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 this second half, McAfee talks about initiatives at UCCI and the vision for Cayman’s public university.
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.
— Why should the country invest further in higher education?
Students have a lot of financial needs, and the situation here in Cayman seems quite different from the US where there are substantial amounts of needs-based aid at the tertiary level.
That hasn’t really been the case here, and so while we are very lucky to offer such reasonably priced quality education, in and of itself that is not enough for many people to start or to finish their education at UCCI. Something that really needs to be considered is how do we make sure that for anybody that has the ability and desire to continue their education, that financial need isn’t a barrier.
If today we removed that barrier, we would likely serve double the number of students than we do today, and the retention and persistence of the current student body would probably be much higher as well.
It’s a big ask. I know that in Cayman the largest portion of the budget is spent on education. I would justify the investment at all levels of education as the most likely long-term sustainability strategy that the nation has, because investment in tertiary education has been proven to improve health outcomes for people, lower crime, improve civic engagement and also increase people’s ability to support their family. Then the need for social support programmes drops.
Investment in education has a multiplier effect, and it’s the only strategy that I’ve seen around the world that delivers on a multiplicity of outcomes. The research bears out that for every dollar invested, the payback is recouped.
We started a speakers series at UCCI on creating an innovation ecosystem. Not only could UCCI support the development of new economic sectors, but for example if you were to fully develop a tech sector here like in Silicon Valley, for every tech job you create there’s often 4 other jobs that are created within the economy.
One of the principles of innovation ecosystems as discussed by international experts in the speakers series, is that a university is a key component of any innovation ecosystem. Strengthening and ensuring the university is able to play its role is very important to this nation and economic growth and recovery. The role of the university goes well beyond workforce development.
— What are some new initiatives going on at UCCI right now, or are on the drawing board?
I won’t go programmatically because much of that work is still to be decided with the [UCCI Board of Governors] and will also depend upon the level of philanthropy. But if I were to dream a little bit with you about some areas, an Interactive Media programme which I see as able to cross humanities, sociology, computer science, communications, and business would complement and expand what we offer today and prepare students for a variety of careers.
There is an opportunity for UCCI to be more involved with things that lead to the development of Marine Biology programmes. Also, there’s a great opportunity for us to expand our STEM programmes, and would love to think about as part of this expansion, an opportunity for a new STEM building.
As I understand it, the health professions in Cayman are primarily filled by permit holders. UCCI already has a very successful nursing programme. There is an opportunity for UCCI to offer health professions and train local talent for the health professions workforce.
We are in the process right now of deepening our commitment to supporting financial services through our business programmes. In fact we’ve been working closely with [the Chartered Financial Analyst Institute]. We are now an on-demand computer-based exam centre for [the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants]. I met with them when I was in London and we were encouraged to apply to become a test site.
[The Cayman Islands Institute of Professional Accountants] and others would love to see us doing more testing here in the Cayman Islands to support the financial services industry so that people don’t have to go off-island. In addition to testing we could offer prep courses and get more involved.
We are also in the final stages of a process for securing approval as a CFA-affiliated university. That status would provide all kinds of reputational benefits to us and our students and employers, as our courses are aligned with the requirements for those who are going on to study for further CFA examinations and credentials.
We’ve been in that affiliation application process for a while and it will go before our faculty for approval this fall. If it’s approved, and I think it will be, then it will go forward for final consideration by CFA. That would put us in a very elite group of universities worldwide.
We’d also love to have a small business development centre right here on campus, where our students are learning how to work with small business people. It may end up being a collaboration with government, since they have their small business development centre already launched.
Renewable and sustainable programmes are a focus for us right now. We have submitted some grant applications that would fund the development of workforce programmes but also to make the campus more sustainable, with renewable energy. We are also considering a criminal justice concentration within our social sciences programmes.
Another thing that we will discuss is a degree completion programme for adults. The programme would assist adults who have some credit but not a degree to earn one in a more expeditious manner on-island.
