The recent parliamentary debate in Barbados on the resolution for a government guarantee of a loan from the National Insurance Scheme for the University of the West Indies (UWI) was an interesting exercise, devalued only when some Members of Parliament assumed roles as overseers of the intricate academic details of the UWI.
Had the MPs kept their debate focused on the merits of the actual resolution, the interest of the public would have been more sincerely served. Instead, as is customary for politicians, many of the speakers could not resist the opportunity to pose before a captive audience and sought to tread into regions revolving around the hiring policies of the university and other issues germane to its academic functioning.
Can we imagine the damage to society were politicians to hire university academics?
From its inception deep in antiquity, the academy has always valued its existence free from any hint of political interference. For similar reasons as obtains with the judiciary, it is in society's interest that a class of people devoted to independent thought be allowed to exist, insulated from the always short-term and opportunistic objectives of politicians.
In keeping with its medieval origins, a long-standing tradition of the university is the cultivation of a hierarchy of apprentices and journeymen, who understudy masters as part of the process of continuous knowledge generation.
Sadly, it appears that neither the society at large nor the politicians themselves appear to appreciate the value of a class of independent academics to society's development.
So given are politicians to having full control over the public service that there appeared to be some frustration on the part of MPs that the university was not a statutory corporation over which they have direct influence. This frustration was expressed in the manner in which they railed against the human resource needs and practices of the university.
We can all expect that as economic conditions continue to deteriorate, established modes of financing the university will be rethought. Indeed, it is in the university's long-term interest to free itself from over-dependence on government financing.
It may also be true that UWI's academic freedom may be better served through the widening of tertiary options in the Caribbean region, which will reduce the ownership pretensions of governments towards the university. If UWI becomes "a" university, as distinct from "the" university, governments will be less grudging and resentful of the academics of the region.
It is clear therefore that the moment has arrived for discovering new approaches to sustaining the University of the West Indies. However, every care must be taken to ensure that, in the adjustment, the UWI which emerges remains true to the ideal of a genuine university, one which is beyond the control of transitory and fleeting political concerns.
Our leaders, though resentful, must be mature enough to contribute to its emergence.
• Tennyson Joseph is a political scientist at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill
campus, specialising in regional affairs.
—Courtesy Barbados Nation