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UWI Vice Chancellor wants national conversation on education

UWI Vice Chancellor, Professor Nigel Harris

Just days before University of Guyana (UG) workers were due to discuss agreements brokered by their unions to end a five-week long strike, the Vice Chancellor of the University of the West Indies (UWI), Professor Nigel Harris has called for a “national conversation” to tackle problems plaguing the local institution.

“I think this is a moment, not right now, maybe six months from now, a year from now for a national conversation on tertiary education, perhaps on education itself,” said the Guyana-born said to applause. He urged that politics should be put aside during such a discourse.

Addressing the Rotary Club of Georgetown’s World Understanding Dinner held at the Pegasus Hotel on Friday night, Harris recommended the bipartisan involvement of politicians, students and the private sector in a national conversation on tertiary education and education generally.

“This is not a partisan matter, this is a collective responsibility,” he said to a large gathering of a cross-section of politicians, professionals and representatives of the business community. Students, being the beneficiaries of education, he argued should be involved in framing the service they receive.

Harris reinforced repeated calls over the decades for the 50-year old institution to be given adequate resources. “Without the appropriate resources, UG cannot attract sufficient numbers of talented academics, it cannot fashion the facilities or construct the facilities necessary to produce the sort of graduates and ideas that can lift Guyana into the 21st century,” he said.

The shortage of resources for a university was not only confined to UG but, according to Professor Harris, UWI has found itself begging governments for help with little success. “For years, understanding the possible contribution of new knowledge we went and we begged many a minister, many a prime minister- give us a little something- to help us with and in truth we get a little of nothing,” he said.

UWI, however, appeared to have taken those constraints in its stride and has approached international agencies to raise funds- research funding has since grown from about US$25 million per year to US$78 million. “Of course, this has been a promising source of opportunity for us and we took the decision that in going forward we would define seven critical areas of importance to Caribbean competitive development and we would go after international agencies to support us to build capacity in the areas,” he said. Those listed are agro-technology and food security, ICT applications, cultural industries, energy efficiency, governance, human security and tourism development.  While the Caribbean has not invested in UWI’s Open Campus, he said the Canadian government has invested CDN$20 million in building Distance Education. “They are seeing something, then I hope that we can see some more,” he said.

The UWI Vice Chancellor’s call for UG’s needs to be satisfied comes at a time when UG workers were Monday due to hear from directly from their union leaders about an agreement that includes an interim 10 percent pay-hike, and the improvement of teaching-learning facilities such as the provision of adequate stationery, chalkboard, whiteboards and projectors. 

The strike could be called off later Monday once a committment to pay the 10 percent across-the-board and the Terms of Resumption agreement are signed by the unions and the UG administration.

If negotiations for additional increases in salaries fail in the coming weeks, the terms of resumption agreement provides for the matter to be referred to the Labour Ministry for conciliation. Should conciliation talks collapse; the dispute will be sent to arbitration by a tripartite panel.

Represented by the Workers Union (UGWU) and the Senior Staff Association (UGSSA), the workers are demanding a 60 to 75 percent hike in wages and salaries for academic and non-academic staff.

At UWI, he said that institution has a strategic plan with a focus on all students acquiring critical thinking, problem-solving and communication skills in addition in addition to fitting the skills-training and necessary requirements for a 21st century society.

Unlike decades ago when students were prepared for a “single job of a lifetime,” Professor Harris said that “today students have to be prepared for a lifetime of jobs” to cater for changes in technologies and jobs.  He believed that the UWI should frame its teaching programmes to get in the forefront of technology in areas like tourism, renewable energy, mechanical engineering and communication.

The UWI Vice Chancellor pointed out that more than 700 students have graduated with Bachelor’s Degrees that were pursued Online.