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The politics of UWI

Sir Hillary Beckles –some would like to see him removed as Vice-Chancellor of UWI

Governments where campuses of the University of the West Indies (UWI) are located have been accused of trying to exert political pressure on them to satisfy their needs.

This is one of the points made in the Sir Dennis Bryon report which reviewed the operations and functions of UWI on the invitation of its Chancellor.

The report said that “a recurring historical tension has been the desire of campus host countries to exert stronger influence on the direction and educational programme of the campus in the national space”.

As a public service, THE NEW TODAY brings some of the highlights of the Sir Dennis report:

The Political Challenge
This centres principally on the tension between the regional character of the University and its national remit and obligations. A recurring historical tension has been the desire of campus host countries to exert stronger influence on the direction and educational programme of the campus in the national space.

This tension has originated from technical policy considerations (as in the desire to ensure that tertiary education supports the human capital requirement of national development plans) as well as from political concerns (as occurred for example in Jamaica in the 1970s at the height of the Cold War’s impact on the Caribbean and ideological conflicts that characterised the relations between the academy and the political paymasters).

The assumption of a larger share of the funding of a campus by the host country government has made the University more vulnerable to changes in public funding of higher education. It can be reasonably argued, with the benefit of historical hindsight, that the governance changes made in the 1980s have resulted in a significant dilution of the regional character of the University that finds expression today in many of the challenges identified in the ATTAIN 2016 Report in restoring the One UWI concept, as well as in the 2010 and 2018 ProCare Reports.

The political challenges emanate not only from the University’s interaction with the political class but, importantly, also from its location in the apparatus of the State itself.

The Academy walks a difficult road made more problematic by contending and contesting demands and expectations from a very diverse range of stakeholders.

At different historical junctures, power and influence over the fortunes of the University have been wielded by different configurations of stakeholders. This is exemplified by the comparatively less influential roles of the academic union WIGUT and the Student Unions today compared with yesterday.

One of the risks encountered with this changing political dynamic is a significant level of skepticism, mistrust and in some extremes, fear, within the university community and a reluctance to question or challenge the administrative status quo.

The Economic and Financial Challenge
While The UWI has made a huge contribution to increased access to tertiary education in the Caribbean, it has had to face intense competition from foreign providers operating within and outside the Caribbean.

The competition has presented a wider, sometimes more attractive menu of degree choices, often with the seduction of lower entry standards, less stringent requirements and sometimes cheaper cost or student financing schemes (except for Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados whose governments have traditionally provided free tertiary education).

The widening of the competition has been compounded by the easy availability of online education offering a combination of vocational certification for industry and degree programmes.

The relatively underdeveloped tertiary education financing mechanisms in the region have compounded the problems of access/affordability especially in the face of a contraction of scholarships and government financing supporting studies in the region.

The University therefore finds itself caught between the difficulty of reduced public financing and the imperative of increasing student fees. The historical main source of financing – Government funding on an 80-20 cost-sharing model – is now unsustainable and presents the most serious threat to the future viability of The University of the West Indies.

The Social Challenge
Although up-to-date statistics are not readily available, figures (Brandon 2013) point to a disturbing demographic shift in the tertiary education landscape in favour of foreign universities.

The influx of foreign tertiary institutions and programmes into the region, offering face-to-face and online programmes at lower costs with less stringent entry requirements while appearing to have widened access, has diluted quality.

From a socio-cultural perspective, these institutions do not provide any grounding in Caribbean history and thought, further alienating their students from Caribbean realities.

The region has also been identified as having among the highest rates of migration in the developing world with the largest segment of migrants being persons with higher education qualifications.

Despite its many accomplishments, Caribbean education still suffers from structural anomalies among which has been the insufficient attention paid to early childhood education and development.

Rapid increases in access to secondary education has fuelled both demand and expectation for increased access to tertiary education and as we stand on the cusp of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, higher education (as a comprehensive development of knowledge, skills and attitudes) is an indispensable requirement for building resilience and guaranteeing the sustainability of Caribbean societies.