Those are just a few things that we’re doing. We started a work-based learning programme that is quite successful, but I’d really like to develop that into a full cooperative learning programme where students would spend a semester or more in 1 or 2 employer placements that are credit-bearing. Oftentimes, internships don’t bear college credit, but in a co-op students earn academic credit because the quality of the work they are doing fulfils learning outcomes. A co-op placement at an employer fulfills part of the learning outcomes students need to graduate from the university.
We’re trying to build a relationship with all of our alumni, which will have so many benefits for students in terms of mentorship.
We are also deepening relationships with key organisations like 100 Women in Finance. They have just introduced a new collegiate league. They’ve historically supported girls 13 to 18 in high schools and are going to continue to do that; they’re also opening up the collegiate league for UCCI, and they will be working with older students at UCCI. They’ve created a set of student ambassadors within the institution who also serve as informal mentors, in addition to the professional women.
I would certainly love to have something like a student investment fund, possibly a hedge fund. We are looking for somebody to make a private donation to establish it at UCCI because I would really like our students to be learning how to manage funds and to make recommendations. These types of experiences could deepen the interest and preparation of Caymanians to enter into the financial services industry in a more robust way.
The university that I worked for prior to UCCI had a programme like this. A local banker donated $1 million to establish the fund and programme. It’s a semester-long course and the students lead the fund strategy with the support of a faculty adviser. Over the years they’ve consistently beaten market returns. I believe that they have earned about $2.5 million from that initial $1 million investment, and the earnings fund scholarships for other students.
It’s a very rich opportunity. They even use Dun & Bradstreet terminals. Students could gain exposure to one of the primary industries here in Cayman and we could see an uptake in local talent in the financial services industry.
— Can you talk about misconceptions about UCCI that may be present in the community?
Many people still think we’re the community college. They’re surprised to learn that we also offer bachelor’s and graduate degrees, and that our faculty hold the same credentials as faculty in institutions around the world.
I often hear a misconception about how UCCI credits don’t transfer to other institutions, and so some people don’t want to start at UCCI for their first 2 years. Actually the evidence doesn’t bear that out.
The articulation of college credit between universities is never a guaranteed process. It’s a process that is unique to every university, and it’s a faculty-controlled process. Unless a university establishes what you would call a ‘two plus two’ transfer agreement with another institution, there’s no guarantee that all credits will fully transfer, regardless of the perceived or actual quality of credits earned.
The reason for this is that transfer of some or all credit depends upon what programme you’re transferring into and the fit between the first 2 years of credits you took with what the transfer institution’s 4-year programme requires. It would be unrealistic for UCCI to have hundreds of two plus two agreements. Even if we had it with an institution, credit acceptance would still be dependent upon the programme to programme alignment rather than other measures including quality.
But when we look at the outcomes of students that transferred, because transcript requests come to UCCI from the transfer institution and the student, we find that our students’ credits do transfer quite well.
Obviously the sooner the student understands if they’re going to transfer, the better. It gives us the opportunity to advise them from the beginning, more appropriately. It would insure that students are taking fewer credits that won’t transfer if they know where they plan to attend next and what they will study.
The other thing that the university just did was to align our credit hour requirements more closely to the international standard of 60 at the associate level and 120 at the bachelor’s level. Which means that if a student does transfer after the associate degree, they would likely be transferring up to 60 credits and have taken approximately that amount at UCCI and not a lot more.
Also, people are quite surprised to know that we have the range of programmes that we offer. Many people are surprised at the performing arts we offer and, the quality of the performing arts that exist here. We have world-class talent on our faculty, which means that our students can have a holistic experience.
Some people would be surprised to know the amount of research and scholarship that UCCI faculty do on a regular basis. For example our interim VP and Provost presented at an international conference and she received the top award for the best presentation at the conference.
Also, our students do have international experiences while studying at UCCI. Often it’s aligned with performing arts or CFA competitions or international business practicums. Pre-COVID we were actively providing a more global experience for students, even though we are based in Cayman.
