Expanded UG Council to propose new Act; opposition wary of political control

Last Updated on Wednesday, 10 July 2024, 7:48 by Writer

The National Assembly has approved an order to increase the University of Guyana (UG) Council from 26 to 32 members as part of a plan to pass a new law to govern that publicly funded tertiary institution, despite fears by the opposition that government was planning to tighten its political grip.

“We don’t want to get together with you or any other political party and pass an Act. We want to appoint a competent council with persons who have this country at heart and have them decide what must go in the act. That is what we’re doing here tonight,” Education Minister Priya Manickchand told the House in response to a call by opposition A Partnership for National Unity+Alliance for Change (APNU+AFC) parliamentarian, Ganesh Mahipaul to withdraw the order and present a “comprehensive” new UG Act.

He cautioned that increasing the number of Council members by adding representatives of youth, business Hindu, Muslim and Christian organisations as well as several other areas “will not fix” UG. The Minister of Education is now required to appoint, in his or her opinion, six persons who can contribute significantly to that institution in the fields of medicine, law, information and communications technology, environment and climate change, natural resources, and national defence and security. Mr Mahipaul sought to assure that no one was against religious or youth representatives but suggested that the National Assembly across the political divide meaningfully fix the institution. “We have to accept that from a holistic standpoint the University of Guyana requires the attention of this national assembly and politicians in general to fix it to serve the purpose of academics” said Mr Mahipaul, a former Student Society representative on the Council.

Like Mr Mahipaul who asked government not to interfere politically and engage in a “piecemeal” fix of UG, APNU+AFC parliamentarian Sherod Duncan echoed opposition parliamentarian Coretta McDonald’s view that the government was setting the stage to “dictate” who is conferred with Honorary Doctorates of Philosophy, whose associates are admitted to the university and punish lecturers who express criticisms publicly. “We have to keep politics out of the University of Guyana. We are trampling on very dangerous grounds here,” said Mr Duncan, also a former Student Society representative on the Council.

However, Ms Manickchand and Minister of Parliamentary Affairs and Governance Gail Teixeira said if government was interested in politically controlling UG, it would not have continued to finance the institution, changed any policy to its detriment and employed persons. “This is not about control. This is about what is the best way to have a governance structure that allows knowledge to bloom,” Ms Teixeira said.

The Minister of Education dismissed persistent claims by most of the opposition parliamentarians that UG was not informed about the proposed order. She said the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Education, Shannielle Hoosein-Outar informed UG Vice Chancellor, Professor Paloma Mohamed.

Ms Manickchand and Minister of Parliamentary Affairs and Governance, Gail Teixeira dismissed the common claim by opposition lawmakers that government could have appointed its Council representatives that are mandated to be drawn from the Ministry of Finance, governing political party and three ministers. Instead, Ms Teixeira and Ms Manickchand said that was impossible because the Council’s life expired in 2020. Labour Minister Joseph Hamilton defended the decision to include the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Guyana as an entity that should have a seat on the Council. “FITUG is the largest representative trade union body of unions in this country, not a “paper TUC”, he said in reference to the Guyana Trades Union Congress which is sympathetic to the opposition in contrast to FITUG which is PPP aligned. “As a government we believe that the expansion of the Council will serve the university better and the nation better” he said.

APNU+AFC parliamentarian, Tabitha Sarabo-Halley accused the People’s Progressive Party Civic (PPPC) administration of sideling UG even failing to consider UG’s plan, Blueprint 2040, that was submitted to government in 2021. She said no attempt was made to engage UG and to see how that plan fits into government’s development strategies. “This government cannot be serious, yet they come here saying they love the university and they want what’s in the best interest of the University of Guyana,” she said. She said there was no need for government to tinker with the current structure of UG’s Council, even if it wanted to be integrally involved in discussions and ensure that state resources were accounted for and used efficiently.

The Parliamentary Affairs and Governance Minister said problems facing UG’s decision-making include “revulsion” by “some elements” of that institution and the National Assembly to develop a Latin American type university that seeks to address and find solutions to problems such as climate change, rural and urban planning, drugs and violence. However, Ms Walton-Desir appealed to the government to inject the required cash into UG so that academics could conduct research, instead of griping about studies not being carried to fund the university. “That is how it works,” she said.

Ms Teixeira blamed certain sections of UG for frowning on the knowledge of non-academics in shaping the institution. “There is a certain elitism,” she said. Ms Teixeira, a former UG Council member, recalled that “what I encountered was resistance, intellectual resistance to newness and ideas”. Contending that the opposition’s claim of stacking the UG Board with representatives that government could control was “disrespectful to the people who will go on that Council. The Education Minister said non-academics could play a meaningful role in developing that institution. “Putting people on the Council might not mean educated, lettered people but it might mean people who can bring to that Council the experiences that would add value to the Council when they are making decisions for the wider population,” she said.

Guyana Online Academy of Learning (GOAL) 

Opposition lawmakers Duncan and Walton-Desir also criticised government for neglecting UG while pumping millions 0f dollars in GOAL. “There is nothing wrong in funding GOAL but the importance of the university must be reflected in the allocations to the university if they care so much,” Ms Walton-Desir said. A part from the late start and longer than usual academic programmes, Mr Duncan said GOAL and UG’s budgets were “rivalling each other”. Despite being at a disadvantage, he said UG has added a list of new programmes, including PhDs, improved infrastructure, promoted staff and increased the number of students.

But the education minister defended GOAL which is run directly by the Minister of Education and headed by former Vice Chancellor of the University of Guyana, Professor Jacob Opadeyi. “GOAL is not in competition with the University of Guyana…GOAL is different from the University of Guyana and so we’re not rivalling each other,” she said. Ms Manickchand said government had no apology for investing in GOAL, but rather in doing so “we are investing in the young people of this country.”

She noted that with 30,000 persons having enrolled for programmes of study through GOAL, it shows that youths chose that means of study but that did not mean that they rejected UG.

Government lawmakers accused the People’s National Congress Reform of politicising UG while in government by blocking now late History Professor Dr Walter Rodney and Scientist Dr Joshua Ramsammy from working at UG, making attendance of the paramilitary Guyana National Service a condition for graduating from UG and increasing tuition fees by 35 percent.

The PPP administration introduced university tuition fees in 1995, in keeping with a commitment to the World Bank by the PNC in exchange for economic structural adjustment support and economic reforms.

Both the PPP and the PNCR-led coalition of APNU+AFC had promised to abolish tuition fees in the 2020 general election campaign. Already, government has implemented phase one of scrapping tuition fees by writing off all debts owed by thousands of students since the mid 1990s.