Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The University in Retrospect

Selwyn Ryan logo39

Mark Fraser

 I was shocked to hear Mr Colm Imbert say that in his capacity as minister of Terti-­ary Education, he once invi­ted Mr Karl Hudson-Phil­­lips to accept an hono­rary Doctorate of Laws from UWI (The University of the West Indies), and that the latter turned it down on the grounds that he had alrea-dy been awar­ded seve­ral such awards and felt that he should not accept another. 

This refusal was cited as evidence of Karl’s humility.

My own view is that the rejec­tion revealed no such thing, and that the former attorney general was in his own way not only refusing to accept

an award from the government, but that he was raising questions about how an invitation of that nature should be made and by whom. 

In my view, it was wrong to have Mr Imbert make such an offer. Such a gesture should have come from the vice-chancellor of the university, without reference to the State, except in council. I would like to believe that Mr Hudson-Phillips felt that way too, viz, that honorary degrees should not be used to reward donors or serve as political patronage. 

My purpose in this column is not to revisit the events that shook the university recently, in respect of the award of degrees, honorary and earned. Those issues, however, need to be revisited, and I assume that the university will do so in the fullness of time. My purpose is simpler and involves a retrospective assessment of the manner in which UWI has carried out its mandate over the four decades that I have been associated with it, and also to address some issues that it will have to face in the years just ahead. 

Universities, from time immemorial, have been seen inter alia as repositories of wisdom and knowledge, and it was invariably deemed important by rivals to control them. While this was generally true of all universities, it was particularly the case in the new post-Independence, and UWI was no exception. In the scramble for power, two views generally prevailed: one was that the university should be free to decide what was best for the society. The other view was that the university was too important a resource to be left on its own, and that the responsibility for controlling it should be assumed by those elected by the people. As Dr Eric Williams opined: “It is a cliché to say that the university should be left out of politics, and should remain aloof...holding aloft the torch of learning, and maintaining a bene­volent neutrality. This concep-

tion is quite erroneous. Modern politics, like modern war, is total. Neutrality is untenable....”

How have we done in terms of these two perspectives? Generally, my view is that the university administration and the teaching staff did yeoman service to improve academic standards and to respect the competing claims of the major stakeholders. There was initially concern that once the links were severed with inhe­rited colonial institutions, the system would collapse. This did not occur. 

The concerns were to maintaining quality and compatibility between the respective campuses. This involved annual pilgrimages to Mona, Jamaica, or whichever campus hosted university meetings. There were times when most of it seemed unnecessary and waste­ful. In retrospect, however, all of it was valuable and served to keep standards acceptably high. My judgment, and I speak as someone who has also taught in East and West Africa, Canada and the Uni­ted States, the UWI staff did

well with the resources which they had. Many of its pro­ducts now hold up the State or are placed in some of the best schools the world over.

For a variety of reasons, however, things have began to change. Standards are falling, and have been doing so for some time. The triggers for this southward movement have been the policy decision taken by State authorities that class sizes should be tripled. The argument here is that space and other resources needed to be more fully utilised and that development required that more of the region’s youth be educated up to the tertiary level. The arguments for increasing numbers have merit, but our attempt to flood the tertiary market has, in my view, come at the expense of a fall in standards.

Some of the people who have been queuing up to receive degrees at all levels should not be in the cue at all. The fact that many more students are getting “firsts” now does not mean that they are brighter and more accomplished. It is that the material is being watered down and course marking has generally become “easier”. One hears a lot about “dumbing down” and “grade in inflation”.

One of the major by-products of this new regime is an inability to find competent academic staff to supervise grad­­uate work. Another problem is that many graduate students register for courses while being full-time employees or teachers and do not have time to work to their full potential. Many students thus graduate without having been properly supervised. This is a knock-on problem since many had entered undergraduate programmes without being able to spell or write acceptable Eng­lish, now under threat from texting. Many will thus be useless to their employers, whether in the public or private sector. Employers would have to retrain them. 

What then was the point of the expansion? Should we really have built a South campus in Debe, or was that a part of the Government’s “sou­thern design”? Was the need really there or should we not have up­graded UTT (The University of Trinidad and Tobago)? Should we continue to subsidise tertiary education virtually indiscrimi­nately, or should we use need and performance criteria to determine who gets assisted?

What to do? How do we rescue the academically weak and encourage the potentially strong? How do we deal with the feminisation, the ethnic imbalance and the particularistic socialising patterns of the student body? How do we coun­ter the problem of State over­-

stretch? How do we get staff to do more research if they have to spend more time teaching underprepared students?

One key concern expressed by many who spoke to me, with passion in some cases, has to do with academic stan­dards and institutional integrity. They moan that many of our national iconic institutions are being compromised and insist that the university, which is virtually the last man standing, should not be allowed to experience a similar fate.