President van der Assem: “We have to survive on our own” Economy-driven university heads for new future

POSTED: 05/7/12 9:44 PM

St. Maarten / By Hilbert Haar – “Our goal is to provide as much education as possible on the island,” the President of the University of St. Martin, Annelies van der Assem says. To achieve that goal, the university is working hard to secure the institution’s future. Education is expensive, and nowhere is that felt better than at this private organization that depends for its survival on the income from tuition fees and limited government support.

Van der Assem was appointed the university’s president a bit more than a year ago, on May 1. Before that she was involved in setting up the cabinet of Governor Holiday. The news that comes out of the university, or that is produced about the university, has not always been upbeat, but Van der Assem strongly believes in the value of on-island tertiary education.

“What I found when I got here was a dedicated staff and a dedicated faculty,” she says in her modest office on Pond Island. The faculty consists almost exclusively of people who hold a job during the daytime and who teach in the evening for a modest fee.”

The president describes USM as a part-time university. This is by necessity, because most of its students work, they have children to care for, or they combine work and kids with a part-time study.

“There is a need for tertiary education on the island among students who have left secondary school among school dropouts and among working people who feel the need to further develop themselves.”

USM has to overcome significant challenges if it wants to secure its own future. The 21-staff has to be brought down to 14 to reduce the overhead. Dismissal-requests for seven staff members are pending at the labor office, but fortunately for at least four of them an alternative solution has been found.

“It does not make us feel good to have to fire people, but it is necessary,” Van der Assem says.

The student population hovers since 2004 steadily around 250 – and the tuition fees are modest at best. “The size of the university is limited due to the size of our community. But we are a private institution and we have to survive on our own. Tuition fees are our most important source of income, and we have an interest in generating as high as possible an income.”

Van der Assem spent the past year to straighten out the USM’s financial affairs. “I had to do that; otherwise you don’t know where the money goes, where the leaks are.”

The university is not out of dire straits yet, financially, but Van der Assem has a good idea about where she wants to take the institution. By mid-summer of last year there was a business plan that outlines the direction stakeholders like employers, unions and the government (in its role as employer) the Ministry of Education, schools and the faculty were invited to give their views. ”We wanted to know whether what the university is doing fits with the ministry’s vision. We also examined more than 430 vacancies to see whether our courses fit the need of the labor market; that turned out to be the case.”

There are several reasons for the drive to keep tertiary education available on the island as long as possible. “Older people don’t like to leave the island to study, and illegals are not able to leave. Also, parents find it unpleasant to see their children off for studies abroad. For the education ministry it is cheaper to have children studying here than sending them to the United States or the Netherlands.”

With these thoughts in mind, the university would love to increase its programs from the associate to the Bachelor’s level. For the Masters level, the potential group of students would most likely be too small to make then programs sustainable. “It is all very well to be ambitious,” Van der Assem says, “but the money has to come from somewhere. The scale of our community is an important issue.”

While increasing tuition fees is not an option, because this would lead to a drop in students, the USM has plenty of other cards up its sleeve to get where it wants to go. Education programs will have to be self-sustainable, and if they’re not, they will have to be taken off the roster. Van der Assem wants USM to move more into a broker-style function, whereby it offers online and distance learning facilities next to the brick and mortar classes on Pond Island.

To facilitate online learning, the university needs to develop a state of the art electronic library and IT-facilities. Another step towards broadening possibilities for students is hooking up with universities abroad.

To broaden the student population, and thereby increasing tuition fee revenue, USM wants to attract students from neighboring islands and to become the preferred supplier of education for neighboring governments. Another option for generating revenue is renting out the USM lecture halls to third parties.

“Our programs are good,” Van der Assem concludes. “We’re thinking about linking additional courses to existing programs, but they will have to be developed.”

By necessity, USM will be an economy-driven university. Currently there are 40 applicants for the law faculty. That seems a good enough basis to start, but the question is whether the island population will generate a steady enough stream of students to keep the program going every year.

In the coming weeks Today will follow new developments at USM in a series of articles.

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