A Place of Our Own: the University of the West Indies (UWI)

Founded 45 years ago, the University of the West Indies is one of the Caribbean's truly regional institutions – and is desperately raising funds

  • The young Queen Elizabeth visits the Mona campus in 1953
  • Princess Anne unveils a plaque at the Faculty of Law in Trinidad in 1990
  • Oxford grad & then Trinidad & Tobago Prime Minister Eric Williams honoured in 1966
  • Principal Tayor with VP Philip Sherlock (right) & registrar Hugh Springer planning for UWI’s own facilities in 1949
  • Early undergraduates in Jamaica with Warden Dr. Bowen
  • Some of the University’s first students arrive in Jamaica on BWIA, October 1948
  • Staff of University College, 1950. Dr Taylor, first principal, centre front row; Philip Sherlock to his left
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  • The Administration Building, Trinidad. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay
  • The Historic Marryshow House in Grenada, once the home of Caribbean pioneer T. A. Marryshow, houses a UWI School of Continuing Studies
  • The chapel at Mona
  • Peter Minshall (left) receives an honorary degree (1990). Left & right, seated: Sir Alister McIntyre & Sir Shridath Ramphal

They’re so widely scattered, these Caribbean islands. More than 2,000 miles of ocean separate Belize in the west from Guyana in the east; it’s the distance from San Diego to Tallahassee, or London to Timbuktu. People say that only two things really bind even the English-speaking countries together: the West Indies cricket team, which has thrashed all comers in recent years, and the University of the West Indies.

That’s not completely true: despite all the differences, the islands do share a culture, a history and a language. But there’s enough truth in it to make the joke work.

The University of the West Indies (UWI) was to be the intellectual centre of the islands, helping to weld them into a nation. Today it serves 14 separate countries, through three campuses – in Jamaica, Trinidad and Barbados, accommodating more than 15,000 students – and a string of University Centres serviced by resident tutors, visiting lecturers and a radio outreach system (UWIDITE). Of the eight faculties, two – engineering and agriculture – are based in Trinidad; the others – medicine, natural sciences, social sciences, law, education and arts/general studies – operate on all three campuses.

It’s a huge operation, under-funded and sometimes neglected, much criticised for its shortcomings, many of which are inevitable. For UWI was created with the noble aim of “unlocking the potential of the West Indian people”, giving access to tertiary education to as many West Indians as possible. It was to be the intellectual and vocational centre of a huge, fragmented region. And that was never going be easy.

Forty-five years later, the only constant in the University’s life has been change and the struggle to adapt. Old dreams, like that of a West Indian nation, have withered away; only the long struggle for funding has refused to change, intensifying in these days of impoverished treasuries and sadly devalued currencies. The University, now desperately trying to finance a ten-year development plan, is grappling with the most radical adaptation in its short life.

The first students, 33 of them, arrived in Jamaica in October 1948 to study medicine. They came from all corners of the region: Antigua, Barbados, British Guiana (now Guyana), Grenada, Jamaica, St Kitts, St Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago, the Turks Islands. It was a three-day voyage for some on the Alcoa Clipper; others flew in on the young BWIA and its converted wartime bombers.

In their trunks and suitcases were suits “of sober cut and colour”, prescribed quantities of underwear, socks and pyjamas, white bow-ties and extra blankets in case of chilly Jamaican nights. On campus, they rode around on bicycles, recited grave Latin and Greek graces before meals, sang carols at Christmas, and wore bright red gowns.

Their new home had been a wartime camp. The Mona estate, a few miles outside Kingston and framed by mountains, had once been a sugar plantation – some I 8th-century buildings remained on the 653 acres occupied by the new college. During the war it had housed 5,000 refugees from Malta and Gibraltar and some German and Italian detainees. There were long low wooden huts, but little more. Until 1947 the open fields were occupied by goats, cows and a mentally deranged woman living in the ruins of a small stone building.

