Has the University of Guyana lost its way?

by Dereck Bernard
Senior Lecturer in Geography,
University of Guyana
Stabroek News
July 4, 1999


The establishment of an independent university was the major achievement of the 1961-1964 PPP administration. This assertion is made not to generate controversy but merely to place the whole issue of the functions of an independent university in its historical context. The idea was highly contentious in its time. It represented a challenge to the prevailing conventional wisdom that Guyana did not need nor could it afford an independent university but that we should seek to become a part of the University College of the West Indies.

When the Minister of Education C.V. Nunes publicly announced the idea in July 1962, it was criticised on many grounds by serious and important people. The leader of the opposition L.F.S. Burnham, for example, was of the view that administration was perhaps a trifle ambitious and that Guyana should seek to establish instead a liberal arts college with much less pretensious intentions. It was common in partisan comment to refer to the University of Guyana as 'Jagan's Night School.'

As a student of Queens College where the university began its existence in the masters' houses and in the classrooms after hours, I was able to enjoy the frequent remarks of the Headmaster Doodnauth Hetram, himself a lecturer at UG, on 'the folks across the grass' whom he alleged were nuisances reluctant to find a home of their own. The University did not find premises of its own until 1970. The change of government in 1964 provided the opportunity for more questioning of the role and function of the university, an issue which was in some doubt for several weeks before an announcement of the decision of the new government that it supported the new university but hoped to revive the issue of a closer relationship with the University of the West Indies.

From humble and inauspicious beginnings with 163 students in the classrooms of Queen's College, the University has grown to a current enrolment of over 4000 students taught by 170 full time staff.

Philosophical underpinnings

The University of Guyana was established with a clear philosophical orientation intended to be a departure from the orthodoxy which informed the national universities which had hitherto been established in former British colonies including UWI. UG was intended to beat a more democratic as opposed to an elitist path model as a national university.

No elitist cadre

The founding Vice Chancellor Lancelot Hogben outlined such an intention in his inaugural address and made clear a determination to establish the University of Guyana as an institution which would combine the scholarly functions of research and contemplation with the more egalitarian and functionalist concerns of the national milieu.

He specifically avowed that the new university should aim to provide broad-based education, which did not create an elitist cadre. "The education of our elite for government, administration and research does not circumscribe my own approach to a contemporary curriculum...no society is safe in the hands of a few clever people."

Hogben went out of his way to claim explicit endorsement of his view by the government of the day. The early history of the university renders evidence that the early academic leaders of the institution shared this vision.

The founding concept of the national university proved to be the correct and appropriate remedy for the conditions and aspirations of Guyana. It proved possible to develop an institution which catered for a more democratic student body and a functionalist vision while at the same time maintaining international academic standards and rigour in matters of teaching and research. One of the major factors in this success was that UG depended for its existence on a wider pool for its student intake, having admission requirements which were more liberal than the British or UWI systems and which gave much greater weight to experience and maturity for matriculation. It was therefore able to tap into a significant body of persons who would not have had access to university education in the British system.

This facilitated access to higher education to a wider group than would otherwise be possible and at the same time made a significant and demonstrable improvement in human resource development in all phases of the education system and the public services. The broader access which was facilitated by UG's policies were radical for a former British colony though tried and proven in the United States. It is interesting to note that many education systems around the world now espouse many of the strategies for which UG was often condemned in its formative years. That in this environment we produced graduates of the highest academic rank and maintained an academic teaching and research environment of international calibre was in retrospect a signal achievement.

There are other characteristics of the University, which have their root in its founding philosophy. UG has been a very responsive university in the context of human resource development. It has been able to mount degree and diploma programmes relevant to perceived national needs with a speed and relevance not possible in institutions in the more conservative philosophical underpinnings. Compared with other national universities in small countries, it has by and large for much of its history been very developmentalist and creative. It was able to respond to training needs in engineering with one-off degrees in engineering, with diplomas in a wide variety of management and social sciences, health sciences and technologies, with education degrees, diplomas including at post graduate levels when national needs demanded. It has had a vigorous and responsive distance education programme with sensitivity often lacking in other national universities. Guyana's human resource development problems would have been much worse had not the university been in existence to replace the migrants qualified in such a wide variety of disciplines.

Responsiveness to national needs

In the light of all its solid record of relevance and contribution, it is possibly contradictory I should entitle my first comment on the University in such a negative tone.

Is UG responsive enough to national needs and fully committed to the task of bringing the world of scholarship to the widest possible spread of population in an effort to use the arts and sciences to enhance our productivity and lifestyles? Is the essence of a democratic institution operating in an ambience of international scholarship a lost vision?

Here are several allegations made against the university by its detractors.
* The graduates of the university are often deficient in their general intellectual equipment and often in their areas of specialisation
* The staff of the university are not productive enough in terms of their contribution to development through research
* The university programmes are deficient in their content and relevance
* The university is an expensive luxury which exists at the expense of other levels of the education system
* The university was inefficient in its use of resources and in terms of its cost-effectiveness.

