COLUMN – Let us not weaken our UWI!

Today's WomanWe recently witnessed a public tirade of criticism from the Prime Minister Freundel Stuart of the immediate past principal of the University of the West Indies, Professor Sir Hilary Beckles. The episode set me into philosophical reflection.

Prior to the establishment of the University of the West Indies in 1948, there were many critics who had started to draw attention to the fact that the Caribbean nation state (whether a collective or individual entity) could not manifest until there was a university dedicated to Caribbean scholarship. There was concern about the level and quality of graduates returning to the Caribbean who had been trained in England, America or Canada, and were professionally sound but lacked the civic, social and historical understanding to be of full service to their nations.   

As with so many other things in recent years, it seems as though the current Government is now taking the most expedient set of factors and using them to “cut loose” the UWI project. The obvious questions: how does this affect the wider Caribbean state? Who will be the gatekeeper of Caribbean scholarship if we weaken UWI? What will fill the economic space which UWI manages to plug? Are all ignored in the quest to cut Government transfers by any and all desperate means necessary?

The same criticism levelled at returning professionals pre-UWI in the 1939s and 1940s still remains true in large measure. Lawyers, doctors and to a lesser extent engineers ––  young people training in the “professions” –– are not as rounded as they need to be to make their fullest contribution to this region.

There has not been a successful marriage in the UWI system between “training for the professions” and enough of a grounding in Caribbean history and sociology to completely ameliorate the criticism. As bad as it is, though, had there been no UWI, the situation would be much worse.

Far from weakening UWI, we should be deepening its capacity to deal with postgraduate research and preservation of our civilization through book creation.

Does my pro-UWI embrace mean that I am happy with everything about my UWI? Absolutely not. Do I complain at every opportunity about the ways that my UWI could be better and stronger?

Sir Hilary, the registrar, the co-ordinator of graduate studies and others all know me by name, and dislike receiving my emails. Am I willing to give up on the UWI project and its embodiment? I would not know how to continue being a Caribbean citizen and do that.

The scathing attack on the office of principal of the University of the West Indies was significant for another reason. The principle of separation of powers has come to be accepted as a best practice in governance. There are roles and functions which the Head of State does not interfere with, because the perception of impartiality is desirable. This separation should (and does in other places) occur with respect to the academy.

For the Prime Minister of Barbados to attack the head of any of the institutions in the UWI project is for this country to be in a precarious place. There must be opinion shapers in this country who are all not singing from the same hymn sheet; and for our current leader not to seem to accept that lifts the brows.

There was another comment which came out of the exchange that caught my attention as well. There was some talk of who had spoken on whose platform. I too get this argument thrown at me when there is nothing else to be said.

We are funny people in Barbados. We have a funny notion of what politics is and what politicians are. I do not deny the fact that this has been developed mainly by a few bad politicians. However, in order to reshape the political landscape in Barbados, we need to reshape our concept of politics and politicians.

Every person who becomes politically involved is not interested in largesse. Some people are involved in politics for the service of people.    

The notion of faithfulness and loyalty to the political entity is evolving just as faithfulness and loyalty in other spheres are. Where a woman “put up” with a man who was cheating openly and disrespectfully in the past, now for her this is ground for divorce.

Likewise, the days of politically involved individuals blindly supporting policies and practices which are outside of good leadership just to be a faithful party supporter and “belong” are fading. When people leave a political organization, there are the strategists and party faithful who will create the narrative about disloyalty and betrayal.

However, analytical bystanders should be able to tell when a person uses a party affiliation merely as a way to forward a personal agenda versus when the person chooses and aligns his or her advocacy based on the belief in a bigger cause.     

Appearing on a political platform does not make an individual a cardholding member of any political party. Even if a person holds a card for a particular party, this is not a lifelong commitment. Where parties change by moving from policy and philosophy drastically, the people associated with the party have the right to re-evaluate the relationship.

Noting that a person spoke on X platform or Y platform, and using that as a basis for accusing him or her of not having credibility to speak is illogical. Individuals who are politically minded will continue to find mechanisms for their advocacy; whether it is in the traditional fora or in others. This is a healthy thing, and should be encouraged.

Of course, the real indictment in all of this remains over the heads of the current administration. The fact that young Barbadian women have been disadvantaged disproportionately by the decision to make students pay for university at the point of delivery cannot be denied. These women, because of our historical and social contexts, are usually single mothers.

The social fallout of denying them access to tertiary education is worth close attention because it not only affects now, but several generations after. Have we taken away the gravity of that? Must the crime rates go even higher and despondency become more acute before we get it?

(Marsha Hinds-Layne is a full-time mummy and part-time lecturer in communications at the University of the West Indies. Email:

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