The Technological Challenge
Foreign distance education providers have seemingly made huge inroads in the provision of tertiary education opportunity in the Caribbean. However, the availability of broadband across the region is uneven, inequitable and expensive.

In reviewing the voluminous University reports, the 2016 Target Operating Model for Shared Services presents a compelling empirical picture of both the scale of the failure of the University to optimise technology to drive its efficiency as well as the financial and operational scope of opportunity that the strategic application of new ICT technologies offers.

The Environmental Challenge
The threat and reality of climate change is so pervasive that there is no dimension of life in the Caribbean that is not adversely affected by it. Agriculture, public health, the major economic sector of tourism, and infrastructure are all profoundly impacted.

The passage of hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017 highlighted the vulnerabilities of the education sector to disaster, with schools either being completely devastated or having to be repurposed as shelters for displaced populations.

The use of the online learning platform – Notesmaster – in the BVI in order to maintain education continuity post Hurricane Maria points to the necessity for the University to leverage online and distance learning technologies through the Open Campus.

From a knowledge production perspective, it should be noted that UWI scientists have played an important role in the production of the seminal scientific climate change studies, which punctuates the opportunities and underscores the importance of the University as a centre of innovation, providing answers to the challenges facing our small island developing states in an increasingly unsympathetic global environment.

The Legal Challenge/Issues
The Governments of Contributing Countries grant the University exemption from various duties and taxes, in acknowledgment of its provision of higher education as a public good for the benefit of the people of those countries.

At the same time, in light of its need to reduce its reliance on those Governments for funding, the University is increasingly engaging in profit-making activities to augment its income base.

From a legal standpoint, care must be taken to ensure that these profitmaking activities are undertaken in such a manner that would not compromise or undermine the University’s tax-exempt status.

The ‘landed campuses’ are located on extensive acreages, making them vulnerable to encroachment and ‘take-over’ by informal settlements, as the experience on the Mona Campus demonstrates (e.g. Goldsmith Villa and Mona Commons).

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The University needs to establish an effective system to monitor its lands and to safeguard its property holdings including, where necessary, taking timely legal action to defend and assert its property rights.

Legal and Statutory Framework
The legal and statutory framework of the University is comprised of its Charter, Statutes, Ordinances and Regulations.

The Charter
The Charter is the University’s constituent document. It defines the legal status of the institution, specifies its objects, prescribes its governing bodies and principal officers and assigns to them the powers and duties necessary to achieve the stated objects.

The Charter also provides for Visitorial oversight of the University and authorises the making of Statutes, Ordinances and Regulations. The governance structure established by the Charter is amplified by these Statutes, Ordinances and Regulations.

Legal Status, Objects and Powers
(a) The Charter establishes the University as a body corporate with perpetual succession and a common seal and the power to have armorial bearings, and endows it with all the legal capacities, attributes and powers pertaining to a body corporate.

(b) The objects of the University as declared in the Charter are: (i) “to provide a place or places of education, learning and research of a standard required and expected of a university of the highest standard, and to secure the advancement of knowledge and the diffusion and extension of arts, science and learning throughout the Contributing Countries “and, by its work and activities and example of its corporate life, “to promote wisdom and understanding”; and (ii) to be “a teaching and examining body”.

(c) The Charter confers extensive powers on the University to enable it to carry out its objects, notably, the power:

(i) to confer degrees and other academic distinctions and, on what the University deems to be good cause, to deprive any person of any Degree, Diploma, Certificate or other distinction granted to or conferred by it;

(ii) to provide instruction in such branches of learning as the University may think fit and to make provision for research and the preservation, advancement and dissemination of knowledge in such manner as the University may determine;

(iii) to conduct examinations; and

(iv) to examine and inspect schools and other educational institutions and, for such purposes, to co-operate with other authorities.

