Last week UWI issued a release stating that it was in the process of negotiating an agreement with the Government of Guyana to train up to 20,000 Guyanese over the next five years through the agency of its Open Campus. The intention was, it was said, to help drive forward Guyana’s human development strategy.
It was an extraordinary announcement. What was even more extraordinary was the disclosure that this proposal had been the subject of a virtual meeting between President Irfaan Ali and UWI Vice-Chancellor Professor Hilary Beckles on November 5, in which they had discussed a strategy for the country’s future which was “exciting, sustainable, and on the cutting edge of Caribbean governance.” President Ali, the public was told, had urged UWI to be “very aggressive” in its business plan, and that he had identified all areas of human resource development that this country was in urgent need of.
UWI, said the release, regarded this collaboration as exciting, given the institution’s Triple A Strategy, which focuses on revitalising Caribbean development through three key areas: Access, Alignment and Agility – whatever that means for local purposes.
Who would have thought that President Ali was omniscient. There he is after three-and-a-half months as leader of this nation, a complete expert on the economic, social and cultural aspects of our future development; with a total grasp of the human resources this will necessitate; and an innate understanding of all the educational requirements his vision will involve.
And this impressive mastery of the educational demands of our future trajectory as a nation was achieved without the commissioning of a human resources survey, for instance, or any discussion with those knowledgeable in the field, or with affected bodies, such as UG. In fact, there was no attempt to put these ideas in the public domain at any level so there could be some kind of dialogue at the very least. And when we do hear about them, the information emanates from UWI, no less, and not State House or the Presidential Secretariat. So much for openness with the media and the inclusion everyone was promised.
All the letter-writers to this newspaper last week who expressed concern about the news – Drs Vibert Cambridge and Rishi Thakur, Mr E B John and Ms Tabitha Sarabo-Halley – raised the question of UG. It might be noted that a casual look at the UWI Open Campus website does not inspire anyone with the conviction that it is going to transform the youth of this country. As it is there is nothing much there which potentially could not be offered by the local university, even supposing that such a limited range were desirable. A clearly needled UG in a press release stated it had “not ceded its mandate”, and that given the external source of the statement, the university read it not as national policy, but as one of “grand intention”. (The President was subsequently to confirm the 20,000 figure in an address to the GDF.)
One wonders whether UG is not erring on the side of optimism, particularly when it is considered that the next stage in this exercise apparently, is exchanges between UWI and the relevant ministers of government. If this is the level of expertise on which the head of state is relying, then he is not justified in feeling any buoyancy about his proposal.
There is something else too, and there is no indication as to whether this was discussed with Prof Beckles. A degree programme at UWI at present requires CAPE level qualifications, while UG accepts entrants with CSEC. So is UWI going to make an exception of UG students, or is the proposal to have most of the 20,000 just apply for certificate courses? Conversely, since UWI will also admit students who have a certificate from certain institutions, is President Ali’s plan to send UG graduates there to be retrained? Then again, perhaps he has it in mind to reform the education system and introduce sixth-form departments into a range of schools, as well as provide the qualified staff for these so the 20,000 could qualify for UWI degree admission.
The real issue, of course, is why UG is being bypassed. The local university has been in severe financial straits for many years, and now we are being told that Guyana’s precious resources are to be spent on UWI, and not on building up our home tertiary institution. It is not even as if the word “collaboration” crept into the UWI text; there was simply no mention of UG at all.
On the list of certificate offerings on the Open Campus website was one for Climate Change, although there was no indication as to when this course would begin. If there is any location more suitable for such a subject area and associated environmental matters it is surely Turkeyen. Given our forest, the existence of Iwokrama, our diverse tropical fauna and flora, we should be pouring money into vastly expanding our Faculty of Earth and Environmental Science to operate at a level which is world class. And since this is a hydraulic society and we have a tradition of civil engineering, what about our engineering faculty? UWI has little to teach us in these kinds of areas, including where the threat from the ocean is concerned.
These are just one or two examples, and while no figure has been put on the UWI proposal, one cannot help but feel that if that money were to be spent wisely on UG it could make a difference. So the question is, what is President Ali’s policy for UG? Has this government decided to abandon Dr Jagan’s creation altogether and substitute UWI?
More than one of our letter-writers were concerned about how the figure of 20,000 was arrived at. Ms Sarabo-Halley wrote that a “systematic survey of the human resource needs of the public service, and the country in general” was needed, while Dr Thakur said that it was never a question of training the right numbers, whether 20,000 or 30,000. The issue was keeping graduates in the country in circumstances where 79 per cent of them migrated. It is a valid point. So what, one wonders, is President Ali’s answer to this? He would probably respond that a vibrant oil economy would solve the problem. If he does, he would be ignoring the deep-seated political issue which has stymied our development for half a century.
Dr Cambridge raised an issue of a different kind. Towards the end of his letter he asked whether the “engagement” with UWI was associated with Professor Jacob Opadeyi. The Professor is now a faculty member at UWI’s St Augustine campus, but from 2013-16 had been the Vice-Chancellor of UG. Dr Cambridge goes on to say that Professor Opadeyi had “in some way [been] associated with President Ali’s doctoral work at UWI, St Augustine” and had recently been appointed as Special Projects Officer in our Ministry of Education. While he was Vice-Chancellor, the Professor “was awarded a US$193,000 contract for the digitization of immovable property records and the establishment of an electronic database with linkage to the sub-registries of the Deeds Registry.”
Given his promises of transparency after entering office, the President would be well advised to give the public some account of how the approach to UWI came about.
A “hare-brained scheme” was Dr Thakur’s judgement on the project. Yes, indeed.
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