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The University of the West Indies: Performing against the odds

  • Sir Ronald Sanders


Published: Jul 20, 2013

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A few days ago the BBC Television World Service interviewed one of the wealthiest persons in China.  She will be 48 years old next month and her assets are worth US$3.6 billion.

Zhang Xin was born into abject poverty, began working in a sweat-shop, lived in a single-room with her mother in Hong Kong, saved from her paltry earnings to buy a ticket to the United Kingdom where she took secretarial classes while working.  Then she attended my alma mater, Sussex University, where she studied economics before going on to Cambridge University to get a master’s degree in development economics.  In 1995, she set up what is now the largest property development company in China, of which she is the chief executive officer.
When asked what she believes was the key to her success, her answer was unequivocal – education. 

That is an answer that would be given by the vast majority of successful persons from the Caribbean in almost every subject.  Education liberated tens of thousands of ambitious and hard-working Caribbean people from poverty and allowed them to contribute to the development not only of themselves and their countries but also to other countries where many migrated.  More than 60 percent of the tertiary-educated people of the Caribbean live in Western industrialized nations.

All this is germane to the University of the West Indies (UWI), which is the premier institution for higher learning in the Caribbean and which, for 65 years this year, has been producing graduates in a variety of fields. 

UWI remains crucial to the continued liberation and prosperity of Caribbean people and Caribbean economies through education.  But, the institution lacks the support it needs from governments and the Caribbean private sector (including foreign-owned financial institutions that have profited hugely in the region) if it is to continue to serve the 16 Caribbean territories from which its student body comes. 
UWI is one of the few institutions that has sustained itself over the last decade.  It has done so despite the fact that a number of governments of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) have failed to honor their payment obligations particularly in the last few years.  Reports indicate that UWI is now owed in excess of US$100 million – a less resilient institution would have collapsed under such a heavy burden of non-payment. 

It is generally appreciated that the economies of many of the Caribbean countries are in decline.  But their governments’ decision not to pay the university is short-sighted.  For every Caribbean country – now more than ever – requires educated persons to be well trained, to be entrepreneurial and innovative, and to contribute their skills to economic recovery and growth.

UWI deserves praise for its foresight in taking initiatives to reduce dependence on governments, including by vigorously pursuing grants and development funds from international agencies. 
Examples of such external assistance are a CDA$20 million grant from the Canadian International Development Agency to UWI’s Open Campus to increase the number and diversity of distance education programs and several grants from the European Union (EU) for a variety of projects relevant to Caribbean development.  As a regional university, UWI has won more grants from the E.U. than any university in the 79-nation African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) group.

In its areas of research, despite the fact that it has suffered from a lack of funding from the governments whose countries it serves, UWI has done extremely well to raise money from external sources and gain international standing for research in some topics such as sustainable development in small island states, early childhood development, and select areas in law, marine and environmental studies.  It is the university’s good reputation, established over many years, that has made it suitable to donors for assistance.

To varying degrees, campuses of UWI have also introduced commercial operations as a means of earning revenue.  For all these initiatives, UWI deserves the appreciation of the Caribbean people.  The university is a light shining in the gloom of Caribbean integration; its sustained success can help to dispel the darkness. 

Funding UWI and higher education are now critical issues.  For instance, if the university is to generate impactful cutting edge research and innovation especially in science, its laboratories need more resources to upgrade them. The leadership of the university is also well aware that, without adequate funding, the stock of trained and qualified persons, who can help to drag Caribbean countries back from the backwater into which many of them are slithering, will decline. 

It is significant that, in the last seven years, applications to UWI have grown from 17,000 to 30,000 and enrollment has grown from 27,000 to more than 40,000.  There is, therefore, a thirst for higher education which – if quenched by the university – can serve the Caribbean well.

It has to be acknowledged that governments cannot fund every person who wants to pursue higher education.  Some of the costs will have to be shared by students, as happens in many other parts of the world.  But, this should not be an excuse for governments not to meet their financial obligations to UWI.  A formula should be agreed for paying-up past dues and for sharing costs between governments and students in the future.  Priorities should also be established for training in the specialties that Caribbean countries require for their economies to grow and compete globally. 

UWI has itself set out a thoughtful strategic plan for 2012-2017.  It is a plan that recognizes the university’s strengths, weaknesses, threats and opportunities.  But the plan’s effective implementation is hobbled by the debts owed to it.  If the university is to continue to produce graduates to meet the Caribbean’s economic development needs and satisfy the ambitions of the region’s people, education has to be a priority for governments and the private sector.  They both have to give UWI the committed support it needs.  The issue is not academic; it is practical.

• Sir Ronald Sanders is a consultant and senior research fellow at London University.  Send responses to: www.sirronaldsanders.com. Published with the permission of caribbeannewsnow.com.

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