All other powers conferred on the University by the Charter are related to these core functions.

Authorities: Governance Structure
The University is founded in law as an autonomous self-governing body. Under the Charter, its Authorities are the Council, the Campus Councils, the Senate and the Guild of Graduates.

The Council and the Campus Councils are the governing and executive bodies of the University with power to manage all matters, except where otherwise provided by the Charter or the Statutes.

The Council has pre-eminent governance and executive responsibility for the University as a whole, and it alone has the authority to exercise the powers of the University given under the Charter, except where the powers are assigned to a Campus Council by statute or specifically delegated by the Council. It has extensive statutory powers and duties.

The authority vested in the Council to make appointments to the academic staff, senior administrative staff and professional staff of the University is delegated to the University Appointments Committee. In exercising functions relating to academic governance, the Council is generally required by statute to act on the recommendation of the Senate – the Authority which, under the Charter, has the responsibility for academic governance.

The Campus Councils have, in relation to their respective campuses, statutory powers and duties similar to those of the University Council, with almost all their governance functions stated as being carried out “on behalf of the Council”.

The statutory functions of a Campus Council relating to academic matters are exercisable only after consultation with, or on the recommendation of, the Academic Board of the campus, which is a standing committee of the Senate.

The powers of a Campus Council are restricted by statute in two important ways: first, a Campus Council is prohibited from selling or otherwise disposing of real property of the University without the prior approval of the Council and second, there must be prescribed by the Finance and General Purposes Committee of Council limits for the expenditure which a Campus Council (and the Campus Principals) may incur without the prior approval of the Vice-Chancellor.

A Campus Council is authorised to appoint such persons to offices on the academic staff, senior administrative staff and professional staff of its campus as may be deemed necessary, and to assign such duties as the Campus Council deems fit.

However, the remuneration and terms and conditions of service of such persons are determined by the Council.

The Senate is established under the Charter as the academic authority of the University with the responsibility of regulating and superintending the University’s academic work.

The Senate has the control and general direction of research, instruction and examinations as well as authority over the award and deprivation of Degrees, Diplomas, Certificates and other distinctions – functions that relate directly to the objects of the University as articulated in Article 2 of the Charter.

The exercise of the Senate’s function is, however, subject to the Statutes and to the control and approval of the Council. The Council and the Campus Councils have a statutory duty to refer to the Senate any matter (not previously considered by the Senate) which, in their view, has academic implications.

The Charter stipulates that the Guild of Graduates14 must be represented on the

Council and Campus Councils. As required by the Charter, the Guild’s powers and duties are prescribed by Statute15 and the qualifications for, and obligations and privileges of, membership are prescribed by Ordinance.

The establishment of a Students’ Society on each Campus is mandated by the Charter which also requires the constitution of each such Society to provide for the election of a President.

The Charter authorises: (a) the Council to appoint a regional figure of high judicial office as the Visitor, on the recommendation of the President of the Caribbean Court of Justice. The Visitor’s functions include the hearing and resolving of petitions from persons within the University.

The Statutes have a special status in the University’s legislative scheme. Specific procedures are required to make, amend or revoke them.18 Council’s statute-making powers are extensive.

The Charter authorises the Council to make Statutes and specifically requires that they must: (a) prescribe the constitution and composition of the Authorities of the University and regulate their operations; and (b) provide for the appointment, powers and duties of the Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor and other Officers of the University.

The Council is authorised by the Charter to make Ordinances to direct and regulate the University and its Authorities. Ordinances supplement the Statutes and are subordinate to them.

The making of regulations is the purview of the Senate. Senatorial regulations direct and regulate the University and its Authorities in academic matters. Regulations may be made in respect of any of Senate’s functions assigned under the Statutes, including the admission of persons to the University, their continuance or discontinuance at the University, discipline of students, courses of study, examinations, and the conditions for the award of degrees.

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