Anthony Bogues | Response to the UWI report on governance
I am a postgraduate alumnus of The University of the West Indies (UWI). At the UWI, I learned how to think in interdisciplinary ways, grappling with questions through critical thinking. The basic scaffolding of a university education: posing questions which drive all forms of research, from science to social science to medical, legal or engineering, to the humanities; posing questions and problems and then answering them through a process of critical investigation is what a research university is about.
Today, institutions of higher education are wrestling with the current economic environment exacerbated by COVID, and the fast-changing character of the landscape of higher education. But, in doing so, they begin from their core mission. A great research university is not a business. It is an institution in which knowledge production, through research and critical training by innovative forms of pedagogy, are its core purposes. With this in mind, I became deeply concerned when I recently read the report of the UWI chancellor’s commission on Governance of the UWI.
Universities and colleges can be divided into private and public institutions, with public research universities having two additional core missions: they operate as a catalyst for a public good; and second, pay attention to value-added research which deeply impacts the society. The questions posed in research conducted by public universities are often those generated by the demands of the society. This is not a utilitarian view. To some degree, the UWI recognises this, and the report makes some attempt to address this matter. However, this attempt is framed in language of ‘human capital’, a term under great stress these days. Additionally, in deploying phrases like ‘human capital’, we recall that for hundreds of years, under various forms of European colonial powers, the vast majority of the region’s population were seen as both capital and labour.
Overall, the report’s framing language draws from a form of management-speak that is increasingly being questioned. Of course, universities, like all institutions, demand and require management. But for what purpose? Should not the purpose of the institution shape its management practices and structures?
The late historian Douglas Hall noted in the late 1960s that the real purpose of a university is to “further knowledge and disseminate it”. I would add that a public research university develops this knowledge from its own ecology.
Today, the UWI is poised to become the central global knowledge institution that will produce knowledge about the Caribbean in all its complexities, from medical knowledge to the life sciences to history. Such an institution would attract students and scholars from all over the world, facilitating an additional financial stream. This is not provincialism. The UWI can become a research hub of the Caribbean, while engaging with knowledge formations elsewhere. Research in science today demands international collaboration. Here we might follow the injunction of the late Rex Nettleford, “Inward stretch outward reach”. The report does not have a sense of a vision about where the university might go, nor how it should navigate itself in this changing landscape. Instead, one is presented with a set of administrative reforms, some of which may be necessary; others not. No institution ever renews itself without a sustainable vison of direction. Since UWI is not a business, we need to begin from the perspective of what are the objectives and core missions of a public research university. To cite trite circular thinking of the founder of South West Airlines without any significant references to the remarkable discourses of the late Eric Williams or Arthur Lewis about the university, suggest that the report is overwhelmed by a paradigm of thinking which emerged in the 1980s, one which is being questioned even by its staunchest advocates.
Renewal requires engagements which take stock of past and possible future directions. As our first professor of Caribbean history, Elsa Goveia, reminds us, history enables us to grasp “more exactly the unique significance of what is present”.
The public research university is essential to any idea of a public good. It is not a luxury. From the post-abolition moment of racial slavery in the anglophone Caribbean, education, certainly up to high school, has been understood as a necessity and right by the majority of people. Today, the world demands forms of knowledge training which occur at the tertiary level. Eric Williams once noted that, “In the first place, the West Indian university must serve the needs of the West Indian community.” This community, he observed, was founded as “huge economic enterprises … managed on the principle of profit and loss, cultivating staple crops for an export market”.
The contemporary consequences of this kind of history are class societies structured around race, colour and deep inequities. What is the role of the university in this context? As an institution of public good, is it not a catalyst for social mobility? To be sure, some will say it takes cash to do this. But let us not lose foresight in frustration. What the proposal within the report to increase student tuition up to 40 per cent does, is to close the doors to thousands of children of ordinary Caribbean people to attend UWI. Student loans to meet tuition shortfalls are not the answer, as the experiences of educational systems that have gone that route show us how loans weigh down students and families with an unbearable debt burden. Is it not time for the Caribbean private sector, working with Caribbean governments, develop plans for massive scholarship programmes, paid internships and other creative projects so that university education fees do not rise?
This is a social question which the society needs to respond to. The university will not become the research hub that it has the possibility of becoming unless we find mechanisms that will make attendance at university a reasonable prospect.
A final concern. Nowhere does the report mention critical pedagogy. Teaching is a central part of university life, and there is no great university without constant reflection on how we teach and the review of curricula.
The UWI has been a major success of the Caribbean people. To sustain and renew it, the report needs to wheel and come again.
Anthony Bogues, Asa Messer Professor of Humanities, Brown University.