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UWI backs down - Antigua PM supports local MPs wanting to question use of funds

Published:Friday | October 14, 2016 | 10:00 AMJovan Johnson
Prime Minister of Antigua & Barbuda, Gaston Browne.
Sir Hilary Beckles
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Gaston Browne, prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, supports Jamaican politicians who say the University of the West Indies' (UWI) initial refusal to appear before a parliamentary committee must be used by Caribbean Community (CARICOM) countries to galvanise efforts to cut links with the British monarchy.

The UWI stunned the Parliament's Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC) on Wednesday in a letter advising that it would not meet a request to appear before it as the institution is a regional autonomous one, and under its 1962 Royal Charter, the UWI answers to the British monarchy, identified as the 'visitor'.

William Iton, the university's registrar who signed the letter, instead directed the PAAC to get information on how the university uses government funds from representatives on a finance committee.

Yesterday, the university's vice-chancellor, Professor Sir Hilary Beckles, issued an apology, saying that the letter was "misunderstood" and that the university "is keen and willing to appear before the PAAC".

 

EMBRACE NATIONAL GOVERNMENTS

 

Noting that UWI's governance systems have been created "to embrace" national governments, Beckles continued: "There is, therefore, no attempt to challenge the authority of the Jamaican Parliament, which we celebrate and recognise as having made the single largest investment in the UWI in these past 68 years."

PAAC chairman Dr Wykeham McNeill, to whom the apology letter was addressed, said he was pleased that the UWI had changed course and attempts would now be made to accommodate them.

"I'm happy. What we're interested in as a committee is just ensuring that there is proper oversight of public funds. The university has never appeared before us, [and] we had concerns."

In the meantime, McNeill said the committee would still make recommendations to the Parliament for Jamaica to influence CARICOM to revisit arrangements with the university to ensure that parliaments could summon officials to discuss how public funds are used.

"In the day, these institutions, governed under charters, would report directly to the monarch. But the monarch is the head of the Parliament, too. These are anachronistic, and it really comes to us as a people to understand that we have taken far too long to move to the process of not just self-government, but be a Parliament that answers to the people of Jamaica."

On that, McNeill has won the support of the Antiguan prime minister who said that any entity that received public funds was "obligated" to make itself available for public scrutiny.

According to Browne, it is "proper" for the Parliament to summon any entity that gets money appropriated by that same Parliament.

 

POLITICAL MATURITY

 

"You can utilise that Royal Charter if you're perhaps independent, but if you're dependent on public funds, you have to account. Until the university becomes wholly independent of the Government, I don't see how they can take that position. I do not know that they get money from the queen," he told The Gleaner.

The prime minister said the situation again highlights the lack of "real value continuing with the monarchy" and brings into focus the politics involved in countries taking action. "Until we get to the level of political maturity, where we can treat these as issues rather than whether you support a political party, we'll have some difficulties making those changes," he argued.

CARICOM governments contributed 46 per cent of the university's total income for the 2014-2015 academic year, according to a report from university bursar Archibald Campbell.

He, however, noted that government contributions over the years have been in "perpetual decline".

Jamaica contributes about 20 per cent of the annual funding of the UWI.

This year, Jamaican taxpayers are providing $8.3 billion, an amount that could fund the justice and transport and mining ministries.

jovan.johnson@gleanerjm.com

See full text of UWI snub letter and apology note to Parliament here: http://bit.do/UWIsnub.