Editorial | UWI’s artful walkback
His little tangle over which a committee of Parliament was intended to engage notwithstanding, Hilary Beckles deserves commendation and respect for the charm, and respect for transparency, with which he walked the University of the West Indies (UWI) back from a potentially damaging encounter with the legislature over the use to which it puts the money Jamaican taxpayers contribute to the academy.
We can only assume that Professor Beckles, the university's vice-chancellor, wasn't consulted prior to his registrar, William Iton, dispatching his muscular letter to the Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC) to the effect that as an autonomous regional, royally chartered institution, the UWI isn't accountable to the Jamaican Parliament for its finances. If parliamentarians wanted to know where and how it spent its money, they should ask the Jamaican government representative on the university's Finance and General Purpose Committee. And here is the legal opinion to prove it. Thank you very much!
Mr Iton, in the strict legal sense, is right.
There is a misapprehension among many Jamaicans, though, that the campus at Mona, and its recent offshoots, are indeed the sum of the UWI and that its ownership resides in the Jamaican Government. Such perceptions have deepened in the three decades since reforms inspired by Edward Seaga diminished the regional character with 17 contributing governments and gave ascendancy to domestic campuses.
But mere de jure assertion of Jamaican ignorance, as Professor Beckles implied in his letter to the PAAC's chairman, Wykeham McNeill, misses a larger and more fundamental point. In the financial year to July 2015, Caribbean governments contributed approximately J$26.1 billion to UWI, or a bit over 46 per cent of its income. Jamaica's portion of that payment was J$6.1 billion, or 23 per cent. Looked at differently, Jamaica accounted for 11 per cent of the university's income.
With a third of its enrolment, Jamaica is second to Trinidad and Tobago (43 per cent) with the number of students registered at all the campuses, which, in the absence of deeper analyses of relative costs at Mona and other hidden contributions by Kingston, makes the magnitude of this country's contribution to the UWI. Yet it is significant that despite being among the region's poorest economies, and undertaking tough fiscal adjustments, Jamaica has, in recent years, been the best in meeting its financial obligations to the university.
Concept of authority
There is, however, a larger concept than either the de jure or de facto authority of those who oversee the affairs of the university, that is, their need to appreciate its ownership by the Caribbean people in whose trust they manage it. Being asked to appear before national parliaments, or invited to account at a community meeting at, say, Bolans village in Antigua, shouldn't be met with hubris or presumed to be a diminution of its regional character. Indeed, it may well be an opportunity, to the benefit of the Caribbean, to reinforce its regionalness.
Indeed, as Professor Beckles observed in declaring the university's willingness to appear before the McNeill committee, it is "in respect to Jamaican investments in all the campuses, not just the Mona campus". In a way, Professor Beckles may have a struck a blow for Caribbean integration by, if only a short window, bringing a regional institution closer, and more accountable, to its people.