The University of Guyana is in the process of appointing a new Vice Chancellor. Compared with past appointments, it would seem like this hire is more in line with modern procedures pertaining to the employment of academics. In the US or Canada, for instance, a professor or senior administrator is required to compete by undergoing interviews and perform a job talk. The nation’s only university faces many challenges, which I do not think are insurmountable. Many of the wounds are self-inflicted by politicians, students and faculty. Several politicians on the UG Council are there mainly for satisfying the political goals of the political party. Most times party objectives do not coincide with what is best for the university or Guyana.
UG’s main medium term financial trouble stems from the fact that revenues are tied to an old G$/US$ exchange rate of 124, while its expenditures are indexed to the current exchange rate of 204 G$ to one US$. Correcting this imbalance would require that tuition increase to reflect the higher exchange rate. Increasing the tuition would close the present operating deficit by about G$350 mill annually.
The politicians of the country may not find it politically convenient to increase tuition. However, students must realise that the quality of the service they receive is a reflection of what they pay. Lecturers are less likely to be motivated to improve performance with current levels of pay. Attracting lecturer scholars will also require better pay. It is never cheap to run a quality university. On the one hand, students benefit privately from a university education and should therefore pay the higher tuition. University education of citizens, on the other hand, has an important public good dimension; hence the government ought not to underfund the institution. To just name a few, the public good dimension includes a well-trained and productive labour force.
Tuition from Guyanese alone ought not to be the main source of revenues. The university is unable to attract many foreign students, even at the meagre levels I saw when I was a student there between 1992 and 1996. This could be an important source of revenues since foreign students will pay three or more times what a local student will pay. However, attracting foreign students will require significant improvements in all segments and aspects of the university.
Political interference is always a problem for the university. Others have delved extensively into this problem; therefore, I will emphasise other issues. Lecturers have to step up scholarly research so as to win the institution regional and international acclaim. There is no reason why Social Science lecturers should not be doing research given the myriad of problems Guyana and the Caribbean face.
Faculty of Social Sciences
In the halls of Freedom House runs a deep suspicion of the Faculty of Social Sciences. Some folks at Freedom House and several PPP sympathisers would like to see this crucial segment of the university closed. This suspicion could be rooted in the fact that social scientists – several economists, sociologists, political scientists and a few accountants – are the country’s most vocal and acerbic critics of the government.
Like the natural sciences, the social sciences provide important positive spill overs for the wider society. It ventilates ideas, generates criticisms and creates new public management systems. The criticisms keep a large percentage of the population informed. These better informed individuals are likely to be good participants in the country’s fledgling democracy. As the nation contemplates inevitable political and constitutional reforms, the social scientists will play a crucial role. Abandoning the Faculty will make the nation less informed and intellectually poorer. It will result in an even less accountable government. With limited criticisms the mistakes of this government are likely to multiply. It will lead to the sad state of a malleable and politically gullible electorate, especially as we rely on Cuba to fill the gap.
The immediate and medium-term economic impact of closing Social Sciences will be dire. A negative multiplier effect will instantly occur as about half the student population will not be available to spend on rent, food, travel, entertainment, etc., in the Cummings Lodge and greater Georgetown area.
Several hundred faculty and support staff will lose jobs, thus making the situation worse. Tuition paid by Social Sciences students – the largest group of students – subsidises other areas in the university. Therefore, the success in the natural sciences, forest sciences and engineering will be dependent on the continued success of Social Sciences. Only the most short sighted of politicians will want to see the Faculty close.
One other misconception that runs deep at Freedom House is the idea that private schools can replace several segments of UG. This is wrong since for profit schools will under-produce social graduates, thus taking away the much needed public good character of the university. Private for profit schools will not be interested in faculty research, which is crucial for inventing new ideas and systems. They will be more concerned with next quarter profits instead of long-term research projects which are inherently risky, but can serve the nation by inventing new methods and management systems. One might argue that private universities in the United States generate large amounts of research. That is true. However, they also receive a significant amount of federal and state government subsidies.
My thoughts here are not in any way exhaustive. First, government has to make sure that the loan system works so students can obtain loans for tuition. Used creatively, the loan system can help to incentivise students to go more into the natural sciences and engineering. UG’s problems, however, cannot be solved in isolation from other national problems. At the national level a credit reporting system needs to be created so that those who choose not to repay student loans will be disciplined by the market with a low credit score. Obtaining future credit for a home or car will be costly and difficult. In the United States many employers are pulling credit reports before offering a job because, in many instances, how we treat our debt obligations tells a lot about our personality.
Second, as a percentage of the student population, foreign students should increase to at least 30 per cent. Again this can be accomplished only if other ills at UG are corrected. Once the academic standards are drastically improved, foreign students can pay three or four times the local tuition.
Being the only English-speaking country in South America, I do not believe this is an impossible objective. Third, politicians without university administrative and academic experience should be removed from the UG Council. Fourth, a national discussion should commence on how to integrate the objectives of the university with the goals of national development.