Editor’s Note: In the ‘An interview with …’ series, we speak to education leaders on a range of issues, and publish the discussion in an edited Q+A.
Stacy McAfee is at the helm as the University College of the Cayman Islands is expanding in both size and scope. The UCCI President and CEO is emphasising the institution’s greater adoption of technology, in terms of teaching but also administration and operations.
In the first half of this interview, McAfee discusses how UCCI’s growth and evolution is creating both challenges and opportunities.
In the second half, McAfee talks about initiatives at UCCI and the vision for Cayman’s public university. (Read Part Two here.)
Bio: McAfee arrived in January 2019 to become President and CEO of UCCI. Her most immediate past position was as an associate vice president at the University of the Pacific in California. She has worked for several community colleges and universities in California and Illinois. She holds a doctorate in educational leadership and management, an MBA and a bachelor’s degree in business administration.
— Please talk a bit about your position and the place that University College of the Cayman Islands has in the community.
I arrived in January of 2019 to serve as the President and CEO at UCCI. One thing that many people may not understand is that the role I assumed as president and CEO was part of an organisational structural change that the Board was making. This was to also appoint a Provost that would complement the President’s role, to be more of a traditional university structure like you might see in North America.
The President has oversight for everything within the university, but often it has a much more external role. The Provost is the ‘chief academic officer’ and is really responsible for the academic programmes and the quality of the academics.
Part of the reason for that change was to position us to achieve US regional accreditation. In my background, I have a great deal of experience with US institutional and programmatic accreditation bodies.
Since I’ve arrived, we’ve also appointed a Vice President of Business and Finance because we realised that there’s much work to be done to oversee the business side, the operational side of running the university and allowing the Provost to focus on the academics.
I would say that what I’ve observed about UCCI was that there’s a distinctive opportunity here that’s quite different than what many universities have — which is fundamentally, as a public institution, because of the scope and the scale of what we do, we have the opportunity to significantly influence societal and economic outcomes by having a direct link into building the citizenry, creating the appropriate workforce development strategies that are needed and truly building a relationship with industry.
There’s a direct pipeline that can be built, of talent, and that’s very different than most nations or universities have. For example it would be true in the US, that you might have hundreds of universities in any particular state. That isn’t really the case here, so the opportunity for UCCI to work closely with the support of government to address what industry needs to thrive is paramount to success in my opinion.
And it’s really important for those that we serve because we want to fully prepare them for opportunities on-island. We know that the majority of the students we serve here, 86% Caymanian, will choose and want to work locally. So I think it’s a unique opportunity that we’ve started to strengthen. Much more needs to be done there.
What I saw is that we have a pretty entrepreneurial-minded faculty and staff. I’ve found the faculty in particular are quite open to new ideas and have a strong desire to make a difference through their work in the community, so I think that’s a real positive.
Oftentimes a university can get pretty entrenched in what their history has been, and I’ve found an openness here to innovate and to try to build something different. One example is we rolled out a work-based learning programme with industry sponsors, and that’s been a step in the right direction of really improving experiential learning opportunities for all of our students. That is going to be a critical part of our success.
We really should have an active co-op programme. I’d like to see every student here engaged in multiple work-based learning opportunities. I think it substantially improves the quality of their education, their ability to apply that learning in real ways.
I think UCCI isn’t very well-known. I think there’s a bit of a misconception about what the university currently does, and what the capability of a fully developed university could mean for Cayman.
— Can you talk about some things UCCI does well, and what is being done to enhance those strengths?
One of the things that UCCI does I think particularly well, is that the faculty develop personal relationships with students. That’s important for a university of our size.
In my first year the university grew by 15%. Despite COVID, I think there’s a chance that we might grow by that amount again this year, which is a very remarkable trend in higher education today because most universities’ student population is shrinking.
It’s an interesting mix because we have a very broad remit, so we’re doing Technical Vocational Education and Training. We’re doing continuing and professional education for working adults (non-credit-bearing). We’re doing associate, bachelor’s and master’s programmes, and we were doing a limited amount of online courses.
We have no full programmes that are online right now, but when COVID happened and the directive was given to shut the campus, we made the decision that we were going to continue learning. So we moved all of our courses to an online platform and finished the spring semester that way for our students. Then the summer semester was fully online.
I have a lot of experience with prior universities in delivering both online and hybrid education, and I have wanted the university to carefully consider how to introduce technology-enabled learning into the mix. Given — we know that some students fare quite well in online and hybrid and other students, while they may indicate a preference or a desire, do not necessarily thrive in that type of learning environment.
What UCCI does really well, in my opinion, is we are trying to relate our education very closely to what students need. We’ve brought in the use of student data to inform our work, so we’re beginning to now capture more data and use that.
We’re in the early stages of that process, but that will allow us to be even more student-centred because it will provide everyone who touches the student experience here with actionable data about what’s happening with their experience as they go through UCCI.
For example, we’d like to keep some predictive analytics: We’d like to say that we know that students who in their first semester get involved with clubs or activities are more likely to graduate, or they’re more likely to have a job offer by the time that they leave UCCI.
We also want to use it to improve student retention. We might see that there are some early indicators that will suggest to us whether or not a student is succeeding in a course, or if there are early warning signs that we have that information — and reaching out to the student versus waiting for them to possibly reach out to us for help.
We do have a pretty young student population, so that type of mentorship and close personal relationship matters. It’s important to me that regardless of how someone learns or where, that we don’t lose that because I think it makes us distinctive as a university, as compared to bigger universities that students might attend around the world.
I think it’s a hallmark of being small enough to be personal and individualised in our education, but at the same time we’re growing enough that we could be a medium-sized university within the next few years, and that will give us the opportunity to potentially expand the scope of what we do educationally.
