Repositioning the University of Guyana
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 decolonizing 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, Professor Ivelaw Griffith seems to have discovered that truth shortly after taking office. 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 might not have anticipated 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 emphasizing community-based outreaches. The injection of the university into the broader socio-political discourses of the day is a breath of fresh air.
Among his achievements which he detailed in a letter to the press on Tuesday are: the newly commissioned US$665,000 Jay and Sylvia Sobhraj Centre for Behavioural Sciences and Research; the launch of the School of Entrepreneurship and Business Innovation (SEBI) in 2017 and the launch this year of new degree programs in Petroleum Engineering, Food Science, Youth Work, Clinical Psychology, and in Nursing and Civil Engineering in Berbice. Professor Griffith also made mention of improvements in the library at Turkeyen and in Berbice, built a brand new building for Facilities Maintenance, and will see the completion of the new Maths and Science Classroom building soon, just to name a few.
But this has not led to a vote of confidence among some in the university community as can be gleaned from the many letters to the press and a strident workers’ and staff union.
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. But 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 any call for improvements at the institution, but such an endeavour requires the input of all the required stakeholders. At least for a start, Professor Griffith has gone about this the right way through the Turkeyen and Tain Talks. 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.
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 Professor Griffith for the university must be supported as this is clearly aimed at upgrading the institution to become consistent with the national priorities.
- The University of Guyana