This was the University College of the West Indies, the first and only university-level institution in the English-speaking Caribbean, unless you wanted to study theology in Barbados or agriculture in Trinidad. As Philip Sherlock and Rex Nettleford put it in their 1990 history of UWI: “Mona, once a place of suffering and misery for earlier generations of Jamaicans, became a symbol of West Indian unity and nationhood.”

In the 1940s, all the English-speaking Caribbean states were still British colonies. For twenty years there had been talk of a university, but nothing had happened. The Spanish had established the first Caribbean universities within 60 years of their arrival at the end of the 15th century; the British, landing at Plymouth in 1620, had founded Harvard within sixteen years. But in the British Caribbean colonies, three and a quarter centuries after the British settled St Kitts and Barbados, a university was still a dream.

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Higher education meant going abroad, which was ruinously expensive and increasingly difficult – after the war, British universities were crammed with war veterans catching up. In 1943, there were only 109 West Indians at British universities, with another 250 in the United States. Only two-thirds of West Indian children were in school, many leaving at 12 or 14 anyway. Education was elitist, class-divisive. There was frantic competition for the few scholarships available. Money, not brains, was the key to mobility.

But a wave of nationalism had been taking shape in the Caribbean since the 1920s; independence was on the horizon, and the demand for political representation, for a role in leadership and thus for top-level indigenous education, was growing. As Jamaica’s Norman Manley put it, “We suddenly discovered that there was a place to which we belonged, and when the dead hand of colonialism was lifted a spirit of freedom was released and the desert flowered.” The Caribbean had to have “a centre of learning and training and a place where its people can do research into its own problems and relate them to the general knowledge of the world,” Manley warned.

The changing mood was recognised even in wartime London, and moves began to create new universities in Africa and the Caribbean. There was a Commission of Enquiry; a sub-committee (which included Philip Sherlock, later to be a UWI Vice- Chancellor, and Hugh Springer, later to be Barbados’s Governor-General) made sensible recommendations, the Mona site in Jamaica was chosen, and in 1946 a biochemist, Dr Thomas Taylor, was appointed to run the new university college.

Taylor – “Dr T” – was a slight, scholarly but incisive figure from Oxford’s Brasenose College. By early 1947 he had an office working on Lady Musgrove Road in Kingston, and by 1948 the first students were installed. Philip Sherlock was put in charge of extra-mural studies, quickly setting up resident tutors in the islands, and Hugh Springer became registrar. By 1954 the college was a functioning university with a teaching hospital and fully operating faculties of medicine, science, education and arts, plus an outreach programme and research institute.

One of the early undergraduates was a young St Lucian who would drop into the office at lunchtime and use the typewriter to type poems for his girlfriend, who was a secretary; she sometimes found this irritating enough to screw them up and throw them into the waste paper basket, to her later regret, since her suitor’s name was Derek Walcott, winner of the 1992 Nobel Prize for Literature.

For its first ten years, UWI was very much the colonial university. It had to be. “Taylor measured the merit of all proposed activities by whether or not they were done at Oxford,” noted one of his colleagues. Britain’s Princess Alice was the first Chancellor, students sat for University of London examinations; and while much of the teaching staff was of high calibre, it was largely expatriate. Sir Winston Churchill and Queen Elizabeth both visited in 1953. It was the university’s apprenticeship, when its standards were being set, its procedures recognised.

But that could not last long, and before the end of its first decade the university college was deep in the process of adaptation. There was the heady excitement of the West Indies Federation, born in 1958 and buried in 1962, the experiment that would have turned the scattered islands into a single nation. Its failure plunged the region into some profound soul-searching; Sir Arthur Lewis, who as Vice-Chancellor had steered the college through this turbulent period with great distinction, left for Princeton (and went on to win the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1979). Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago proceeded to independence in 1962; UWI students were now foreigners in each other’s islands.