— How many students does UCCI have now? And how big is a medium-sized university?
We had about 1,200 students when I arrived. This year we could have maybe 1,500. The threshold for a medium-sized university is typically around 2,500 students.
We’re very grateful for a gift of land that UCCI just received across the street. The Ministry announced that the land was being gifted to UCCI to support our needs for growth and expansion, and we’ve had some problems doing that in the past due to space constraints on the campus and parking as well.
That is an exciting opportunity for us. We would love to start by building a new building over there and give us some room to grow in some of the STEM areas, and give us room to expand also some of what we’re doing with Technical Vocational Education and Training. That is an area certainly of great importance to the nation and that we have focussed on building out since 2019.
The government purchased the land from, I believe, a private entity. It then is in the process of being deeded to UCCI, but the Minister had announced it a few months back.
— What have you learned from the COVID experience? Did it alter plans in terms of virtual learning and online operations, or did it accelerate the pace of change that was already planned?
We talked about it as an executive leadership team. We had to make so many changes to our processes basically almost overnight. If you had said to us we could successfully reengineer almost every aspect of what we do at the university in a matter of weeks, nobody would have believed that was possible
I’ll give you an example. I had worked with executive leaders to make a decision to bring CRM [customer relationship management] in to help with our data management process. That manages the process of someone all the way up to the time that they are admitted and registered for the first time.
If we hadn’t been that far down the path, I’m not sure what the university would have done, how we would have been able to continue. Because up to that point every aspect of our admissions process had been — you’d come to the campus, carry hard copy documents. We didn’t have online payment options.
We really took what was a very space-based operation and moved it to virtual. Not just the teaching and learning, but all the business processes.
We’d never paid vendors other than hard-copy cheques. So we had to set up ACH [automated clearing house].
We were a university that had basically 8.30am to 5pm administrative hours. We knew that for our working adult population, some of the practices we had weren’t optimal, but it seemed as though it was so much effort to transition, along with the day-to-day … Well, COVID made it clear that there wasn’t a choice.
We re-engineered our entire application process. It can be done fully online. We moved students to online registration. We moved to online payments, both for students as well as to vendors. And we created a different level of accessibility to the university.
The thing that we also saw is that certain populations of students absolutely preferred online options, and some were holding out when we said we were coming back to the campus in the fall. Some were holding out to see if we were going to change our mind and continue to stay online.
Now we have some decisions to make, but what we did for the fall was we created what’s called a HyFlex [hybrid flexible] prototype. The faculty are here on campus for classes from 4.30pm on, but students can come face-to-face or can attend through the online platform if they would like to do so.
During the day we’re back to traditional face-to-face in the classroom. We at UCCI do need to make some longer-term decisions about modalities and programmes, not just how courses will be offered.
There’s definitely some work to be done there. Part of the reason also is to accommodate our growth. We certainly can’t serve 2,500 students with the number of classrooms we have. We’re using every time slot available, and running out of classroom space.
— A while ago, there was some talk about, when the new John Gray High School campus is complete, to allow UCCI to use space at the current John Gray campus. Have you heard anything more about that? [Read an August 2018 Cayman Compass story on Education Minister Juliana O’Connor-Connolly’s comments here.]
That has not been discussed with me. I would just say that we definitely need options for expansion. Probably, having some more remote campus operations would be helpful given the traffic here on-island. Online isn’t for everyone, but not everyone is necessarily going to desire or have the ability to fight traffic to our campus here in George Town who needs access to learning.
That could mean we have relationships with the high schools where we offer classes at the high schools in the evening, which is actually where we’re seeing the majority of our growth — for evening programmes. We also have a large part-time student population, which is indicative of the way adults tend to attend university.
— What are some challenges facing UCCI and how you are addressing them?
The university is also facing infrastructure development needs. One important area that would have to be improved for the university to fully embrace technology-enabled learning is our IT infrastructure.
It would need to be greatly strengthened, and we would also obviously need to invest in the development of our faculty so that they are fully prepared to deliver pedagogically relevant instruction.
One thing that many don’t realise is that how you deliver learning in an online or hybrid environment is quite different from face-to-face instruction in a classroom. We need to have the capacity to redesign, to support and develop in that area and also to support our systems.
We have a lot of systems needs. Our student informations system, our learning management system are examples of systems that should be brought up-to-date and used to their full potential.
As the university has grown, the need for faculty and staff is ever-present and is growing. Obviously there is more strain on existing resources, which were very limited already.
We for example are attempting to move forward on a holistic student advisement experience. The type of staff resources that it would take to do that are certainly well outside of the scope of what we’re doing now, but we know that research indicates this is what students today need to be successful. It’s the support in and outside of the classroom.
We have strong full-time faculty. We definitely in many key areas need to continue to grow our faculty, and so as we think about growth and staffing — we come back once again to infrastructure. Where do they work? How do we provide the type of environment necessary for learning?
We need more STEM labs. We need state-of-the-art STEM labs so that our students are walking away with a similar set of competencies that they have been able to learn at UCCI.
All of that comes down to funding. I think it’s clear that in the time that I’ve been here that there has been support and intent and desire to invest in UCCI. We’ve seen growth in government and private sector support for UCCI.
There’s certainly a desire to do more, and what we’re seeing around the world is that the investments that are needed in tertiary education require significant investment from government, but also significant investment from the private sector through philanthropy
I don’t think that there’s as much awareness here in Cayman of how much the private sector invests around the world to support high-quality tertiary education. Public-private partnerships are the norm, at least in the US, to deliver the quality of education that people have become accustomed to.
We need to change that paradigm a bit, so the community really sees it as both government’s ability and willingness to continue to increase investment in UCCI, and the private sector’s understanding that government alone can never do that in and of themselves.