New petroleum dep’t is small part of plans for UG’s development – Vice-Chancellor

Vice-Chancellor Ivelaw Griffith

Although the University of Guyana (UG) has started preparing to cater to nurturing skills for the oil and gas sector with its planned opening of a Department of Petroleum and Geological Engineering next January, Vice-Chancellor Ivelaw Griffith says it is only a small part of the comprehensive plans he has for the institution.

“The business of oil and gas is not limited to technology. Coming into the industry, we are going to need people with the education skills and expertise in many areas,” he said.

“Take law, for example. There is the likelihood that we will need, in the first years, more lawyers and accountants than petrol engineers. There are contracts that are going to be signed, there has to be management and oversight of the agreements, we need people for that. Then there is health and safety. We have to beef up what we are doing in that area… every time there is drilling, there is an Environmental Impact Assessment that is going to be needed. So, that in turn means our Earth and [Environmental] Science faculty has to be beefed up. The works are offshore, so we are going to have to consider what are the environmental marine biology impacts of it. That means we have to poise our marine biology work in the faculty of Natural Sciences to cater for that and the list goes on. Every single faculty needs upgrades to cater for this. Us being an oil and gas-producing country requires us to transition for that new dispensation,” Griffith told Stabroek News in an interview.

Lifting the university’s standards and making its graduates globally competitive are key among Griffith’s plans but he is also passionate about the establishment of a department that focuses specifically on oil and gas training. He believes that it is necessary that locals should be equipped with the education and skills needed to work in a sector likely to be the country’s biggest revenue earner for many years.

‘Strengthening the pipeline’

It is why he has partnered with the University of the West Indies and the University of Trinidad and Tobago to establish the Department of Petroleum and Geological Engineering.

“Last week’s set of events was part of the events to prepare for what I call our oil and gas adventure. Last week, I hosted the President of the University of Trinidad and Tobago [Dr Sarim Al-Zubaidy]. We know that we can’t do this by ourselves. We know that we are going to be establishing a new department and we don’t have all the labs, facilities and lecturers that are required,” he said, while alluding to the week of activities on oil and gas that the university hosted.

He said based on an invitation he had extended earlier in the year, Al-Zubaidy travelled here. It was during the visit, Griffith said, that he facilitated a luncheon with the UTT President and stakeholders, including government officials, university personnel outside of engineering and technology, the Ministry of Education’s Technical and Vocational personnel and the heads of the technical institutes.

From the discussions at that meeting, the Vice-Chancellor proposed the formation of a consortium so that all the tertiary institutions could “partner better in preparing for the oil and gas.”

“Not all the skills needed are going to be at the university level. Some will be needed at the technical college level. We don’t do welding here at UG, we don’t do carpentry and some of those things are definitely going to be needed,” he said. “But we know that persons from the technical institutes come to us to complete their university or associate degrees and we need to strengthen that pipeline. So the consortium is intended to strengthen the pipeline. If there is a lab that we have that is not being used and they need to use it, then they can have. I want to formalise that,” he added.

To foster and realise the skills needed for global oil and gas accreditation, the Vice-Chancellor said UG will have to look to its regional counterparts for help, initially, and he has started forging partnerships with UWI and UTT.

But to bring personnel from the universities would require paying them at competitive rates and having local students travel to complete some practicals. It is in this area that the traditionally cash-strapped institution will be turning to government and oil and gas stakeholders for assistance.

‘Digging a hole’

Government has already committed to half a billion dollars over a five-year period for works in the Technology faculty but more funding will be needed.

“Our university has grown up almost digging a hole to fill a hole, having lecturers having to scrounge to do two, three jobs because you are not paying them enough. We have to change that. The relevant stakeholders and the relevant stakeholders are government, industry and the students, have to be prepared to put the resources into the university,” Griffith said.

“I am very pleased that the government is already beginning to demonstrate that. We signed an agreement with [Natural Resources] Minister [Raphael] Trotman last year where we get $100 million per year, for the next five years, to help shape up what we have in mining and for energy that is coming.  I also have a lot of support from the Ministry of Public Telecommunications.  But we are not all there as yet, which is why we have to partner. Some of what we know is that we will need some lecturers from UWI to teach some of these courses. So, some of them will come to teach. Some of it will be online, but we also know that we will have to hire new people and we are going to be doing that in several different respects, both for the new department and for the existing departments. We don’t have enough lecturers in electrical, civil and mechanical engineering, so we are going to have to find the money to invest. So, the money is going to have to come from the government, going to have to come from the industry, [going to] have to come from students,” he added.

Griffith explained that the university has a planning committee that is crunching numbers and gathering data to determine how much will be needed annually to fund the new department while meeting local students’ abilities to pay the tuition. He said that he does not want to go to government or any company asking for aid until the university finalises an approximation.

“I have a committee that is working on the general costing but we are also working with UTT and UWI on those two programmes to be delivered in January and we have to finalise the cost. We are not exactly there yet. How much would come from government? I don’t know because I don’t want to go and ask for specific sums and don’t know what we are asking for. We have been getting small things but I am not comfortable that we have all the data as yet to go ask,” the Vice-Chancellor said.

“One of the worst things you can do is ask for channa money then to find out what you really need is real money. So, I know people are excited for us to go to Exxon and get US$50,000 now when it will be really US$5 million that is really needed. So we are still having conversations with Exxon and others but we know that we are going to need major investments. We need the data, we need approximate costs. So, when we sit down with them, we can say, “Here. This is what establishing the lab would cost, this is what it would look like, here is what an endowed share in petroleum would be, here is what a professor of practice would cost us annually,” he added. 

With Guyana is poised to start collecting significant revenue with the slated start of oil production in 2020, he stressed that government needs to invest heavily in education if it wants to see holistic growth.

“The government needs to take some of that money from oil and gas and put it into education; put it into the university; put it into agriculture and diversify, not just get stuck on oil,” he added.

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