Whither The University of the West Indies?

Whither The University of the West Indies?

MIAMI, Fla, March 29, 2021 - Proposals for a changed governance structure of The University of the West Indies set forth in the July 2020 “Report of The UWI Chancellor’s Commission on Governance of The UWI” are disturbing. They seem to place decision making in the hands of a small unit that defeats years of the normal democratic structure that affords true academic participation in determination of critical aspects of the university’s core activities.

The new financing core, placing a significant increase in student fees in the current economic circumstances of the region is really a non-starter, unless the objective is to transform the very mission of the university.

Furthermore, the Commission’s bases for its recommendation to abolish the “Finance and General Purposes Committee” at both entity-wide and Campus levels — whether consciously or not — fits remarkably well into the ‘Friedman doctrine’ or ‘Shareholder primacy’. Here, a corporation is responsible exclusively, to its shareholders, maximizing shareholder value devoid of shared responsibility for externalities. The critical question is, who are the shareholders?

Additionally, the way in which the whole episode has been handled is rather puzzling. Norms appear to have been shattered as Vice Chancellor Beckles’ contract remains in an uncertain state following a procedure that can only be described as unprecedented. This fact alone serves to feed notions of conspiracy — absence of good faith. But there are so many other relevant issues for university level education in the Caribbean, particularly in the world economy’s current state of turmoil.

My presumption is that sober-headed negotiation shall prevail and hopefully put to rest the ‘Elephant-in-the-Room’ notion that Vice Chancellor Beckles is being sidelined because of his position in the movement to advance reparations, plus a rift with the Chancellor. The fact is financing and financial management has from the beginning, been a major impediment to enhanced higher education in the region. A university is a rather expensive undertaking.

Indeed, none other than our first Vice Chancellor, Nobel laureate Sir William Arthur Lewis knew, and was unafraid of publicizing the fact that it would cost less to train our young undergraduates at foreign universities. The region benefited from a huge subsidy he argued. His 1962 “Memorandum prepared for the Conference on the Common Services” of governments of the West Indies pointed out that “since tuition fees charged by most universities are only a fraction of their cost, students who go overseas receive a large subsidy from the countries to which they go; whereas if they were educated in the West Indies, the whole cost would fall on this community”. [changed in UK after Thatcher]

So why have a local university? Because of the fully recognized tremendous benefits a local or national university provides. A research university’s primary objective is to push back the boundaries of ignorance and lack of knowledge while enhancing understanding of our world, its natural and societal foundations. The point is our societies’ problems are not generally going to be the issues exciting foreign universities and researchers. Work for instance of the Tropical Metabolism Research Unit (TMRU) in pioneering research on sickle cell disease demonstrates this point. Context and underpinnings of the history of higher education in the region should be helpful here.

Brief Background

Sherlock and Nettleford, in their 1990 publication “The University of the West Indies – A Caribbean response to the challenge of change”, point out that in the half century “… following her settlement of Hispaniola (1500-1551) Spain founded the universities of Santo Domingo, Mexico and Lima … founded five others in the seventeenth century, and another ten in the eighteenth century.” In British North America the Pilgrim Fathers founded Harvard a mere 16 years after the Plymouth landing.

Conversely, it was more than 320 years before the British contemplated a university for the West Indies. There were different approaches to colonies of conquest, exploitation, or settlement. Not surprisingly — indeed predictably — all the former colonies that today boast the status ‘developed’, began their existence as colonies of settlement.

So how did the West Indies acquire a university, the institution whose Crest bears the Latin “Oriens Ex Occidente Lux” meaning “A Light Rising From The West”?

In January 1944, Secretary of State for the Colonies Oliver Stanley appointed the West Indies Committee of the Commission on Higher Education in the Colonies, under the Chairmanship of Sir James Irvine.[i] In the aftermath of World War II, preceded in the West Indies by the 1930s disturbances or ‘riots’ and the subsequent Moyne Commission Report, there was a relatively clear understanding that the Imperial regime could no longer operate as it did in the past.

Strategic decisions were taken to begin the process of weaning the colonies from the mother country. The need for leadership and groups of professionals would become acute; places at UK universities would be insufficient to accommodate undergraduates from the colonies.

