Condition of labs at UG affected teaching of students
February 9, 2004
I wrote earlier that: "The training that they are receiving was woefully inadequate and below international standards. The science programme at University of Guyana (UG) that I was involved in would not receive international accreditation."
The science programme that I was involved in at UG was the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology program-me in the Biology Depart-ment. The courses were Bio 214, 314, and 423, these are the Biochemistry/Molecular Biology courses. These courses have both classroom and laboratory components. The labs for these courses were not done in the recent past, since no record of recent lab material notes were available. The Head of Department did find some outdated documents that were approximately a decade old, put together by the person who designed the Biochemistry/Molecular Biology programme but it was totally devoid of modern biochemistry lab instructions for these courses.
Labs were not done due to the lack of materials and equipment and/or due to a lack of a qualified person to set up and conduct these Biochemistry labs. Using materials that I brought (Texts and University Lab Instructions) with me, we had to greatly modify (due to lack of chemicals and equipment) these designed lab courses to accomplish watered down learning objectives for use in the Bio 214 and 314 courses. We were able to do some basic laboratory work, which included the preparation and characterisation of DNA and RNA, and analysis of proteins. However, most of the labs necessary for a B.Sc. qualification that I would have liked to have students do to bring the programme up to basic international standards were not done because of a lack of material and equipment.
I brought detailed lab notes and laboratory manuals from the programmes currently used elsewhere (e.g. at the University of British Columbia (UBC)). I had hoped to modify/adapt these modern biochemistry labs for the biochemistry third and fourth years university lab programmes at UG. Unfortunately, these labs could not be implemented/adapted, again due to the lack of equipment and material. The fourth year (final year) biochemistry course, Bio 423, had to subside with the DNA, RNA, and protein analysis labs which is usually part of a second year lab programme elsewhere. This was done primarily because they had not done these labs in the previous years and no other labs could be implemented/adapted for the fourth year level. As a result in their final year of their training, these biochemistry students at UG were not receiving the training that they should.
Another lecturer taught the molecular biology section of the Bio 423 course. The labs for this section were also non-existent. Students watched DVDs! These were designed to be teaching tools, not a substitute for actual hands on experience. When final-year students, in particular, are receiving this level of sub-standard training, we should be duly concerned. The students know that they are receiving poor training. This state of affairs is definitely not up to international norms. (Unfortunately, the situation that occurs in this programme can also be seen in other programmes in the Faculty of Natural Sciences at UG).
Other aspects of the Programme which impact on the quality of the programme
There is very little up to date material that the students can read in the library on the current topics being taught. Students depended solely on the notes and copies of supplementary reading materials that were placed in the library by myself. The textbooks for these courses are unaffordable. I had the only text!
I told the students that if I continued to teach at UG, by the end of my 3-year contract, I would no longer be qualified to teach in a modern Biochemistry programme at any internationally recognised university. Scientists must read and keep abreast with the current developments in their own fields/areas of expertise as well as knowing the latest developments in science, in general. Education is a continuous learning process and reading the trade journals (in my case Biochemistry and Chemistry Journals) and the general journals (e.g. Science and Nature) are absolutely essential.
At UG, there is no access to any of these journals since UG does not subscribe to most science journals or e-journals. There is only limited access to old text books. Reading the journals is imperative for students and lecturers. Keeping abreast of the latest developments in science is important and UG does not do this in any form. At least basic materials are expected to be available at any internationally accredited institution.
2.Research and Publications:
Secondly (in order to remain eligible as a faculty member at any internationally renowned university), I have to publish papers from my research in international peer-reviewed journals. If I do not publish in international peer-reviewed journals then my letters of references would not be worth anything. There are no facilities for any serious research (fundamental and/or applied) at UG. Basic facilities (balances, pH meters, spectrophotometers) for routine lab use were not available. There is no dedicated lab space for any faculty member so continuous experiments are not possible. Research cannot be done using the teaching lab space, since these are in constant use.
