University of the West Indies role: deep and wide

Published: Sunday | March 15, 2009


Carroll Edwards, Contributor


Edwards

The University of the West Indies, Mona, welcomes The Gleaner's invitation to continue the engagement on its role and contribution to the nation. In our Letter to the Editor dated December 2, 2008, we sought to clarify the role of a comprehensive university such as ours. Its mandate encompasses much more than teaching. Equally important tasks of a comprehensive university include research, public service and community outreach.

The cost of UWI's contribution to the society, therefore, cannot be limited to the cost of training students, however vitally important to economic development that training is. Indeed, independent studies carried out on the contribution of UWI's graduates to Jamaica's firms unequivocally revealed that those firms who have UWI graduates in leadership positions are likely to be more innovative and productive than those whose employees are graduates of other universities in Jamaica (Vanus James, et al, 2006).

The UWI curricula are constantly updated and responsive to the changing needs of the society. In addition to their teaching responsibilities, faculties are out in the field conducting research and disseminating their research findings to policymakers in areas including fisheries, biodiversity, information technology, sustainable urbanisation, alternative energy, agricultural economics, entrepreneurship and heritage. They are also chairing or being members of leading national public and private sector boards and committees. Additionally, they also conduct conferences and symposia with a view to educating the society on issues relating to their research and engaging the community through social service.

held accountable

There is validity in questioning the quantum and quality of the research that is being undertaken in the academy. Indeed, the UWI must be held accountable for that quality. Dr Trevor Hamilton's concern about the contribution of our research given what he asserts is the average 1.2 per cent growth in the economy over the last 27 years and 8.1 per cent worsening of social disorder over those years is perfectly legitimate.

One should ask, however, whether the country's investment in university education and research is sufficient to spur economic growth. There is also the serious issue of the effective transmission of research into policy. The work and recommendations of UWI researchers on crime - Barry Chevannes, Horace Levy, Anthony Harriott, and more recently Herbert Gayle, to name a few - have been pointing to solutions to the problem for many years.

The UWI is heartened by Prime Minster Bruce Golding's signalling at our recent Research Day forum financial support for research as, he acknowledged, research was fundamental to any country's agenda in pursuit of economic growth.

It is not coincidental that the other two countries which are the major contributors to the UWI, Barbados and Trinidad & Tobago, have been experiencing robust economic growth over the last 15 or so years. In these countries, there is no aggressive competition for the pool of tertiary-level education applicants. In Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago, the level of competition for tertiary level education applicants is much lower than in Jamaica. In Trinidad and Tobago, the UWI competes with the University of Trinidad and Tobago, the national university and the Southern Caribbean University. In Barbados, there exists competition only at the level of a community college seeking to attain university status. The governments of both these countries continue to increase their support of the UWI in their countries, even as they encourage complementary national institutions.

lured away

The UWI, Mona, embraces the fact that it does not monopolise the higher education market in Jamaica. Over the last 10 or so years, some 50 degree granting institutions have mushroomed in Jamaica. Despite this, Mona graduates constitute the largest percentage of degreed persons in the country. The UWI, Mona, remains the first choice for 75 per cent of the higher education pool of applicants. Indeed, all of the Jamaica scholarship winners in 2007 chose to attend The UWI, Mona. Many of those applicants for whom the UWI is not the first choice are lured away by foreign scholarships, or a lust for foreign experiences that their parents are able to afford.

We must acknowledge that UWI, Mona has been slow in promoting itself in the aggressive manner required in fiercely competitive markets. Nor have we been successful, as has been our sister campus in Barbados, in convincing this country's policymakers on the importance of university services to development. This, we are changing. Our recent annual reports expose what we have been doing to continue to align our curriculum, applied research and community outreach to national development goals.

mounting policy fora

We have also engaged an agenda for mounting policy fora to ensure that there is uptake of our research findings into national policies. In order to increase access to the university, we have established the Western Jamaica Campus in Montego Bay as a satellite site of Mona. Additionally, we continue to expand our offerings through e-learning and via the UWI Open Campus sites across Jamaica. This information is contained in the campus' annual report which may be viewed at http://myspot.mona.uwi.edu/principal/principals-report.

The UWI, Mona, is keenly aware that Jamaica's financial straits continue to worsen as the world economy declines. Indeed, the university has worked with governments to reduce the level of their contribution, now down to 52 per cent of overall operational costs. We have been aggressively pursuing income generating activities so that we may subsidise the annual cost of training a student. The UWI is able to produce graduates of similar quality at less than 60 per cent of the cost to produce such a graduate at a university in the US. Despite this relatively low cost, the UWI graduate is internationally competitive. There is not a single university in the developed world that does not accept qualified UWI graduates into their postgraduate programmes and our graduates excel in the global workforce.

While it is true that the majority of Mona's lecturers were educated at UWI, most of them have had their postgraduate training in overseas universities. Thirty-seven per cent of our faculty originate from countries outside of Jamaica, including Great Britain and Ireland, Europe, Africa, USA, South and Central America, India, Asia, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

As part of a regional university, Mona also has the additional advantage of benefiting from collaboration with staff from the two other UWI campuses outside of our country, who also employ internationally diverse academic staff. It is, therefore, far from fair to accuse the UWI, as Dr Hamilton does, of incestuous hiring practices. One of the challenges currently confronting the institution in maintaining a diverse faculty is how to keep our salaries competitive, capable of recruiting from an international pool.

While we engage the debate about male representation at the UWI, or that about the mix of programmes (science based as against the humanities and social sciences) offered at UWI, Mona, we note that both of these reflect world trends. More important, Mona has engaged over the years studies on the sex distribution in education institutions at all levels. These studies have shown conclusively that male dropout begins at the primary-education level, escalating through to the sixth-form level. We acknowledge the need to make education at all levels more male-friendly and to this end have embarked on some meaningful programmes that have already begun to bear fruit at the UWI.

Finally, the UWI agrees that there is need to strengthen investment in early-childhood and primary education. Indeed, it is UWI, Mona staff who have led the way in policy shifts to this end. We firmly believe, however, that appropriate national policies aimed at recouping from Jamaica's university graduates some of the investment that the country makes towards their education will more than ensure infusion of the required resources at the early-childhood and primary-education levels. Again, the UWI is at the forefront of discussions with the Government on how to achieve this.

Carroll Edwards is public relations officer, UWI, Mona. Feedback may be sent to columns@gleanerjm.com


Dr W. Allen Davis (left) from the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the University of the West Indies, Mona, explains the functions of the uterus to Black River High students Stacy-Ann Levy and Kenisha Colquhoun at a University of the West Indies Research Day. - file