A plethora of commissions

The university has had a plethora of investigations. As part of the IDB global manpower project, it had the benefit of a panel of experienced advisers drawn mainly from UK universities to examine and advise on its faculties and general structure. This was followed by a panel convened by the then Chancellor Shridath Ramphal under the auspices of the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Cooperation. The university was in the process of discussing the report of the Chancellor's Commission with a view to implementation when the university was saddled with another commission, this time at the instance of the President, Dr Jagan.

The report of this commission which one has to assume informs national policy on higher education is the weakest and least helpful of the investigations. It concentrated on matters of administration and efficiency without taking into account the broad strategies necessary to maintain relevance and effectiveness on a faculty basis. Most of its recommendations are structural and in a sense superficial, neglecting the basic building block of university effectiveness, that is, the efficiency and effectiveness of the individual scholar and department. The end result has been that the university has been in the process of a series of structural changes meant to generate efficiency in a top down manner without the enthusiasm and benevolent cooperation of academics.

A confrontational relationship

This situation should be understood in the context of a confrontational relationship between the council of the university and the institution. The University Council has reverted to the role it played in the late 70's and early 80's as an articulator and enforcer of government interests. The perception of university academics that the presidential commission was intended as a vehicle for the entrenchment of such a role for the University Council has not helped the situation. The Council or Board of Governors of the University in its early days was constituted of distinguished persons and representatives of important interests in the British 'great and good' mould. During the Burnham government, the Council became more and more a governmental watchdog, very often containing members completely unable to appreciate or understand university policy issues. The motivation for this change was derived partly from the role of the Council as the final forum for the renewal of academic contracts and the approval of tenure and partly from a misguided notion of the need for democratic representation in the policy formulation process. The confrontations between the university staff either as academics or as members of their union and the resulting periods of instability became a part of the political process and the confrontations being played out at the national level.

The most notorious was occasioned by the university's offer of a chair to the historian Walter Rodney but there were many other such engagements. These affected the university's morale whenever they occurred, but given the universal acceptance of such confrontations as part of the possible hazards of Third World university life, it was countervailed by the fact that the university remained a serious place and its contribution to the national human and intellectual resource development was never in doubt.

The late 80's and 90's brought a change in emphasis in the relationships between the University and Council as the Council was restored to its role of hands off and non-intrusive support and supervision and political stacking was removed. The reintroduction of a politically intrusive Council in 1994 was a setback for the University from which it has not recovered.


Unlike previous attempts at political control, this version struck at the very heart of University morale and at the internal institutional capacity which is much more fragile than during the Burnham administration.

Whatever benevolent effect was intended by the government, the end result can best be summarisd by the evaluation of the current Vice Chancellor in his summing up of the University's condition upon his assumption in his first report to the Council of 1996.

"The administration of the university was not only conflict ridden but in relative disarray... There was a relatively high level of instability in the management and administration of the university... There was a high level of indiscipline as evidenced by failure to comply with basic rules and regulations, norms and standards, patterns of behaviour which had previously served the university well and had stood it in good stead."


The intrusive and uninformed nature of government intervention cannot be viewed as the sole cause of low university morale. The continuing uncertainty over the system for financing the university and the resulting insecurity and inefficiency in the implementation of the university's work programme also play a part. That issue, however, does affect one of the important pillars of university success, that is competent and motivated academic staff.

A university academic is of necessity largely a self-motivated and self-regulated being. Academics are not necessarily the cleverest people in society but they must always be those with the patience and discipline to keep focused and penetrative attention on the details and minutiae which accompany good teaching and excellent research. No government has been able to regulate or legislate good research, and good teachers function thus by conviction, though a supportive system enhances that condition.

A de-motivated teacher or researcher cannot be bullied into being more effective and since much of the basic effort in the research process is boring, repetitive and painstaking, the history of civilisation teaches that productive scholars generate their own energy. There is no doubt that the academic staff at UG has the lowest level of motivation in its history.

An uncivil relationship

The relationship between administration and staff is frequently dysfunctional and the relationship between the university unions and the members of Council with whom they have to negotiate can be euphemistically described as uncivil. Academic staff at their discussions within their faculties have not in general 'bought into' the changes recommended by the presidential report and are being dragged kicking and screaming into reforms which they consider ill-advised and unlikely to work. The university's semesterisation programme contributes to this environment since the administration of basic building blocks of university life, the provision of classroom space, time-tabling and exams can be described as being in considerable disarray.

In such an environment, the creative element in the university's conceptualization of its existence is sustained with great difficulty. The recent announcement by the government of its intention to set up a new campus without previous consultation with appropriate academics has had a devastating effect on the morale of senior people upon whose continued commitment and long service the institution has depended. The decision to make a major policy initiative without consultation in a context within which the motivation could be easily invested with sinister connotations, evokes in more serious professional minds a suspicion of lack of commitment to the principle that the University is best placed to interpret the execution of national policy in terms of higher education.