In addition there is the question of finance, the minuscule grant cannot set up and run any laboratory. There is also the question of stable power supply. (The Iwokrama research experiments were ruined because of the unstable power situation. This contributed to the difficulty of getting any research done on the UG campus). Internationally, lecturers have to publish to maintain their positions. The international universities try to facilitate the research environment since this impact on their standing. UG is yet to follow the norms of any internationally accredited institution in promoting research in science.
As mentioned above it is difficult to remain a qualified faculty member (based on international standards) if one stays at UG. Probably for this reason, qualified personnel leave UG very quickly, because they realise that their value as related to international standards will decline and therefore, it is fruitless to remain at UG. This has led to an unsatisfactory situation, where UG Grads (with BSc only) are teaching courses they are not qualified nor trained to teach. As a result UG has gotten into a situation where the under-qualified and under-trained graduates are teaching in Science! I understand that the Dept of Biology might not have any PhD at this time. As a consequence (of the lack of qualified personnel), we now have situations where prestigious positions such as Heads of Departments in Science and Dean(s) of Science are filled not by PhDs but by personnel with first degrees and most of the time with a degree(s) from UG. I have great respect for the individuals being asked to do these jobs. Unfortunate-ly, their limited training hinders their job performance and ability to represent UG nationally and internationally. I do not know of any internationally accredited institution where such a situation exists.
This departure from international norms was very evident when the US Ambassador was at the UG campus (to hand over some Chemicals), he addressed the Dean and Heads of Depts. as Doctors (correctly following international norms and expectations) unfortunately, his high expectations were not met. We owe this gentleman an apology and explanation. Internationally, it is expected that the Deans and Heads of Science Departments have PhDs, and are very highly respected scientists and the best in the country. (Since they also have important leadership roles to play in the community.) This is not the case at UG. To substantiate the loss of quality in Science at UG we have a situation where a Dean of Science in his 2000/2001 Annual Report (page 28) cited attendance at workshops and conferences as publications. Publications are papers in peer-reviewed journals.
How can anyone expect the Faculty of Natural Science at the University of Guyana to be taken seriously? Their sister institutions follow international norms while UG does not. The placement of under- qualified personnel at UG may also lead to a situation where "the Ox is muzzled by the food it eats to live."
UG does not list its faculty on its website or in any Calendar, and I was told by high level university personnel that any university, example UG, that does not list its Faculty is suspect! When students apply to universities overseas for graduate studies, the administrators check for the UG Faculty listing on its Website and the credentials of the referees (lecturers) on the Internet. If they do not like the information they see (qualifications of staff, head, dean etc.), the application is not considered, as a consequence the applicants suffer.
UG grads do well overseas because they know that they are lucky to have been given an opportunity. These students (usually the cream of the crop) are driven to excel since they know there is no other choice and give it their all. Because of their hard work and seriousness, the faculty members of international universities generously help these students. Most people try their best to help students from undeveloped countries. The same can be said for students from other foreign countries. I have worked alongside students from e.g. Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, China and India. Now, there are students from the former Soviet block and Eastern European Countries and as a result the competition for positions is greater now.
The question of accreditation is serious and should be addressed. Failure to address the problems of lab, library, and research facilities, and staffing cannot be ignored any longer.
The Guyanese public would be eager to read the unedited reports of Dr. Tinto, and Professor B. Mootoo.
I can write more, but this is enough for now. I do not belong to any political party or serve any political interests. I am just telling you what I know. My sincere hope is that corrective action is taken and the University is put back on track to respectability. UG should be an institution that all Guyanese can feel proud of. The students deserve the best education that we can give them to survive in a very highly competitive world.
Seelochan Beharry, PhD
(former Senior Lecturer in
Science at UG)
We sent this letter to Mr Al Creighton, the Deputy Vice- Chancellor, for his comments and received the following response:
"Thank you for allowing us the opportunity to respond to this issue in this letter, which returns once more to matters already raised and dealt with. We have repeatedly admitted that Dr Beharry is right about unsatisfactory conditions, some overcrowding, shortage of material and equipment in the UG laboratories. UG does not have the resources of the wealthy universities in the developed world, and it has also suffered deterioration, attrition over the years, and some amount of administrative failings. We have already detailed some of the action taken to improve and correct. We listen to criticism that helps us to improve, and do what we can with limited resources. But we have to repeat ourselves responding to critics bemoaning the same problems in successive letters.
