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Educated nonchalance and apathy. Time to rise up!

Published:Thursday | July 24, 2014 | 12:00 AM

By Jaevion Nelson

It is inexcusable that tertiary students are so often deafeningly silent about issues of national development. The 22 student guilds and unions that are members of the Jamaica Union of Tertiary Students (JUTS), established in 1972 to, among other things, "discuss, comment and act upon current affairs which are of interest or importance to students" are too unperturbed by the current state of affairs. They seemingly have or see no need to castigate our leaders or hold them accountable.

One would think this group is spared the wrath of the socio-economic maladies affecting all of us. Youth unemployment is significantly high and a female university graduate is most likely to be unemployed. Many university graduates - well, of those who remain in the country - are subjected to arduous work for ridiculous salary packages. In excess of 70 per cent of graduates migrate.

Are the JUTS members not aware of these issues? On top of that there is inflation and the devaluation of the dollar, crime and violence, low levels of literacy and numeracy, and teenage pregnancy which is particularly high, among other things. What will it take to prod them to raze their nonchalance?

The apathy is appalling, to say the least.

Institutions of higher learning have a critical role to play in society and student guilds and unions are key in this regard. One of the foremost roles is to be actively engaged around pressing and current issues related to national development. They must, therefore, as Dr Saleem Badat (2009) vice- chancellor of Rhodes University in South Africa, argues (in an address titled 'Valuing the role of higher education in society'), "contribute to forging a critical and democratic citizenship".

According to Badat, "Societies require graduates who are not just capable professionals, but also sensitive intellectuals and critical citizens ... Academic programmes together with our institutional culture and practices must therefore ensure that we keep ethical questions in sharp focus, and that we advance a democratic ethos and a culture of human rights conducive to critical discourse, cultural tolerance, and a common commitment to a humane, just, non-racist and non-sexist social order."

Considering the silence and apathy, the situation begs the question of the role of JUTS and its members if not to concern themselves with discourse and actions in relation to national development and human rights. What is the cause of their seeming fascination with silence? Oblivion?

Let us reflect on the University of the West Indies (UWI), the country's (and region's) premier tertiary institution. There was a time when students and student leaders there seemingly understood their role in this regard. In the 1960s and early 1970s - a period described as "a time of great political activism" - students organised a mass protest in 1971 against the wearing of gowns daily by publicly burning them.

When Walter Rodney, who was very active in the Black Power movement, was banned from returning to his teaching position at UWI in 1968, the Guild mobilised students to close down the campus and march on the Office of the Prime Minister and to Parliament. I remember in 2004, when I was a student at UWI, the then president of the Guild, Damion Crawford, was actively mobilising us around the CSME to ensure we understand its rationale and implications. I can't recall the last time anything remotely similar happened.

It is always so fascinating to see what gets students and those of us who fall in the educated middle class riled up about the state of affairs in our country - despite our disinterest in democracy and governance. Sunday night when Minister of Water Robert Pickersgill spoke about water crisis in a national broadcast was a prime example. Suddenly, after several months, we realised there is a water crisis and became concerned about governance.

We cannot be so complacent and oblivious until we are in a crisis mode then castigate the Government that they only act when there is a crisis. We are just as culpable. The problem with Jamaica rests largely with the apathy of the middle class educated elite that could care less about what is happening in our country. We cannot allow ourselves or afford to be so disaffected and inactive at this critical time in our history.

Student leaders have an enormous responsibility to change the culture of silence at our tertiary institutions and generate interest in issues of national development. It is necessary in ensuring good governance; to hold our leaders accountable.

For this coming school year, I challenge the members of JUTS to:

1. Develop a campaign/programme to encourage democratic participation. Empower students about the importance of voting and getting enumerated.

2. Develop a strategy to address apathy.

3. Find ways to ensure that students are actively engaged around development issues. That they can learn about current, past and future developments and what implications decision may or may not have.

4. Routinely conduct research on key issues of national development among the student population to give guilds a credible voice.

Jaevion Nelson is a youth development, HIV and human rights advocate. Email feedback to and