THE University of Guyana recently held its annual convocation at which over 2000 students graduated from the various departments at that institution. Not unexpectedly, it was a time for celebration as many of the graduates were first-generation achievers, blazing a trail for others to follow. Others were continuing in a family tradition set by earlier generations.
In the final analysis, higher education continues to be for many a stepping stone out of the doldrums of poverty and want for many of our young people—a form of social mobility.
But even as they celebrated, one could not miss the lament about the state of the university. Indeed, the presentation by the student-speaker, Elsie Harry-Ross, highlighted many of the woes of the institution. Ms. Harry’s critique should be a wake-up call to all those concerned about the future of the university. She drew attention to what she views as “indifference” and “malaise.”
Part of her presentation is worth repeating here: “I’ve wasted many days because too many people didn’t know where to find what and didn’t care enough to ask someone who did. This is the highest institution made for our country. If this is not the standard of excellence, then what is? New buildings will not transform the University of Guyana, a change in attitude will…UG, in my opinion, is a microcosm of Guyana.
Therefore, the same inefficiencies can be experienced in the country at large. My advice to everyone listening is simple: stop it, just stop. It has to end, and we must end it. These are the issues that hinder the renaissance of too many students of our university and too many citizens of our country.”
No doubt, we have heard similar testimonies before. In the past, many such critiques have been dismissed as the rumblings of the discontented or as partisan criticism. But, this time, it comes from a proud graduate, who hails the positives of her experience at the university. Some may admonish Ms. Harry for choosing the moment of accomplishment and celebration to make her remarks, but she would retort that it is at those very moments that one catches a captive audience.
The University of Guyana was one of our independence gifts to ourselves and has remained an enduring example of nationhood. It began as an initiative by the then PPP government and was completed by the succeeding PNC-UF coalition government, making it an example of bi-partisanship. It rose to become a respected institution of higher learning by attracting some of the most prominent scholars and intellectuals in Guyana and beyond.
In the process, many boasted about their UG degrees and some even returned there as lecturers and researchers. Above and beyond its academic worth, UG became one of the bulwarks of the crusade for social justice at a time when universities across the world expanded their mandate to include witnessing for the victims of oppression.
But even as the university played a positive role in decolonising the collective mind and preparing a new generation of nation-builders, it was becoming, like many of our public institutions, a tool of partisan contestation. It is this tendency that would ultimately erode the credibility of the institution as a national space that avoids the often poisonous partisan politics. This political entanglement would rob the university of talented faculty and the much-needed funds to push it into the rapidly changing future.
In the final analysis, the University of Guyana has become a shadow of its former self. The infrastructure fell apart, the intellectual environment suffered, workers wages and salaries stalled or declined, and students became apathetic. Leadership turn-over became more frequent than normal as the authorities looked for a new vision. Some left in frustration as the challenges became overwhelming.
The new vice-chancellor seems to have discovered that truth after less than two years on the job. An enthusiastic educator, who was recruited from the Guyanese diaspora, he appears to have a keen sense of the problems of the institution, but like others before him, he did not anticipate the difficulties of managing a university that has slid as far down as UG. Since his assumption of the leadership, he has sought to make the university much more visible in the larger community by emphasising community-based outreaches. The injection of the university into the broader socio-political discourses of the day is a breath of fresh air.
But this has not led to a vote of confidence among the university community as can be gleaned from Ms. Harry’s critique. The age-old struggle of the staff for better wages and working conditions is still very much alive. In this struggle, the vice-chancellor is seen as the villain, while the workers’ cause is elevated to the status of righteousness. This is the lot of the leader who must juggle scarce resources and who would inevitably make decisions consistent with his vision.
In the last analysis, the University of Guyana is too vital an institution to continue in its present state. As the only large-scale institution of higher learning in the country, the nation is poorer in the face of the malaise that exists there. We endorse Ms. Harry’s call to halt the slide. But such an endeavour requires the input of all the required stakeholders. And reform cannot be piecemeal—it must arise out of a comprehensive vision that takes into consideration Guyana’s reality and the global environment in which the country operates.
As a start, the basics must be attended to. Workers’ pay must be improved as a matter of priority. For example, UG would not attract or retain top-flight lecturers with the current salary scale. And no university worth its salt can survive without a cadre of seasoned and qualified faculty. But such improvement must be tied to efficiency and improved academic output. Nowhere in the world do students have to wait weeks and months to get their grades; it is a practice that must be banished as soon as the condition allows. Lecturers should be reminded that a university is an academic and intellectual space that must be constantly nourished with knowledge-production. There is no other way.
The vision of the university needs to be upgraded to become consistent with the national priorities. It is not simply about elevating business education above social sciences or natural sciences above humanities—it is about harmonising all strands of thought and knowledge to produce the rounded and grounded graduate who could be useful in the complex world in which we live. Or as Ms. Harry reminded, big shiny buildings are no substitute for academic and intellectual integrity and quality. Let the rebirth of UG begin in earnest.