The meaning of a university

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By Carlon Knight

The mood is jubilant and resplendent. Glorious is the journey that is hard fought and won. The University of the West Indies – Five Islands Campus is now a reality and will welcome students in the fall of 2019. A proud moment for the country and a triumph for expanded opportunity for higher education.

They said we couldn’t do it. Yet amidst the purveyors of doubt, the soothsayers, clairvoyants and mystics – all of whom predicted bad omen after the other – was a people, led by a ruling administration, determined to turn doubt to ash. Indeed, confronting doubt and skepticism is nothing new to our people. They questioned whether we were ready for independence too – yet, here we stand! They said we were incapable of creating sustainable economies that could produce opportunities to feed and clothe our people – until we did! They said free education for children, free health care at our hospital and clinics, and a system of justice based on our own jurisprudence and manned by our own jurists were all but flights of fancy – until we turned fantasy into reality!

We are not new to this. You might be, but we are not. We, who have left the bondage of oppression and built states from the ground up, are not new to this. We can provide opportunities for higher education for our people. We can and we will. Like us, the UWI Antigua and Barbuda campus may not be a perfect entity. Like us, it may be riddled with flaw, shaped in iniquity and formed by sinners, but like us it too will stand; it too will survive. So we say to those who claimed we couldn’t and we shouldn’t, “thank you.” Thank you for the motivation, thank you for solidifying the determination.

Curiously, the opposition caused me to ponder on the arguments raised. I wondered what is the meaning of a university? Is it bound within its physical location? Contained in the size of its classrooms? What is it that creates the true essence of a university?

Immediately, my mind was brought to the inceptions of the University of the West Indies itself. How did it begin some 70 plus years ago? It may surprise readers of this column to note that the UWI’s beginning was, too, humble. In fact, compared to the current structure at Five Islands, the classrooms and structures in boarded, chattel style furnishings were rather chambers of torture and discomfort than places of learning and study.

However, did the students of that era survive the horror? They perhaps didn’t go on to become doctors, lawyers, scientists, politicians and even a Governor General? Surely, they must have dropped out in protest. Alas, we know they didn’t, don’t we? We know they, too concerned about the prospect of an education and the thought of a brighter future, were far too focused on their schooling, far too eager, far too hungry. Clearly, it isn’t the walls that make a university, it isn’t the library, nor is it fancy lecture theaters and modern projection equipment. It is the people who make it — the students eager to learn, and the instructors eager to impart knowledge.

Now, fair warning, don’t attempt to trivialise to the point of absurdity. You will find no safe landing with me if you do. This piece does not suggest we keep people in discomfort nor does it suggest we ought not to provide a standard of care sufficient to attract students to attend. That point would be obvious. How else do you maintain a competitive business model?  Surely, too, the UWI brand itself would need upholding. The point is, we must start somewhere. Having made a start, we are now able to expand, grow, develop and mature.

Importantly, nothing so far has made the thought of UWI Five Islands exclusive to any of the other options put forward. You can do something similar to what is done in many countries – a disaggregated campus structure. Think of the University of London, for instance, with constituent colleges and schools scattered throughout the city. Why, then, is it not possible to have a Five Islands campus and more buildings at Golden Grove, the old navy base or elsewhere? Well, I foresee one problem – partisan politics. The fact is we continue this antiquated, winner–take-all, nonsense that suggests good ideas cannot be integrated into workable compromises because of ‘upmanship’.

Well, it needs to end – and quickly. It will take sober minds and hard work if this campus is to become a sustainable and workable reality. A point that is more underscored by the lukewarm reception of regional counterparts, who have not been bubbling over with joy and elation at this development. But never mind that, in the spirit of each endeavoring, all achieving we will succeed – the future of our children depends on it.

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