Dr. Fraser- Point of View
January 13, 2023
UWI, 75 years of service to the region – Some reflections

On January 7, 1948, seventy five years ago the University College of the West Indies admitted 33 medical students to its single campus, housed on the grounds of what used to be the Papine and Mona sugar estates. It was then a college of the University of London. Medicine was given priority because of the regional health situation with rampant high infant mortality rates, chronic sickness and inadequate training of medical personnel. A teaching hospital was to be a central part of the College. Natural Sciences was added in 1949, Arts in 1950 and Social Sciences in 1958. In 1960 a second campus was added in Trinidad on the grounds of the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture which became the Faculty of Agriculture. The following year a Faculty of Engineering was attached to that campus. In 1962 the College became a fully independent university with Saint Lucian Arthur Lewis as Vice Chancellor. Sir Arthur in 1979 was the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics. It must also be noted here that Deryck Walcott, who graduated from the University of the West Indies in 1953, became a second Caribbean Nobel Laureate in 1992 winning the Nobel Prize in Literature. 1963 saw the establishment of a third campus in Barbados in temporary quarters at the waterfront. Several institutions of higher learning had predated the University. They were Codrington College established in Barbados in 1830, a few Mico Teacher Colleges, and the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture.

In 1945 when representatives of workers from the region met in Barbados to launch the Caribbean Labour Congress, one of its resolutions called for the establishment of a regional university with admission being based on ability and not means. It called for an expansion of free elementary education to accommodate all children of school age. Vincentians should note that the person who chaired the session on education was none other than George McIntosh who was at the forefront of the formation of early labour unions in St. Vincent.

In 2018 UWI, based on the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, had been listed within the top five percent of over 25,000 globally recognised universities. In 2021 during the period of the pandemic it had risen to the top 1.5 percent. It has also been listed by 2023 among the top 150 best universities in the world for research impact.

University statistics for 2021/22 (VC’s Report) showed a total student enrolment of 49,360, down slightly from the period before because of the effect of the global pandemic. This figure comprised 82.4 percent on-campus, Open Campus 13.7, Tertiary and affiliated institutions (or by Distance education) 3.2. Of note too was the gender issue- 68.7 percent of total enrolment being female. At the Open Campus, female enrolment was 82.6.

The University through the mouth of the Vice Chancellor sees its 75 years existence as a period of commitment to nation building, as a driving force “for forward economic and social transformation and development”. It has certainly helped to develop a large percentage of the region’s human resources. It spearheaded the creation of CXC and CPEA. Up to 2017/18 it had trained over 9,000 doctors and had done tremendous work in the area of natural disasters. And, of course, for better or for worse had been supplying leaders that control governments in the region. Its 2017-2022 Strategic Plan had as its theme, “Revitalising Caribbean Development”. In that plan it called for partnerships with government, the private sector and non-government sectors.

Of its many challenges, perhaps the most significant is that of financing where it had to depend to a large extent on government financing. With the collapse of the Federation and the independence of the different countries, those that hosted campuses were calling for more independence of their campuses. The danger was always that he who paid the piper called the tunes. This was an area of struggle where the University fought to maintain its independence. In 2022 a Global Campus Funding Model was launched as the University sought for a formula involving 50 percent government funding, with it creating its own 50 percent from regional and international student fees, business activity, private sector investment and endowment ( with the alumni being part of this).

A fifth campus, the Five Island Campus in Antigua had been added. The University has also been building linkages with universities in Africa and elsewhere, partnerships with private foundations like the Clinton Global Initiative and the Open Society Foundations (Soros Foundations). It has taken on board issues of climate change and sustainable development, the housing of a Global Centre for Tourism Resilience and Crisis Management. In 2017 SVG had invited a Criminology Professor from Mona to address a forum on crime, but there was no follow up. And the point must be made that some governments had not been utilising the skills and expertise available at UWI. I had not recently been following the Cave Hill initiative to develop a state of the art Agri-business Park as a “regional hub for entrepreneurial development, education, training and cutting -edge agricultural business research.” The person who was leading this effort was Vincentian Professor Leonard Ogarro, Director then of the Centre for Food Security and Entrepreneurship. As the University celebrates 75 years of existence there is a lot more to be done and a lot more to be said, but many challenges remain.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian