Sun | Jan 20, 2019

UWI deficit in big-idea projects

Published:Wednesday | October 17, 2018 | 12:10 AM


Recently business titan Howard Mitchell criticised the University of the West Indies (UWI) for not producing industry-relevant research of a high quality. Though widely shared, his sentiments represent only a small part of the debate.

The greater issue is the myopia of UWI and the private sector. It is possible that in some areas, the UWI may lack adequate capacity, but this problem can be solved by training new scholars. But despite attempts by the UWI to facilitate a relationship with the private sector, the response of the business class has been lukewarm.

Universities are expected to create knowledge that will improve society. However, to do so, they will need the support of an innovative private sector. In Jamaica, the private sector may not have the capital to create institutions on the scale of the Rockefeller and Alfred P. Sloan foundations, but there must be an acknowledgement that local businesses have a role to play in the production of new knowledge.

Policies to make the UWI more competitive are immaterial, if local entrepreneurs do not see themselves as institution builders, partnering with the university to build a better Jamaica.

Yet the UWI should shoulder some of the blame for how it is perceived. Local academics have a duty to not only provide solutions to solve national problems, but also to participate in global debates. Our academics have not released sufficient treatises on topical issues such as the ethics of artificial intelligence or the crises of democracy. There has also been a proliferation of big-idea books like Yuval Hariri's Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2016) and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now (2018).

Narratives on global issues can be shaped by local academics and they should not cede this role to Europeans and North Americans. Furthermore, Jamaican social scientists ought to develop an interest in scholarship beyond the study of slavery and Jamaican culture. The reality is that studying a foreign culture does not mean that local academics are negating their blackness.