The Future of the University of Guyana

From Prime News , May 3, 1996
An Editorial

Serious controversy has perilously dogged the University of Guyana (UG) since its very inception in 1964. Rather than decelerating, the controversy through-these thirty-odd years has gained momentum to the extent that the life of the institution itself is at stake at the present time.

While Lancelot Hogben was preparing his inaugural Vice-Chancellor's address, Forbes Burnham, then leader of the Opposition in Guyana's Parliament, was busy maligning the idea of "Jagan's night school."

Jagan for his part was adamant: the uni versity would open its doors at the borrowed campus of the Queens College Complex. Then married to socialism, Jagan was bent upon making education free "from the cradle to the grave."

Before UG's birth, even the most brilliant of students were forced to "blush unseen" unless they were born rich enough to "go abroad to further their education," at uni versities in some foreign land.

Burnham joked that a university without a campus was a laughing matter and he ad vocated that Guyanese, like other West In dians should go to Jamaica and the Univer sity of the West Indies (UWI). But Jagan would have none of that. If the rich wanted to attend the UWI, or any other university, that was fine, but the poor was to be given a fair opportunity at home.

Jagan, therefore, made it easy for the poorer students to attend night classes - at no cost. He even bolstered those from the far flung areas of the country by offering them day jobs in the city schools, the Public Service and other places. This policy an gered the Burnham folks who immediately read Jagan's moves as a ploy to help the East Indians who were the majority in the coun tryside. Of course, those were the days which immediately followed the race riots, when every act was plunged into a racial cast - all in the interest of national "apan jaat" politics.

The university was then a political football and it has remained so to the present day.

Many of the early lecturers at the university who were hired in the Jagan era ran away fast and furiously by the time Burnham had entrenched himself as Head of State. From than on, political color was the most important aspect for hiring and tenure. Walter Rodney, intensely anti-Burnham, for instance, was hired by the University but fired by the Burnham administration all in rapid succession. (Indeed, his murder followed in marked rapidity!)

Admission requirements were deplorably reduced in order to accommodate the new political reality. The breakdown of the social structure impinged on the quality and educational achievements of the primary and secondary schools. Half-baked students from the schools of political indoctrination were allowed admission. And worse of all, a skewed, compulsory National Service program, not only disturbed academic continuity but excluded a host of talented but politically incorrect students. Potential women students, who learnt that National Service stints were marred by sexual and other abuse, boycotted the institution en masse.

Funding for the University, too, was dependent on the degree of political control of the institution. The University Council was more concerned with witch-hunting rather than academic excellence. We recall that lectures from certain professors were taped and sent to the Prime Minister and President for "further" action. All in all, the university, from the administration down, reflected the wishes and dictates of the regime's idiosyncrasies.

Then came 1992 and another Jagan administration As was expected, a confrontation between the new government and the university immediately erupted. The question of governmental control was again on the agenda.

The present government has attempted certain drastic changes. It reconstituted the University Council, appointed friendly people and attempted to 'resign' some people in high, and not so high, places. Unrest inevitably followed.

We of this paper had argued, at the beginning of the Jagan administration, for the appointment of a full-fledged Commission with wide investigative power to ferret out the seething problems at UG and make recommendations, before the inevitable confrontations. A commission has now been set-up, certainly too late, but it is now at work. While we will not attempt to prejudge the outcome of the Commission's work, we will like to make a few suggestions.

In the first place, we would like to see a certain autonomy given to the University without government interference. The University, however, must at all times give favorable consideration to the overall programs and objectives of the government. The government, on its side, should clearly set out its goals and objectives and give the university a basis on which to create its curriculum or parts thereof. This type of relationship is necessary in fledgling nations.

Secondly, the University should be geared towards more, rather than less, research. In a young country as Guyana is, the university should act as the primary information base which feeds the institutions of state. A very disturbing bend in progress, according to reports coming out of Georgetown, is that the Carter Center of Atlanta, Georgia, United States of America, is the primary planners, economic and otherwise, of Guyana's destiny. We reserve further discussion on the Atlanta plan until we get more information from the Center, but it seems to us that a Carter blueprint for progress undermines the integrity of the nation and defeats the democratic impulses of its people.

True, the country needs help, but we suspect, helpers do help themselves. And because of the intricate role played by the Carter Center in the return of Dr. Jagan to government we suspect there is a deeper current flowing under the visible tide. Guyanese, we should realize, have the necessary skills, and the passion, to help their native land both from within and outside of the university.

The integrity of the university must be restored. The achievements of Guyana's university has made Guyana and Guyanese proud. Despite all the setbacks and obstacles, the university has managed to make a positive impact on Guyana, the Caribbean and lands further afield. Never doubt it, it is capable of doing greater things.

UG should cease being a political football, but it should work closely with developmental policies as advanced by the government of the day. The government, on its part, should seek a close, reciprocal relationship with the university, a partnership rather than a "big brothership". Government should see that the standard of education of the feeder schools be improved. The university admission requirements should rectum to the Advanced Levels (or strong Ordinary Levels) and faculty should be free to work in an atmosphere - and infrastructure - conducive to excellence in education.

The meaning of "excellence in education", needs to he defined time and again. It has to be an ongoing process. It should be the product of government, the university, and the people.