Caricom education ministers together with their senior education officials and other education sector stakeholders met on Friday last at the Caricom Secretariat to finalise a regional strategy for education and human resource development, which is to be presented at the next Caricom Heads of Government Summit for approval.

Chancellor of the University of Guyana Professor Nigel Harris was quoted in the Jamaica Observer as saying that, “A critical element of success of this strategic paper will depend on our Governments emphasizing the need to mobilise the interest and enthusiasm of deprived communities which lack the stable family structures, the economic and other support factors necessary for the full intellectual and emotional growth of their young people.”

But just the day before, on Thursday March 30, the Governing Council of the University of Guyana met and, after a seven-and-a-half-hour marathon round of deliberations, agreed to an increase in the tuition fees for students of 15%, 10%, and 10% over the next three academic years. Whilst these deliberations were ongoing, a silent protest was staged outside by students of the university.

The timing of the announcement of the increase in fees, surprisingly (or perhaps not) coincided with the meeting of Caricom education ministers with an agenda that did not at all gel with the announcement of an increase in tertiary education fees.

Tuition fees at the university were re-introduced in the 1994-95 academic year, based on a “cost recovery programme,” but this was mitigated by a very accessible student loan scheme which a large number of students took full advantage of, as it was clear that attendance rates would be significantly lower without this facility.

The University of Guyana through its Vice Chancellor, Professor Ivelaw Griffith has attested to the under-funding of the university’s operations from its two principal sources of income – government subventions and tuition fees – and has noted his intention to seek to “broaden both of these.”

The administration of UG is caught between the dual necessities of meeting its obligations to all categories of staff, together with its obligations to students. Staff and their unions have been agitating for increased remuneration, and lecturers and students for better research and laboratory facilities. While students have been protesting against increased tuition at the same time they have called on the university to broaden its accreditation status internationally, and to improve the physical condition of the campus, referencing sanitation and health issues.

The administration, therefore, finds itself fighting on two fronts at the same time. Its employees are expecting that the increased tuition fees will ensure that their promised salary increases will be forthcoming, but students are adamant that they should not be called on to pay increased fees given the poor state of the university’s physical and other facilities.

As the students, faculty and workers all jostle to make sure their concerns are heard, the UG Council has the task of resolving the various issues, not the least of which is finding the necessary funding to reduce the shortfall in its budget, and to re-order its priorities where no funding is available.

What becomes more and more apparent as UG tackles these yearly recurring issues is the ad hoc manner in which the administration is forced to deal with issues. That the operations of the University of Guyana are in dire need of a total overhaul was articulated at a three-day conference of local and diaspora stakeholders in June 2016, initiated by the Vice Chancellor. The conference found that the university is seriously underprovided with the materials, equipment and technologies required for its effective functioning. The conference ended with a resolution signed by 70 eminent Guyanese including Major General (ret’d) Joseph Singh of the Ministry of the Presidency, Vincent Alexander of the Ministry of Education, and Dr Mark Kirton of the University of the West Indies, among other local and international luminaries.

The June 2016 conference called on the government to provide emergency funding to the university to prevent its “imminent collapse.” In the 2017 Budget the government increased its subvention to UG by approximately 20% over the 2016 subvention; however, this increased sum was still 35% less than what was requested by the university in its own budget submitted to the Ministry of Finance.

In all this there seems to be a troubling disconnect between the administration of the university and the Government of Guyana – its chief source of funding – on the way forward. On the government’s part, it seems that financial constraints have left it unprepared to grapple with the enormity of the problems that exist at UG. The university in turn appears to have given up hope of being able to acquire funding for the massive overhaul necessary to achieve the turnaround in fortunes it sought to inspire by way of Professor Griffith’s June 2016 conference and resolution.

But maybe the issue of budgetary shortfalls and transferring part of the financial burden of the university to the students is clouding a more fundamental deliberation that the government and the UG Council must make. And that is to reconsider the role of the University of Guyana in our country’s development, and whether stop-gap, ad hoc fixes are adequate interventions for preserving this role and expanding its reach and relevance in a technologically advanced world.

Can we afford to fund the comprehensive overhaul needed to ensure its proper functioning and wider international accreditation?

And perhaps more importantly, can we afford not to?

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