by Tracy Harrington
The Consortium for Belize Educational Cooperation (COBEC) might well be a unique organization among higher education collaboratives. It includes all the significant tertiary-level institutions in Belize and most U.S. higher education institutions engaged in projects or activities in Belize. It is a minimally structured organization that has survived and thrived, without external funding, through changes in political and educational leadership in Belize and through budgetary retrenchment and crises in both Belize and the U.S. Despite its low profile and general goals, it has had a significant and continuing impact on the structure and quality of higher education in Belize and on the internationalization of U.S. member institutions.
The first steps in the formation of COBEC were taken in the mid-1980s. Several aspects of the higher education context at that time influenced the creation of COBEC. In the early post-independence period of national development in Belize, higher education in the country was undergoing dramatic change: new institutions were being created, existing institutions were being reformed or expanded, and external linkages with educational agencies and institutions were proliferating. U.S. and international agencies earmarked funding for a wide range of educational projects and support in Belize, with the consequence that educators in Belize found themselves having to broker interests and intentions of educational entrepreneurs from the U.S. and elsewhere. Projects exploded and competition became intense.
These conditions pointed to the need to engage Belizean educational institutions and potential partners abroad in a conversation that would facilitate cooperation, the sharing of information, and the maximizing of resources available to aid the development of higher education in Belize. One of the several U.S. federally funded projects with Belize was at Murray State University in Kentucky and involved visits to MSU of Belizean educators for professional development as well as travel to Belize by Kentucky academics as the Belizeans' exchange counterparts. The idea for a COBEC-like organization was proposed when Mr. Ernest Raymond, then Head of Belize Teacher Training College, participated in MSU's exchange program in the mid-1980's. Mr. Raymond expressed concern over the challenge facing Belize in coordinating and evaluating the various proposals for projects coming from U.S. (and other) institutions and pointed out, as well, the need for U.S. institutions to learn about each other's aims and activities in Belize.
Out of these comments and suggestions grew an initial meeting of representatives from Belizean and U.S. institutions at Murray State in July 1988, to explore the formation of a cooperative group that would share information and work together to leverage resources in developing higher education in Belize and the U.S. At this initial meeting were representatives from the then recently formed University College of Belize (UCB, now the University of Belize), Belize Teacher Training College, Belize Technical College, the Belize Ministry of Education, and four U.S. institutions: Murray State, Western Kentucky University, the University of North Florida, and Ferris State College. The first three U.S. institutions were recipients of federal grants supporting specific projects in higher education development in Belize. Ferris State College had recently contracted with the Government of Belize to develop the University College of Belize using Ferris State curricula and personnel. Three of the four US institutions involved in the initial meeting are still active COBEC members.
Within a year of this initial meeting to explore the formation of an organization for cooperating in the development of higher education in Belize, two follow-up meetings were held and the name of the organization—Consortium for Belize Educational Cooperation—adopted. A memorandum of agreement and by-laws were drafted and approved.
Since that time, COBEC has met regularly, once a year on the campus of a U.S. member and once a year at a Belize member institution. Membership has grown from the initial handful of colleges and universities to include all the tertiary-level institutions in Belize and 19 institutions in nine US states from Florida to Hawaii. As significant as the growth in the number of member institutions has been the fact that most of these institutions have a remarkable longevity of membership.
What has this organization accomplished? From the beginning, projects and activities were promoted and facilitated by COBEC but largely implemented on a bilateral basis between Belizean and US member institutions. COBEC has played a significant role as an information-sharing and facilitating body for the activities of members' projects. Beyond many bilateral projects, however, important consortium-wide contributions have been made, including effective advocacy leading to the award of hundreds of scholarships at US institutions to Belizean students; the support and sponsorship of catalog development at Belizean institutions; involvement in institutional evaluation and quality assurance initiatives in Belize; the enrichment and professional development of US and Belizean faculty and student participants in exchange and study abroad ventures; the organizing and delivery of professional development seminars and workshops for faculty and administrators in Belize; collaborative development of curricular and co-curricular enhancements at both Belizean and US institutions; and , through its small grants program, direct financial support of many bilateral projects undertaken by member institutions.
Belize and the communities of the U.S. member institutions in COBEC have been profoundly affected by the organization's long-standing commitment to capacity building in Belizean and U.S. higher education. Mechanisms, models, and precedents for successful collaborative ventures have emerged from COBEC and now, as it completes 30 years of activity, it is a familiar and vital dimension of higher education in Belize.