Antigua and Barbuda has embarked on a journey to establish a university. It is to be the fourth campus of the University of the West Indies (UWI) and will join Mona in Jamaica, St. Augustine in Trinidad and Tobago and Cave Hill in Barbados. From what we can see, the arguing regarding the use of the Five Island facility for a university, and not its original intended use as a secondary school, has petered out and progress is being made towards making the Antigua and Barbuda campus a reality. Whether it is a university or a secondary school, we think that the investment in education is a good thing, so we will happily back the effort.
That said, about a year ago, the financial position of UWI was painted as being grim. The source of the university’s financial peril was identified as the inability of Caribbean governments to keep their commitments to the institution. The news was delivered by UWI Vice Chancellor, Sir Hilary Beckles, who said at the time that, he was “very concerned” about the university’s financial situation and would have to seek out alternative means of raising the required capital to carry on operations.
He added that UWI was facing the headwinds of serious financial challenges and the restructuring of its international operations was a must. The financial shortcomings were to be addressed initially by the increase in the fees paid by students, which as you can well imagine, was not met with any warm welcome. Since then, we have not had any definitive answer to our questions regarding the restructuring of its international operations, despite our continued queries. In any case, the last we heard, talks between the Ministry of Education and the representative from UWI were progressing so we can only presume that the situation has improved.
Be that as it may, there is another cautionary tale coming out of Trinidad and Tobago that highlights the difficulties of establishing and, more importantly, maintaining a university. Recently, the Minister of Education in that country, Anthony Garcia, announced that the cash-strapped University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT) will send home nearly 300 non-academic staff as part of its efforts to restructure the institution. That headcount is in addition to the almost 60 academic staff that are to be dismissed.
Without getting too deep into the politics of the institution, most would say that UTT was a well-intentioned government initiative. Even though T&T hosted a campus of UWI, it was hard to turn a blind eye to the stark difference in the statistics of persons attaining a tertiary education, which was cited at the turn of this century (doesn’t that sound ancient?) as only 7 percent of the population of Trinidad and Tobago, versus an estimated 30 percent in the developed world. To encourage greater opportunities and to overcome the socio-economic gaps, the government established the University of Trinidad and Tobago in 2004 with a mandate “to educate and train nationals toward achieving the goals of its Vision 20/20 Action Plan.”
The ambitious university and the accompanying GATE (Government Assistance for Tuition Expenses) programme, had some immediate success with tertiary enrolments increasing by 40 percent in 2004-2005. It helps when the GATE initiative covered up to 100 percent of tuition fees for undergraduate programmes in public universities. All the great intentions and achievements aside however, the reality of costs associated with maintaining a university became apparent over time. Even the mighty oil-rich T&T government began to feel the burden of the university and cracks began to appear. Today, those cracks are widening and depending on who you listen to, the university is in great peril. Sounds familiar?
We made reference to these two universities, not as a direct comparison to the proposed UWI campus in our bit of paradise, but rather as a cautionary tale to those charged with developing the plan for the long-term viability of Antigua’s university. Good intentions are not enough to keep the ship afloat. It will take a great plan, expert execution and a lot of money. There are lots of lessons that can be learned from our neighbours and their experiences, so let’s ensure that we analyse these two institutions to determine what worked and what didn’t, what we should do and what we should not. The last thing we would want is for our university to miss the expectations of the nation and the region, or worse, to become a white elephant. Walk wisely and act cautiously.