UG must be put on a firm financial footing

Dear Editor,

The University of Guyana (UG) is a state-owned institution. The ongoing economic deprivations and required strengthening of the nation’s flagship tertiary institution can no longer be the sole purview of a few or held hostage to political vices. The GTUC is troubled by the news from Vice-Chancellor Jacob Opadeyi of the possibility of this institution facing closure if the majority of students cannot pay increased tuition fees, and the wait-and-see game with the Ministry of Finance on student loans. The thought on every Guyanese mind ought not to be fear of a potential closure, but can we afford not to have a university.

A principal role of government is investment in its people. Education must not only be accessible, it must also be affordable, and it is from this backdrop a government always takes seriously its leading role to ensure a level playing field for all citizens, regardless of social, cultural, economic and political background. The development of a nation is heavily reliant on the education of its people. The more skills a workforce receives, the better equipped workers are to contribute to their own and the nation’s development. Similarly, as the government sees the state-owned sugar industry as too big to fail and has been injecting billions to this end, the University of Guyana must fear no less. The university’s $450 million in debt can be taken over by the state.

A strategy also needs to be conceptualised, developed and implemented to put the institution on a firm financial footing, adequately equipped to meet the educational needs and challenges of the 21st century economy. The GTUC urges the people’s representatives to tackle head on the wellbeing of the university, immediately on the reconvening of the National Assembly in October. A committee should be established to review the state of affairs, allowing for input from members of the University Council, management, workers, students and other interested parties. Open and frank discussions must guide deliberations and lead to recommendations that would arrest the decline and ensure longevity.

Prohibitive cost affects educational advancement of the economically less fortunate, given the inability to pay fees or secure guarantors. Yet those who are able to access these resources – some on completion – are forced to migrate to seek employment in order to repay loans. These are scenarios that create undue anxiety, educational under-development and a brain drain. The GTUC does not profess to know all the answers to the problems facing the institution. The GTUC would like to see respect for the Guyana Constitution which guarantees free education from nursery to university, and some form of national service as a means of cost recovery, and this does not necessarily have to have a military component.

A government abrogates its responsibility to its people when they are forced to seek opportunities elsewhere for educational advancement, especially when the state owns a university. The GTUC is aware the Hoyte administration had commissioned a study by the late Sir Alister McIntyre. A recommendation in this study was that cost recovery be addressed for the university, which the PPP on assuming office used as the reason to introduce fees, ignoring the constitution’s education guarantee other recommendations in the study. McIntyre’s study must be made public and the subject of review. Others also have proposals, including the university unions, and these should be examined.

For too long UG has been held hostage to the politics of punishment, pettiness and cowardice. Started under the Cheddi Jagan administration operating out of the Queen’s College Secondary School, it expanded, and a permanent campus was built at Turkeyen during the Forbes Burnham administration, with further expansion and structural review under the Desmond Hoyte administration, so now the institution cannot be left to fall by the wayside. This nation must demand that its politicians rise above pettiness and the tendency to seek to destroy, through underfunding or neglect, institutions built and developed by political rivals. Political rivalry must not extend to national destruction, lest this nation be suffocated by perpetual retrogression as others advance.

Caribbean member states with universities have facilities and conditions of service that surpass us, and this is not by accident. This comparative edge has been driven by the collective determination and investments of government, opposition, workers, students, trade unions, business and other stakeholders. Where governments of sister countries see their universities as opportunities for quality education, ensuring a competitive workforce and developmental advantage, Guyana lags behind, held captive to the politics of pettiness, punishment and cowardice.

When in 1926 Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow and fellow Caribbean labour leaders conferenced and deliberated in Georgetown, among their visions was universal education. Eighty-eight years later, as a nation, we must take forward steps to make real education for all those who care to access it through the University of Guyana.

And the GTUC is further concerned about the workers’ morale at this institution. The adversarial relationship of management towards the unions does not foster a climate of partnership needed for the success of the institution. The most valuable resource in any organisation, is its human capital. Arrogance and high-handedness undermine efforts to deliver quality education and make the university an institution of excellence. An environment where workers’ views and grievances are ignored or treated with contempt is not conducive to working, learning and development.

Given that the principal objective governing this nation and grounding labour relations is built on inclusivity/the right to participation in decision-making which affects one’s wellbeing, such ought not to be discarded at whim. In light of inadequate remuneration and less than satisfactory working conditions, the labour of workers is testimony to their love for and commitment to country. While many have fled to greener pastures those that remain continue to provide yeoman service, to make a positive impact on those whose lives they encounter. Workers must therefore be allowed to function in an environment where they feel respected, valued and appreciated.

The GTUC acknowledges Vice-Chancellor Jacob Opadeyi’s service to Guyana. And as a paid servant of the people we expect him to respect our established structures for human engagement and laws that protect the workers’ rights. These are values the majority of Guyanese hold dear and expect to be practised in day-to-day management-worker relations at the university.

Yours faithfully,
Lincoln Lewis

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