Yet, the Irvine report, with little analysis or comment on the genesis and impact of the ‘history’ they cite and the resultant impact of ‘colonial education policy’ on the people of the West Indies noted: “… the history, racial composition and geographical dispersion of the West Indies have been unfavourable to the development of higher education. During the greater part of their history, higher education of any kind has been almost the monopoly of the small, white, ruling minorities which, in so far as they sought it for their children, found it ‘at home’, in Britain.”

Irvine’s mention of ‘racial composition’ as an impediment to development of a university speaks volumes. This, however, shall not detain us, except to point out that educating enslaved African workmen and women would be inimical to the ‘sugar revolution’ and its immense wealth creation.

Further Benefits of a Local University

Irving provides justification of a local university with this: “It must not be assumed that a West Indian youth, living possibly upon very small means in lodgings in some large city and attending lectures, is necessarily laying up a rich store of culture or strengthening either his character or physique for his coming work in life. We believe that if West Indian students could work together in surroundings of dignity and beauty, living in close community with each other and with teachers of the highest intellectual quality, and enjoying all the cultural and athletic activities possible in such conditions, they would develop fully, not only as individuals, but as West Indians.

Many of them might thus so strengthen their desire to serve their own people that it would not weaken when they went on to complete and broaden their experience overseas. This is perhaps, the only means by which the present divisions and insularities can be broken down.

It must be remembered that barriers exist not only as between the colonies but as between the races within some of the colonies. These divisions are of the most obstinate kind and the most hindering to the development of a healthy polity. There is, perhaps no atmosphere in which inter-racial cooperation and friendship is more possible than that of a residential university, and the association thus formed might powerfully influence for good the future development of some of these composite societies.” [Emphasis added]

This short passage embodies the core elements required for a deeper understanding of what later social thinkers associated with The UWI explored in discussion of the concepts ‘plural society”, ‘clientelism’, ‘family and colour’ and the like. These were significant efforts to come to terms with the dynamics of Caribbean social and economic reality. The interactive dynamics here are thoroughly interesting though perhaps to some puzzling, or yet to others unbridled idealism!

Whereas Eric Williams thoroughly opposed a subordinate college of a British university and focused on the desire on the part of the Imperial Government for “Cultural domination … reflecting the basic metropolitan philosophy of colonialism as serving primarily for the transmission of western culture and learning and the subordination of indigenous values, customs and languages”, Irvine was nevertheless able to provide persuasive argument and justification for the institution they were about to create.

Function of a Research University

Here I quote a simple but at the time a profound bit of observation from Adam Smith’s 1776 ‘Wealth of Nations’. He emphasized that a country’s wealth consists first in the “… skill, dexterity, and judgment with which its labour is generally applied; and, secondly, by the proportion between the number of those who are employed in useful labour, and that of those who are not so employed.”

These skills develop simultaneously as new technologies proliferate. They are never all created with inputs from universities but do derive significant benefits from practitioners at those institutions. Perhaps the mandatory, indeed indispensable knowledge-intensity of our information age makes these relationships more readily recognized.

The ascent to prominence of the American Research University was described in the 1980s as a “… form of social organization barely known elsewhere in the world … combining … basic research, a fair mixture of applied research, training for research, and undergraduate education in the same place, done by the same people, frequently at the same time”. This is the essence of complexity without chaos. Yet we must hasten to add the impact of WWII, and the Manhattan Project etc. and the stupendous funding the American government provides for basic research. UWI’s supporting governments cannot match this. Yet the linkages and collaborations evidenced in the initiatives UWI has undertaken point in this direction.

Admittedly, the Report agrees The UWI has performed admirably in its relatively short life, arguing that “The tremendous contribution of The UWI to regional development is undeniable.” The problems it identifies must neither be underplayed nor ignored. What appears to be the current public negotiation approach seems fraught with ‘unintended’ consequences most of which may be avoided with the correct amount of application of ‘wisdom’. A quality which I must assume, does exist!


[i] The members of the Committee were: Sir James Irvine, Vice-Chancellor of the university of St. Andrews — Chairman; Margery Perham, Fellow of Nuffield College and Reader in Colonial Administration, University of Oxford; Raymond Priestly, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Birmingham; Hugh Springer, Barrister-at-Law and member of the Barbados House of Assembly, and Philip Sherlock, Secretary of the Institute of Jamaica. Joseph Luckhoo, Barrister-at-Law and Member of the Executive and Legislative Council, British Guiana and W.D. [Billy] Innis, of Queens Royal College [QRC], Trinidad, served as non-permanent members of the Committee.

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