We have failed our university

By last weekend the academic staff of the University of Guyana had not only thumbed their noses at Vice-Chancellor Jacob Opadeyi’s five per cent pay increase offer for 2015 but had decided to hold out on their demand for a sixty per cent increase. It appears too that what was already an inflamed situation had been made worse by what is perhaps best described as the coarseness of the Vice-Chancellor’s action in curtly withdrawing the original five per cent offer which had already been rejected anyway and then abandoning the talks with the University of Guyana Senior Staff Association (UGSSA) and the University of Guyana Workers Union (UGWU), seemingly as a ruse designed to force the staff back to work. The University of Guyana Students Society (UGSS), meanwhile, has proclaimed a “revolution,” a militant utterance in an already flammable situation though one is unsure as to quite what, in this particular instance, “revolution” means.

It took a while for UG to get where it is today and when all of the grouses on all the sides that have now brought the institution to a grinding halt are taken account of, it is difficult to tell where the impasse will lead and how and when it will end. Presumably, the government will want the issues settled before it begins its election campaign in earnest and that, undoubtedly, accounts for calls for the intervention of President Donald Ramotar. There is, the President would undoubtedly be aware, a measure of political risk in his administration turning his back on UG’s problems at this time.

The problem is that UG’s circumstances do not lend themselves to a short-term solution that is driven solely by political expediency. Too many issues have been allowed to fester over a protracted period of time without any attempt being made to address them comprehensively, so that even if, for example, the gap between the university’s five per cent pay increase offer and the union’s demand of sixty per cent were not so wide and even if, somehow, an agreement could have been reached last week to get the lecturers back to work, what then will become of the student “revolution”? This encompasses a range of issues, some as basic as improved sanitary blocks and better furniture, which, it would appear, are tied to the protest of the staff. If the UGSS appears to lack both the leadership experience and the track record to plan and perhaps more importantly sustain the sort of protracted action which a ‘revolution’ might imply, it has to be said that quite a few generations of their predecessors have endured some of the identical issues that now confront them, so they might well be inclined to draw a line in the sand and go for the long haul. No one should be surprised if it turns out that the students have now reached the end of their tether.

Where the role of the university is concerned the available evidence would appear to suggest that we have lost our way. We live in an era when knowledge has become vital to our collective social and economic development, replacing other resources as the principal main driver of economic growth, individual prosperity and social mobility (though some will no doubt beg to differ on this issue) and that, we are told, is why the university exists. And yet, for all the importance that we purport to attach to the university, all the talk has, in real terms, amounted to little. On the contrary and over time, UG has become a political rag doll, wrangled over and pulled apart until a point was reached where we could no longer bear the humiliation of what it had become. Truth be told, there has been no period in well over two decades when UG has not been overwhelmed by crises that have had to do, in the main, with the stranglehold in which our parochial politics has held the institution. It has been either that, or else, issues that reflect chronic institutional neglect or downright incompetence on the part of those who are charged with ensuring the health of the institution.

It is the government, in the final analysis that must carry the can here, not necessarily because it has been the source of all of the institution’s problems, but because it has simply not been able to be the source of sufficient solutions, favouring, it seems, the politicization of the institution rather than focusing on ensuring that UG becomes part of a successful partnership through which the intellectual engine room for the realization of the country’s developmental goals can be realized.

These days, not a great deal of thought appears to be invested in the reasons why UG exists in the first place, which is precisely why we appear not to pay too much attention to the fact that many of our best and brightest pursue their university education elsewhere, and why we must pay the price that we do to attract the skills which in its present condition it cannot produce. Those are only some of the ways in which UG continues to fail to deliver in a manner that even remotely keeps pace with the country’s developmental ambitions; and even if, in the fullness of time, some arrangement is arrived at that allows for the lecturers and the students to return to their respective pursuits, that will not amount to a normalization of things at Turkeyen. Normalization will only result from a radical change in the governance culture at UG, a change that ceases to treat the institution like a political trophy and allows it to breathe, to grow and to deliver skills for development, and when it is allocated the resources with which to pursue its mission.

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