The low morale and tensions at Turkeyen could not have come at a worse time. It may not be true that the level of political intrusiveness and policy difficulties are any more egregious that in previous manifestations. It is true however that 1. The university is less well-equipped to withstand the difficulties they present and 2. The country can ill afford the likely impact of miscalculation. In the first place, the university has a much lower ratio of senior staff i.e. (Professors and senior lecturers) than is generally held to be acceptable by international standards. A proportion of 50% senior staff is adjudged to be appropriate in the circumstances of a university in a small poor country. The current level is 27% with only the Faculty of Technology with 52% meeting international norms.

The proportion in vital faculties such as Natural Sciences and Education 28% and 17% respectively. It is also true that the University does not have the benefit of the small but important stimulus of expatriate staff which made a significant impact in departments in times past.

The need for a national university

The more important issue however is that Guyana needs an effective national university like never before in its history. The nature of world economic relationships and changes in structure creates an environment in which serious development is inextricably interwoven with knowledge. The contribution of services and technology to growth at the global level has created conditions in which the knowledge base of an economy is the determinant of growth and prosperity. Neither natural resources nor rhetoric will substitute for high technology and a skilled work force. Countries with work forces that are highly educated and skilled will grow and those depending on traditional sectors and manual labour will be marginalised.

Those countries with the intellectual infrastructure to absorb, create and disseminate the new technologies and do so with a speed at which we have no previous experience in this country will survive. Those who do not involve themselves in this competitive struggle will become further marginalised and remain poor. There is no future in low technology export of logs, cargo rice, and bauxite. We may not like that world but that is the world as it will be, indeed, as it is. That many otherwise sane people are seriously conceiving a model of development for Guyana without a national university is profoundly worrying. Cuyana urgently needs to strengthen its capacity to be able to absorb and disseminate the new technologies in agriculture, management, language teaching, communication, mining, robotics, image analysis, and biotechnology. There is no other way but by a vibrant and well-supported national university with the specific mandate of understanding new information and teaching it to others and studying its application. The question is not whether Guyana can afford a higher education institution but rather what are the implications of doing without one that is effective and relevant.

One of the roles envisaged for the universities established in the newly independent countries emerging from colonialism was the expectation that since the university could be a focus for enforced socialization and benevolent interaction between the future leaders and opinion makers, universities can become the focus for reconciliation between classes and ethnicities and a positive force in the formation of a national ethos and a national culture.

It is a very remarkable fact that a university with so many diverse challenges to its development and indeed to the very integrity of the nation, from which it derives existence, is so notoriously ineffectual in the area of social interaction and civic education. It does almost no research in such vital issues as race relations, precious little in some vital indigenous cultural expressions and has made very little conscious effort to teach any course with the explicit aim of trying to affect the minds and behaviour of university students for good.

There is but a very rudimentary sports programme, no gymnasium, no pavilion and very little by way of organised sports participation. There is little accommodation made for cultural activity, no performing arts facilities, no cultural centre, no choir, no jazz band, no Indian band, and no chutney singing, no calypso competition, no drama competition, no poetry competition. UG is a degree and diploma factory with slender recognition that money and effort spent on the affective behaviour of students creates ripple effects in community harmony and conciliation which are not always immediately quantifiable.

It is typical of the university's respect for Caribbean culture that it saw fit to build its new dormitory on the cricket field, an act of barbarism which is perhaps symbolic of the age in which we live. That the nation as a whole does not seem to care is instructive. A university that does not understand the symbolic and cultural importance of a cricket field deserves the political and developmental troubles it begets.

An active institution?

On a more general note, however, the utilisation of the educational opportunities provided in university programmes and the possibility from some form of engineered socialisation is one which provides an opportunity for development of deeper social and cultural tolerance, an appreciation which the circumstances of the university has not allowed it to exploit. It is instructive that the university's debating team which is usually less well endowed than its competitors invariably does extremely well in regional competition.

The founders of UG expected the institution to be active and innovative in applied science and technology. It should therefore be expected that the use and application of the dominant technologies in the economic world, i.e. the world of communications and information technology, the university would be a pro-active trendsetter and a national innovator. In fact, the university has already fallen behind any reasonable requirement in what it should be doing and the government has not been able to generate any clear clarity perspective on the required role of technology transfer and training in these areas.

This is important for it not only affects the content of the university' s teaching and researches but also the medium of instruction and the organisation of knowledge.

Information technology has created the opportunity for the synthesizing of knowledge into new areas of articulation, which straddle and indeed violate the traditional boundaries between academic disciplines.

If I can illustrate from my own experience. I teach a course called Project Planning and Appraisal, intended to prepare planners for urban and regional project work. The innovations in project planning often come from civil and aeronautical engineering and these innovations are now captured in a broad set of project software which is not formally available in the resources of UG. Unfortunately, the world is not waiting for UG and the new textbooks which combine engineering and social planing in one body are not yet in the library. Multiply that by similar gaps in all the faculties and add the fact that the computer centre is woefully inadequate to the requirements from the day it was opened and serious questions arise which we must answer as a nation. Is UG struggling to find its way? I think so.

Can we let it continue to flounder under-funded and hassled by successive generations of misguided politicians? We will be in worse trouble as a nation if we take that route.

A page from:
Guyana: Land of Six Peoples