POND ISLAND — Yesterday the Board of the USM sent a letter to the Honourable Minister of Education Culture Youth & Sports, Ms. Silveria Jacobs, informing her that if the government of Sint Maarten does not finally take up its responsibility to provide the USM with an increase of the annual subsidy of 3Million Antillean Guilders, the institution will have to close its doors as of the end of November! It’s a do or die scenario. The 850.000 Antillean Guilders that the institution currently receives, which boils down to less than 1% of the country’s annual budget allocated to education, will not suffice given post Irma conditions.
The USM depends heavily on tuitions from primarily students who either work in the tourist industry and its service related spinoffs, or whose parents do. This is the group, the bulk of the St. Martiners in fact, who have suffered major losses. Many of their homes were damaged; many are staying with families and friends or accommodating family and friends. And to make matters worse they have been laid off (or fear that they will have to ‘accept’ a salary reduction). In such a situation they are rightfully asking for relieve or a grace period from the USM. The institution would gladly do so, but without a hard guarantee of the government of an increase in the annual subsidy of 3 Million Guilder, the USM cannot do so.
In fact the 850.000 Antillean Guilders that USM currently receives from government is not enough to keep the doors of the institution open.
This is not related to Irma per se as it was actually never enough, even in the days when Sint Maarten flourished. It is a known fact the Board stated that for many years the USM has been struggling financially. The Ministry of Education has known for quite some time that a yearly subsidy increase of ANG 3 million was needed to keep the institution afloat. The many petitions made to the government fell on deaf ears, supposedly because the USM was not accredited and did enjoy international renown.
In 2014 after a reorganization orchestrated by the President of the Board, Mrs. Valerie Giterson-Pantophlet, a new management team was put in place whose task was to professionalize the institution.
The strategy would only work if a silent donor of the private sector, who wishes to remain anonymous, agreed to continue financially supporting the USM. Without his support the USM would have had to close shop many years ago.
The Board’s investment in a new management team paid off. The USM secured several international level 5 accreditations for its Associate Degree programs in 3 years’ time, as well as being able to offer North American accredited Bachelor and Master Degrees via the UVI@USM partnership with the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI). For the first time after obtaining their Associate degree on Sint Maarten, USM students could study in the Netherlands and the rest of Europe. This was highly appreciated by parents who understood that their children should gain some college and life experience before travelling to a big country. Besides the accreditations the USM also received international recognition due to the publications of its staff in international academic journals and edited volumes. As a result of these and other positive developments the USM’s student population registered a steady increase. St. Martin’s society’s confidence in the institution rose leading the Board to take the bold step of announcing the construction of dorms and the overall expansion of the USM. A drive was planned to raise funds for the expansion. Again the silent donor was instrumental. He did however place as a non-negotiable condition for his continued financial support, namely, that the government of Sint Maarten would finally keep its promise. Without the government owning up to its responsibility to grant the USM it’s much needed annual subsidy of 3 Million Antillean Guilders he would not continue to silently subsidize the university.
All this was to no avail. The government still did not make any concrete moves to properly fund the USM. In a press conference held on the 23rd of August 2017, the Minister of Education announced that they did not have the funds to raise the subsidy of USM and that they were still working on the Law of Tertiary Education.
Then came Hurricane Irma and the USM was once again expected to continue surviving without adequate government funding. It is the straw that has broken the camel’s back. The silent donor will not continue to do what the government of Sint Maarten should have been doing from day one, namely taking care of improving the educational and social resourcefulness of its population. The Board and Management understand the decision, given that our donors and the entire business community too have suffered significant financial losses.
The President of the USM, Dr. Francio Guadeloupe stated,
“This is a sad day. It did not have to come to this. In fact it still does not have to come to this. The USM is an institution founded in the golden days of St. Martin, the time of the Mullet Bay, by Dr. Claude Wathey and Ambassador Husang Ansari. They recognized that the island had arrived at a stage in its development that it needed a university to take care of those who could and did not want to travel abroad to enjoy a tertiary education: Level 5 Associate and eventually Bachelor and Master degrees. Scholarships abroad was one thing, making sure you had a university for those at home that would cater to the tourist industry and the islands direct needs was another. It was the task of the government whom the hardworking people of Sint Maarten had put into office to make sure that those who could go abroad and those who stayed at home enjoyed a sound education. Education, especially tertiary education that produces a competent and morally grounded citizen, is after all the motor of any development progress. This is known throughout the Caribbean. The USM came into existence and produced figures of renowned locally such as Mrs. Beulah Jonis, director of the St. Maarten Cable TV, Mr. Perry Wilson, successful banker at the FCIBC Bank, Ms. Irma Gumbs of the Windward Island Bank, Mr. Jeffrey de La Combe of Tropical Shipping, and successful entrepreneurs like Mr. Kenrick Housen of the Carls and Son’s Enterprise, to name but a few. The USM has also produced persons who went on to gain their PhDs in Canada and the USA like Dr. Royette Tavernier of Wesleyan University and Ms. Rolinda Carter of the University of British Columbia (who will be finishing up within a few months). And we are witnessing a new batch with dynamic youngsters like Ralph Cantave, Rochana Richardson, Ms. Parina Lotlikar, Ms. Whitney Murray, who chose to study at the USM. In every field of work, one encounters the products of the USM. All this was done, and continues to be done, without proper government funding. If Education matters, if tradition matters, if national pride matters, if the legacy of the late Dr. Claude Wathey and the late Commissioner Edgar Lynch who also supported the USM matters, then one can expect the government to do the right thing. They will fully support the USM with the increase in subsidy, which is supporting the people and the children of those persons who built and will rebuild St. Martin.”
The Board of the USM laments the adverse effects the closing will have on both its staff and student population. It is now in the hands of government, as it always should have been, whether they will do their duty and take care of the educational needs of St. Maarteners. The USM awaits the reply of government as should every concerned St Maartener who believes that this island should have its own university.