— Can you talk about the longer-term vision for UCCI?
The vision for the university is explained through 3 pillars: To be a student-centred institution, suitably resourced to fulfill our mission and purpose, and an engine for economic development, innovation and social change.
The first pillar, ‘student-centred’, is really beginning with the student in mind and delivering education that is informed through the use of data to allow us to provide close personal relationships with students and to interact and to support their success in ways that today we’re just learning how to do.
‘Suitably resourced’ means that we are trying to build partnerships with other institutions here in Cayman and around the world and partnerships with industry. As the public university of the nation, whatever direction we choose must also answer a need that the nation has.
I’ve offered some examples of things that I believe are presently happening or envisioned. At the same time, I think there is an opportunity for the university to attract more international students. To do that, we would likely have to have housing, which we don’t have today. It would be desirable to create a more diverse learning experience for our students, which is the goal of any institution of higher learning.
We would like to ensure all students attending UCCI have opportunities to experience diverse and inclusive thinking, and develop relationships with other students who aren’t like themselves. This type of tacit learning is valuable because it allows a person to understand more fully who they are and why, and compare and contrast that with others they have met.
We can provide some of that learning here and also spend more time building relationships with universities or employers for students to spend a year or a semester abroad learning or in internships or co-ops.
The last one, ‘engine for economic development, innovation and social change’ is the idea that the university serves as a convener. That’s the role that universities play around the world, in that the subject-matter expertise of faculty is recognised and called upon to consider and address big societal needs — whether it’s ‘how do we close the attainment gap with respect to education?’, whether it’s ‘how do we address the traffic issue?’ or ‘how does research at the university consider the sargassum proliferation and the impact that that has on our economy?’
It would be great to have a public policy institute at the university to provide research and analysis relevant to Cayman or the larger region. Analysis might include, ‘How’s the university is involved in supporting the development of new economic sectors?’ And ‘how is our faculty research and scholarship specifically focussed on Cayman?’
The likelihood is that most of the research that has happened or will be done, either by UCCI faculty or in collaboration with other university faculty, with a focus on Cayman is likely going to be initiated by the university here. That’s one of the more relevant reasons that having a strong university does help the nation because while you should always consult and consider the international perspective and research, often it doesn’t translate exactly the same in one’s own nation.
Having someone to contextualise the learning or do their research collaboratively or singularly here does matter. It’s an opportunity and a responsibility that we have.
I think the name ‘University College’ is a bit of a misnomer, and that name can be confusing for people when they try to understand what the university currently is and where we’re going as a result of our vision and Board approved strategic plan.
If you’re from the US, ‘University College’ is not generally an independent university. It’s a college within the university that focuses on general education requirements.
The university became a ‘University College’ in 2004 — I’m not sure that the understanding of the current state, or even the evolution of thinking, has been fully realised at this point.
— Can you share some final thoughts on UCCI, its role and its future?
We are now in a very important time as strategic thinking is considering how the nation moves forward post-COVID. It’s the perfect time for a reset, because many things that historically have been fundamental to success may or may not continue to have that effect in the future. What I would really like to see is a broader dialogue.
I am impressed with the good work that’s being done to re-think primary and secondary education. I applaud [Minister Juliana O’Connor-Connolly] and the Education Council for their forward thinking. At the end of the day, the majority of public students in Cayman attend UCCI.
It is important to ensure that the nation has been thoughtfully considering how the university evolves in this next stage — let’s say for the next 45 years, starting with a 5- or 10-year blueprint. To that end, the Board and I are going to be conducting our campus master planning exercise, to say what we would need to do to build and improve facilities to take the university to the next level.
It will require partnerships to get us there and also, excitement about what the university can become in Cayman. This is the moment when there’s an opportunity to reset and rethink.
It’s critical that we are thoughtfully planning for the next decade and committing to the changes that are needed in tertiary education as part of an educational continuum. That means we need to hear a multiplicity of voices that maybe today aren’t yet engaged in the dialogue.