage.

Finally, management must exercise discipline in the use of limited financial resources until the financial viability of the institution is secured to a great extent. Even after the pandemic institutions would still be reeling from its impact and so management must be prudent. Reducing expenditures on all accounts to maintain adequate cash balance, deferring all payments which are not urgent and improving the collection of student fees would significantly enhance continuous cash flow into the system. Further, while the management team must still focus on the future, short-term budgeting would be necessary to ensure that all immediate needs/requirements are meticulously achieved (Gokuladas & Baby Sam, 2020).

Conclusion

The closing of all educational institutions in March 2020 to contain the spread of COVID-19 in the Caribbean resulted in a dramatic paradinbgm shift in the education system with the distinctive rise of adopting online teaching and learning as well as more prudent approaches to the management of tertiary institutions. These approaches are not only relevant to the immediate challenges associated with the pandemic but also for building resilient institutions in the future. To this end, tertiary education leaders should develop the discipline to be future-focused and highly responsive to competently deal with other crises. They should also consider the application of the managerial approach to core competence and identify the same to formulate relevant business strategies to enhance survival and competitiveness. In addition, there will be demand for more services through technology in the post-pandemic era and institutions that fail to do so would be put at a severe disadvantage. Moreover, management must always exercise great prudence to ensure the financial viability of their institutions.

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