The price of being a public official

By Noel Kalicharan

 In all the brouhaha surrounding the award of an EMBA to Wade Mark, one thing is clear. None of this would be so newsworthy if Mark were not a public official. I cannot speak to the specifics of what occurred in this particular case since I am not privy to the details, but I can discuss some general issues that have been raised. Let’s examine what is claimed to have happened.

 “The UWI made concessions to Mark.” The UWI makes concessions to students all the time, for a variety of reasons. Indeed, sometimes I feel we go a bit overboard in our attempts to be “student-friendly” and I’ll deal with that at another time.  But the reality is that concessions are made, albeit for a very small percentage of the student population.

For instance, if a family member has died close to an exam, the student may request and be offered a make-up exam. Of course, it is up to the examiner to ensure that the paper is of similar quality to the original one. I, personally, have had to set make-up exams on several occasions during my thirty-seven year stint (so far) at the UWI. None of it made the news. 

A vision-impaired student can have their exam paper printed in bigger type and given more time. A dyslexic or otherwise disabled student may also be granted more time. In such cases, in order not to be disturbed by other students who will finish before them, they are allowed to write their exam in a separate room, properly supervised, of course. 

A few years ago, a student had failed one of my courses on three occasions. Each time, he failed with more or less the same mark. It was clear that, for whatever reason, this would be the result no matter how many chances he was given. The course had now become the only one he needed to graduate. In order to “assist” the student to do so, the Faculty recommended that he be given an oral exam, instead of a written one.

The reasoning was that, maybe, it was not a matter of the student not knowing the content but a particular anxiety he had about the written exam. Perhaps a different style of assessment might be appropriate. He passed the oral but, again, failed to make the news. No politician demanded to know how long he took to get his degree or how many courses he failed and how many times. Surely these are private and confidential matters. Unless you are a public official and others have something to gain? 

Oh, by the way, your class of degree is automatically lowered once you fail two or more courses, even if you subsequently pass those courses. For example, upper second Class honours will be dropped to Lower Second Class. A pass degree is not lowered since it is the lowest class obtainable.

Mr Mark is also being pilloried for “using the Parliament letterhead for personal reasons”. While, strictly speaking, this may not have been the proper thing to do, it really should not be such a big deal. Surely, the question should be whether he gained some advantage in doing so. I cannot speak for the Arthur Lok Jack School officials or those from other faculties but, from my experience within the UWI, the answer would be no.

I, as a member of various committees, have had to deal with all kinds of requests from students. We do not care if a request is written on a fancy or supposedly-influential letterhead, typed, hand-written, hand-delivered, posted or delivered by courier.  Only the merits, or otherwise, of the request matter to us. In fact, it might even be counter-productive for a student to write us a letter on Parliament or other official letterhead. 

Our first reaction would be, “Really? He thinks this will give his request more weight? He thinks that will influence us?” The result is that the letter may have a subconscious, negative impact. The student who sends a scrappy, hand-written request may actually get more sympathy but, in all cases, we try to focus on the content rather than the packaging.

Some pretend that this issue is about academic standards and claim it has the potential to devalue the UWI brand. Folks, this is about one student and one course out of an entire programme of studies from a relatively new kid on the block, the Arthur Lok Jack School. 

If we were really concerned about academic standards, we would be highlighting, among other things,  the thousands of persons walking around with entire degrees from “external” institutions as well as local ones, which are hardly worth the paper on which they are printed.

We should be asking how come so many have degrees with First Class Honours but know very little of what they are supposed to know. We should be horrified that many of them are “teaching” in our schools.  As Raymond Ramcharitar puts it, “Certificates like crazy, but little knowledge…Our institutions are filled with people with fake or meaningless qualifications who can’t actually do anything…”

That is what should disturb us and what we should be debating. But we won’t since those who hog the news are interested only in a bit of sensationalism for a day or two, and seem incapable of  discussing issues that really matter.

• Noel Kalicharan is senior

lecturer, computer science at UWI

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