Saturday, December 16, 2017

Selwyn Ryan’s myopia

Selwyn Ryan provides (Sunday Express, February 2) a hurried account of what he perceives to have been the contribution of UWI. The surprising takeaway from his analysis is that what impedes the university now is the poor quality of its entering students. He launches a broadside on these students. For example, he says that “Some of the people who have been queuing up to receive degrees at all levels should not be in the (queue) at all”.

Students are not able to spell or write acceptable English he says. He goes on to suggest that the poor quality of students might be a reason why faculty are not sufficiently engaged in scholarship, asking rhetorically, “How do we get staff to do more research if they have to spend more time teaching underprepared students? Here Ryan appears to be offering amnesty to those faculty members who are not productive. But UWI gets the cream of the crop of students in the country. Is our best not good enough for the university?

A clear elitist line underpins Ryan’s commentary. He points to expansion of access to the university as the culprit. As more students enter standards fall. This includes part-time students who work during the day. But there was a time when university education was reserved for the elite, and prized for being scarce. This was the English model. But in the US, the Oxford model that colonists drew upon when they established Harvard was viewed by some 19th century legislators as not being grounded in the practical needs of development and was inaccessible to ordinary people.

The US Congress invented a competing model, the land grant university, that would be accessible to the children of all, and that would pay particular attention to the improvement of Agriculture and Mechanics (A&M). Today these great land grant universities (such as the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Iowa State University, Purdue, University of Minnesota, University of Maryland, University of Florida and University of Illinois at Champaign) are world leaders in a vast array of academic disciplines.

The US also invented the two-year community college which today offers a host of programmes leading directly to careers in a host of fields including IT, nursing, and law enforcement. Community colleges pride themselves in opening their doors to immigrants, minorities and first generation college-bound students. They give secondary school dropouts a second chance by admitting them and offering remedial coursework to get them prepared for the rigours of their chosen disciplines.

Globally, the push toward the ideal of a knowledge society means that countries are striving to expand access to tertiary education. This is opposite to Ryan’s ideal. In Latin America this expansion can be seen in Cuba, Brazil, Argentina and Chile among others. In a recent talk at UWI on what it takes to be a world class university, Moroccan scholar Dr Jamil Salmi said that to be considered an academic giant in the region UWI would have to make connections with French and Spanish-speaking neighbours such as Haiti, Dominican Republic and Cuba.

UWI stands somewhat isolated in the region with no real partners, and no competition. Meanwhile each year the top universities in Latin America are determined, based on seven quality indicators inclusive of academic reputation, employer reputation, faculty/student ratio, the proportion of staff with a PhD, research papers per faculty, citations per paper, and web presence.

In 2013, 81 Brazilian universities were included among the top 300 institutions. Five Cuban universities were listed.

I think we have to say that yes, UWI has run an excellent first leg for the country, moving it 50 years beyond Independence, providing critical personnel across the professions and disciplines. It remains our most important institution. But all universities today, wherever they are located on the globe, must now think about how to be relevant in a world in which knowledge is so rampant and so easily accessible.

Going forward, UWI St Augustine must face up squarely to three sources of inertia if it is to hold its own. First, for most of its existence it has lacked competition. Without competition complacency and arrogance take hold. Second, it is a State-funded institution which by nature means it is not entrepreneurially driven. Even at state-supported universities in the US it is expected that faculty members would bring in revenue. The leading researchers bring in money from prestigious entities such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Health.

This money pays their salaries, and those of their graduate research assistants. The universities recover substantial overhead costs from such grants. Third, as Prof Ryan points out, the campuses of UWI operate in lockstep. Currently there must be consensus across St Augustine, Mona and Cave Hill on a host of matters. Rather than a consensus approach, which could stifle creativity, a time will come when these campuses will find they will be better off if they compete, or if they go it alone on some initiatives.

Part of the task of the university in the future might be to help both government and public understand better how to apply its work, or how to make demands of it and shape its work. One reason why research may be languishing at UWI, as Ryan suggests, could be that the society makes no demand for the results of research. There are a large number of areas of public life that can benefit from the results of research. We may begin with basic food supplies. Staple local fish such as carite have been over-fished. Carite are now much smaller than in the past. Research can help here. Boys are under-performing at school. Some geographic locales are more prone to crime. Research can help uncover answers.

As we look at the economic landscape in the country, we see remarkable stability of what Lloyd Best called the plantation economy. There is scarcity of local fruit, but a lot of apples, grapes, and pears. Our markets are flooded with Irish potatoes and imported salt-fish, though we can salt local fish. There is absence of a creative manufacturing sector, where significant effort is put into research and development. There is almost no new industry that is based on local products such as asphalt.

We have nothing by way of inquiry into local materials that can be the basis of low-cost housing. Going forward, UWI and other universities here will have to devote more of their efforts to knowledge-creation, than knowledge-dispensing. There remains much for us to understand about our islands, and about the region in which we live.

• Theodore Lewis is emeritus professor, University of Minnesota. He is currently part-time lecturer at UWI