On 1st October this year, the University of Guyana will celebrate 50 years since it first opened its doors. When it started, it had a minuscule budget and no facilities to speak of (it was housed for the first six years in the masters’ houses in Queen’s College compound), but its pioneer lecturers and students had enthusiasm, a certain idealism, a commitment to educational advancement and a belief that they were embarking on a project which would evolve into an institution of which the nation could be proud. In due course accommodation at Turkeyen was built, and the university expanded at all levels, attracting lecturers and students many of whom were a credit to the nascent institution.
But over time something went wrong.
Just how wrong was exemplified in a report we carried last Tuesday on a picketing exercise by the two university unions – the University of Guyana Senior Staff Association (UGSSA) and the University of Guyana Workers’ Union (UGWU) ‒ to protest about a variety of issues. Among these was the matter of salaries being paid late, the non-receipt of benefits and the fact that NIS, credit union dues and health insurance had not been paid in. On Friday, the union members moved off campus to demonstrate outside the Ministry of Education. Vice-President of the UGSSA, Dr Melissa Ifill, told this newspaper on Monday that Vice Chancellor Jacob Opadeyi had indicated to her in an email that he was in support of the unions on the question, and believed that their action was the only strategy that would take the university from where it is to where it needs to go.
Professor Opadeyi has not been in the post for very long, and one wonders whether before he applied for it he had any idea of what he would be getting himself into. One imagines not. The problem is that UG has been on a downward spiral for many years with low salaries, a decaying physical infrastructure, poor conditions and low morale among staff and students. Nowadays, a significant proportion of the teaching staff is underqualified and inexperienced, while the deterioration over the decades lower down the education system has had its repercussions too on the student intake of the university.
While these problems are difficult and would take a considerable time to address, many of them have been with us for so long now they have acquired a patina of intractability. But what was reported last week is a new low, even for problem-plagued UG. How is it possible that our only academic tertiary institution has now reached the point where not only can it not pay salaries on time, it is not even meeting its statutory obligations, such as making NIS payments, in addition to not paying in the health insurance deductions. Here we have a major public institution purporting to teach others that is operating in flagrant breach of the law. It is nothing short of a disgrace.
How to put things right at UG has been the subject of much discussion over the years, and the institution has been the beneficiary of any number of development plans, strategic plans and even a presidential commission. Structural changes in some instances have been made, but nothing that has been done up to now has arrested the downward slide. The reason for this is not far to seek; in fact it can be summed up in two words: money and politics.
The government has never seemed to grasp the basic truth that a university cannot be had on the cheap. Professor Obadeyi’s predecessor, Professor Lawrence Carrington, produced a strategic plan which after amendments was accepted by the cabinet; however, it involved an increase in the subvention to the university which never materialized. In other words, the government wants upgrading and improvements, but it doesn’t want to pay for them. It may recognize that there is a limit to the increases in fees students can be asked to pay, not only because this is a low-wage economy, but also because the latter would have to be persuaded they are getting a tertiary education which would withstand scrutiny elsewhere in the world. However, the constraints in relation to fees notwithstanding, it is not prepared to make good the financial deficit itself.
The government’s idea appears to be to induce the private sector to get involved and take some of the financial strain through partnership arrangements. It is true that in some countries the business sector plays a major role in funding tertiary facilities and/or programmes, but here the sector is first of all very small; and second, even if it had the necessary resources, it would have to be convinced that the programmes are up to scratch, and that it would benefit from the investment at some level, even if it was only in the long term. In other words UG would have to be operating at a much higher and more efficient level before business would show any serious interest in it on any scale. As it is, therefore, employing high-level scholars like Professors Carrington and Opadeyi as Vice-Chancellor in the hope that they would present the impressive face of UG to the private sector, has not produced the results the government-controlled University Council and the government itself had hoped.
Much has been written about the corrosive effect of politics on UG, and that situation has not changed. The attempts last year by the university staff unions to persuade the Minister of Education ad interim to have some seats on the council – UG’s governing body ‒ filled by those with credentials from, or experience of academia, rather than those with political affiliations did not get a sympathetic hearing. (The unions recognize that the current laws relating to the composition of the council need to be reformed.) The government just seems incapable of understanding that political control is incompatible with academic development and the growth of knowledge.
At the time Premier Jagan decided that Guyana should have its own university, the expectation was that we would join UWI. With the wisdom of hindsight, it now seems that that might have been the wiser road to take. But since we cannot change history, the government should remember that UG was the late President Jagan’s very own institutional child, so to speak, and in abandoning it to a twilight existence it is rejecting his vision which they are so fond of touting.
With that in mind as well as for other reasons noted above, they should find the current financial crisis in UG unacceptable. It may be that the inefficiencies of the bursary have had some part to play in this particular story, but given past history, it is not unreasonable to suppose that a large part of the present problem is simply that the institution lacks the resources necessary to meet its obligations, legal and otherwise. If so, it is an emergency and the government has to accept a large share of the responsibility, and take some action now.
At the graduation ceremony of the university in 2012, President Ramotar told graduands that the government would “exert all efforts” to strengthen UG, and advocated a non-partisan discussion of the issues to ensure it was transformed into a world-class institution. There is no sign of any of that happening yet.