The University of Guyana's 40th anniversary celebrations started with all the hope and the hype that usually attend grand occasions. Understandably, much praise was bestowed on the vision of late President Cheddi Jagan under whose 1961-64 Administration the University was launched in 1963.
Governor Ralph Grey assented to the University of Guyana Ordinance on 18 April 1963 and evening classes started with 164 students at Queen's College and the nearby Government Technical Institute on 2 October.
The year 1963 was a time when the air was filled with talk of Independence. Both Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago had become independent in 1962 and Guyana also expected its independence that year. All the trappings of statehood were being put in place. A cabinet of elected ministers had been installed under the 1961 constitution; BG Airways, the fledgling national airline, was already airborne; the Guyana National Army Bill had been passed by the House of Assembly (though not assented to by the Governor) and a precocious Department of External Affairs was opened in the Premier's Office as a precursor to the Foreign Service. A university, therefore, must have been seen as a sine qua non for national independence.
From the start, there was never enough money to make all the dreams of Independence come true. The initial annual students' fee of $100 was aimed more at making university education accessible than at making university administration affordable. From the start, too, there may not have been sufficient appreciation of the need for high standards of scholarship which a university should attain and the high costs of academic staff and capital infrastructure that a proper university would entail.
Richer territories of the English-speaking Caribbean embraced the University of the West Indies (UWI) which, through its association with the University of London, had already established an excellent academic reputation. Many distinguished Guyanese - Bertram Collins, Walter Chin, Walter Rodney - had taught or studied there and the hope had been entertained that, despite the collapse of the Federation of the West Indies, UWI would keep the flame of Caribbean solidarity burning and one of its campuses would be established in Guyana.
The decision for UG to be separate from UWI was difficult for many to accept and there was uneasiness over the ad hoc character of UG's modest beginnings. Given Guyana's meagre economy and scarce human resources even then, there was doubt about the country's ability to sustain an institution of higher standards.
Arguments between advocates and adversaries have neither ceased nor been settled. Was it wiser to establish a new university than a campus of the old but reputable UWI? At the root of the argument is the question whether every independent state, no matter how poor or small, needs to have its own airline, army, appeal court, currency, etc.
The passage of time, certainly, has answered some of those questions, at least for the numerous micro- and mini-states of the Caribbean which are gradually moving in the direction of a single market, court of justice and common currency.
There is no doubt that Guyana's small university has provided degrees to thousands of poor Guyanese who might not have been able to acquire them otherwise. Those who support the point of view that numbers matter are convinced that UG has more than justified its existence. Others argue that, to be most useful to Guyana, a university must be more than just a big technical institute for training in vocational skills and printing reams of certificates and diplomas.
Certainly, there were a few 'golden years' when a cadre of outstanding academics laboured to give their students the best education and, equally, when UG graduates themselves built an enviable reputation of scholarship. Still, few gave much thought to the idea that a UWI campus in Guyana might satisfy the needs both for large numbers and high standards at a reasonable cost.
In the final analysis, if a university is to be any good, it must have good laboratories, libraries, lecturers and adequate infrastructure. Equally, if its graduates are to be any good, they must be educated to enter the world of work and make a novel impact on their society and environment. Universities are not equal and it would be difficult to establish adequate standards with inadequate financial, physical and human resources.
Guyanese who have had the opportunity to study at one of UWI's campuses - Mona, Cave Hill or St Augustine - much less at a university in the developed world, readily discern the difference between those places and Tain or Turkeyen.
Good things do not come cheap and this would be an appropriate time to ask just how good has UG been?