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Continuing Reflections on UWI’s 70-Year Existence

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On Tuesday, on the occasion of the Annual Independence Lecture series of the Open Campus, SVG, I was able to present some reflections on the University of the West Indies (UWI) over the period of its existence and its role in Caribbean development. It occurred to me that to most of us the University is simply a place where people go to study and return home, get a job, and hopefully become a part of the establishment. The role which the University is playing and should be playing in Caribbean development, does not really form part of our conversation. In fact, even graduates see their role in a very limited way, without recognising that they represent a small proportion of persons who through the contribution of taxpayers were able to benefit from tertiary education and therefore should have an obligation to the society.

I have not seen recent figures, but CARICOM nations had been behind the rest of Latin America with the percentage of persons receiving tertiary education. UWI’s establishment at a time when the region was beginning the process of moving away from colonial status to embrace a federation, meant that it was almost from the beginning seen as a pillar of that federation and a symbol of regionalism. The early demise of the federation and the subsequent independence of Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago left the University the sole symbol of that regional quest we had hoped for and in fact still do today.

The West Indian cricket team actually preceded the establishment of UWI and represented a region that was then only a colonial administrative construct. Today, as many of us question the region’s ability to deepen the integration process, we tend to equate our failure to attain a Caribbean Single Market and Economy with the failures of our once illustrious cricket team. UWI has persevered and has had periods of ups and downs where, with three campuses, Trinidad added in 1960, Barbados, 1963, the demands of the new nations threatened the regional nature of the University. It is therefore a tribute to UWI that it was able to maintain its regional identity in spite of that.

The tensions of the late 1960s, especially with the banning of Walter Rodney and later Clive Thomas from Jamaica, ran counter to what the University was supposed to represent, but then Jamaica was an independent nation, free to make its own decisions. Then there was the 1970 crisis in Trinidad with university students being central to it. The tendency to want to exercise a measure of control when you are contributing financially to an entity was always going to be a threat, but better judgement has prevailed, and increasingly regional governments are beginning to recognise the central role the University has to and had been playing in Caribbean development.

The onset of the Information age with its technological revolution, marked a shift to a development pattern where the role of human resources and knowledge became critical. The region’s ability to interface in the new global environment demanded using the University’s research and expertise to inform innovation in the way we produce and do business. In other words, we need to lift our economic activity to a new level and the research which had long laid untapped is now beginning to be utilised through partnerships with academia, private enterprise, government, and other productive agencies.

The contribution which we make to the University from our taxpayers has now got to be seen as an investment in Caribbean development and the University has been quite conscious of its role. The theme of its 2017-2022  Five-Year Strategic Plan is “Revitalising Caribbean development” and its mission statement has long been re-emphasizing its commitment to Caribbean development.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian

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