Although he is right about some things, there are several incorrect details in Dr Beharry's account. He is definitely not right in declaring that UG and its science programmes do not have international recognition. He obviously does not feel that UG courses meet international standards, and I agree that high standards are not always maintained. But "accreditation" is not an expression of the personal opinion, judgement or assessment of any individual. It is the fact of the acceptance of the academic programmes of one institution by another as equivalent to its own, or as suitable for matriculation (accepted as entry requirements). (This requires much more detail, but I am trying to be brief). Strictly, accreditation is a formal agreement between institutions. This may be through inter-university bilateral agreement or through Accreditation Boards. In very general terms, however, it loosely refers to acceptance and recognition of an institution's certification even in the absence of formal agreement.
Therefore, it does not matter what Dr Beharry's or mine, or anyone's personal assessment of the UG degree is. The fact is that, in spite of the condition under which it is produced, the UG degree is accepted and "accredited" by recognized institutions across the world. If we accept Dr Beharry's reasoning, no recognized foreign university would accept UG graduates. But they accepted Dr Beharry, who is a UG graduate. Over the past 10 years or so, they accepted more than 70 other UG graduates, whose record we have documented, in science, agriculture and engineering alone. These were practically those who we checked, not the "cream of the crop."
Then he says they take sympathy on Guyanese students and help them through. In order to accept that we have to believe that several of the world's leading universities scattered over many different countries including the USA, Canada, UK, Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados, Holland, India, Austra-lia and New Zealand follow that practice. We have to believe that in excess of 70 UG graduates who were successful in MSc and PhD programmes plus countless thousands of other Third World students benefit everywhere from that special help.
We also have to believe that these universities think the Guyanese students are weak, yet they continue to give them scholarships and teaching assistantships. There is documented evidence that several UG graduates were strong enough to compete and win these 'awards', which universities only give to their best students.
On recruitment as a lecturer at UG, Dr Beharry was asked to review and upgrade the very introductory courses in biochemistry and biotechnology, a minor part of the general degree in Biology. But he spent only one Semester (half of the year) at UG, so it is understandable that he is unaware of many of the traditions, policies and practices at UG, which keep it in line with international understandings. Like international academics, UG lecturers are required to research and publish. It is true that some do not. But those who don't stagnate; they do not get promoted, and eventually it is often recommended that they lose their contracts. Publications are essential for promotion and only after they are assessed externally by authorities in the field. Lecturers endure an annual staff review process and all of this is documented in the minutes of the Appointments Committee.
Dr Beharry is also seriously misinformed in his assertion that a PhD is the qualification for Headships, Deanships and administrative posts. Is it not. The universal qualification is that one should be a Senior Lecturer, Reader or Professor. Of course, in the stronger institutions, there are more Doctors and therefore more administrators with that qualification. But one might be surprised to learn that there are senior academics at the best universities who do not have PhD's and one does not have to have a doctorate to be a professor. None of the last three Vice-Chancellors of UWI, including the present one, have PhD's. Also, the present VC of UWI is a Professor, but the two before him were not.
At UG, the same rule applies, that Heads and Deans should be at least Senior Lecturers. But the staffing situation is not at its best, so allowances are made for lower ranks to hold such posts where there are no senior academics or, as sometimes happens, when the senior academics do not wish to take up the positions.
It is not true, however, that most of the science lecturers are First Degree UG graduates. In Biology, where Dr Beharry worked, there are two Doctors, three Masters and only one First Degree with the rank of Lecturer, plus two Assistant Lecturers with first degrees.
There are many other items in this letter whose inaccuracies deserve to be corrected, but it is not my intention to continue, week after week, to deal with them all."