University of St. Martin President Van den Assem: “Students have great character, but money is still a challenge”

POSTED: 06/18/13 11:53 AM
USM PresidentUSM president Annalies van den Assem. Photo Marion Röst. 

St. Maarten / By Jason Lista – “The pride our students show in everything is beautiful,” says University of St. Martin (USM) president, Annelies van den Assem. They “are intelligent” and show great “character,” especially considering the “difficult situations” they face in their everyday lives. “They are fighters,” she added. The president, it seems, shares those traits too since she agreed to sit down for a frank talk about USM even though she was recovering from a minor illness.

It’s no secret that USM has struggled financially in the past, but its commitment to providing quality education remains a top priority for the president. “We have a wonderful faculty, who work out of a sense of dedication and duty with comparatively little financial reward,” says Van den Assem, who was brought on as president by the board in 2010. She was previously instrumental in organizing and establishing the cabinet structure for a grateful Governor Holiday.

“I had to first figure out if it could be saved,” she said of the school.  If so, then it was necessary “to restore a main source of income” which is, of course, tuition. The good news is that the situation at USM is “financially improving.” Yet while the institution is salvageable, money still remains the biggest challenge.

The first step in making USM sustainable was getting “clear information” on its finances and to “drop courses that were not profitable” because too few students were taking them. And even though USM strives for independence, the government still plays a critical role in the viability of the university. Its teacher’s program, currently the only Bachelor of Arts offered by USM itself, has to have government support if it is to fill the desperate need of qualified teachers on the island.

The problem that current ministers of education face, however, is that there is no legislation in place regulating tertiary education, thereby defining the parameters in which a minister can legitimately function. Accreditation is an expensive process and if there is no legislation on higher education, both the university and government are restricted.  Since it was established in 1989, USM “has struggled” because the federal government of the former Netherlands Antilles also didn’t have such laws in place and only supported the then University of the Netherlands Antilles in Curacao. St. Maarten’s government, however, now “supports USM in any possible way” and vice versa. “Research is possible” at the university, in order to provide the government with sound policy advice but St. Maarten currently “lacks the proper facts and figures” in order to carry out such work.

Van den Assem’s plan was to streamline the university, doing a few things and doing them well, attracting more students yet at the same time increasing tuition fees. A difficult task but USM “managed to do it.” Another part of that plan has been to create “smart” connections with other, established universities, like reconnecting with Monroe College in the US.

The USM president also highlighted the work she has been doing in creating a broad cooperative framework with universities in the Netherlands and across the Dutch Caribbean, which offers “advantages of scale.” There are collaborative agreements in place with a variety of other universities with the aim of “building a thorough education experience” locally.

For example, after achieving their associate’s degree at USM, students can complete the last two years of a bachelor degree in either information management or business accounting offered by the University of Curacao (formerly the University of the Netherlands Antilles). The instructors fly in from Curacao and teach classes on the USM campus. So far they have had nothing but good things to say about the caliber of students they find at USM, says Van den Assem. One teacher told her that “the group was well read and positively engaged in the material.” In fact, out of 25 students in the program, 6 graduated Cum Laude, 7 Magna Cum Laude, and 2 with the highest honor of Summa Cum Laude.

The University of the Dutch Caribbean, also in Curacao, offers a similar collaborative program in electronic engineering. It’s open to those already working in the field of electronics and the president urged “businesses who want to invest in employees to send them to USM.” The challenge such programs face, though, remains attracting enough students to make the courses and classes financially worthwhile. Otherwise, USM cannot consistently offer them.

USM is also exploring the “e-dimension” of higher education, allowing students to use its facilities and resources while pursuing online courses at other institutions abroad. “Investing in IT,” says Van den Assem, is important and anyone in the communications and technology sector on St. Maarten is certainly “welcome to help” USM.

The USM president praised the current university board for their “wonderful collaboration.” They are “dedicated and constructive.” The board consists of a variety of professionals from diverse backgrounds who volunteer their time and expertise. But it’s the pride, perseverance, and grit of the students that motivates the president to continue to grow and strengthen USM despite the obstacles.

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Comments (1)

 

  1. Ms.Francis. says:

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    Come through