If the fifties established the new university, the sixties Caribbeanised it. In 1960 a second campus was established in Trinidad, as the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture at St Augustine was incorporated into the structure; this was followed in 1963 by a Barbados campus, first located near the Bridgetown port and later at Cave Hill just outside town.

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In April 1962 the university college became the independent University of the West Indies, setting its own standards and criteria. Some of the early West Indian teachers, like historian Elsa Goveia, made a powerful nationalist impact; it was a time of rising black consciousness and search for identity, spilling over into upheavals in both academic life and on the broader political stage. Access to the University widened – enrolment quadrupled between 1962 and 1969 – and new faculties and programmes were added.

By 1971, when Princess Alice was replaced by the first West Indian Chancellor, Sir Hugh Wooding, debate about the future direction of the university centred around two issues.

Caribbeanisation involved the idea that the university must confront the real Caribbean environment, engage with it and develop solutions and directions for the wider society. It must consciously produce Caribbean leaders and nationals. At the start, Professor Gordon Lewis had warned that UWI should not be a “West Indian Victorian Oxford” but a “pioneer institution” marrying the best of the British intellectual tradition with the American concept of general education.

But for some of the older and expatriate staff, pure knowledge and high academic standards must not be compromised for anything. So the debate raged: what was a university really for, who should it cater for, who should go to it, who should teach in it? Should people be talking of manpower needs and mass access?

That led on to the second big issue, which had bugged UWI from the start and continues to do so today. Who should pay? Even in the early days, staff salaries were lower than in Britain or at the new African universities; funding from regional governments was never enough and often in arrears. Princess Alice had run a useful appeal fund (and gave support in many ways: the university chapel, an 18th-century rum-store removed brick by brick from Trelawney and rebuilt at Mona, was largely her project). But if access was to be continually expanded, who was to fund the new facilities, the development needs? How much of the actual economic cost should students carry themselves?

Despite a 1984 restructuring, the problems of ideology, access and funding bedevil the University to this day.

Last October, UWI reached its 45th birthday. Its graduates are in senior positions (and include several heads of government) across the region; it can point to a useful research record, to more than 35,000 graduates, an outreach programme for 25,000, assets of 1,200 acres and 1,000 buildings, and 2,250 teaching, research and support staff.

Among its many specialist programmes are centres for biotechnology, tropical metabolism research, industrial technology, seismic research, nuclear science, medical research, Caribbean studies, social and economic research, business, international relations, creative arts, and a University Press (founded in 1992).

A second medical school at Mount Hope in Trinidad came into the system in 1988, and will eventually include a teaching hospital, a school of medicine, dental and veterinary programmes, pharmacy and advanced nursing programmes. “Today in all our faculties we have programmes with a strong Caribbean content, under Caribbean leadership and responding to local and regional needs,” says the current UWI Vice-Chancellor Sir Alister McIntyre.

So far so good. But there is still a yawning gulf between the reality and the original dream. A large proportion of Caribbean school leavers still make the trek to North American and British universities. UWI is under strong pressure to broaden access constantly and cram more bodies into its facilities, while still aiming at high academic standards. While government funding becomes steadily less certain, governments demand that the University should be cost-effective in today’s market economy and should raise its own development funding. Physical and teaching conditions deteriorate as costs rise and the stress of under-funding exacts its price.

Hence the ten-year development plan, costed at US$300 million, and the current international fund-raising drive.

The pressure on UWI is understandable. The Caribbean has less than 5% of the relevant age-group in tertiary-level education. Most estimates put the necessary percentage for developing countries at around 12-17%. Hong Kong and Singapore report 12%, South Korea over 30%. In the United States, it is 57%. To have only 10% of the 20-25 age-group in tertiary education would mean an enrolment of 50,000 at UWI; the target for the year 2,000 is 18,500. The annual graduate output of 2,600 represents only half to a third of private sector needs alone.

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The stress has been showing. “We must train every talent we possess or condemn ourselves to poverty,” Sir Arthur Lewis had said. But how?

One of the problems is the assumption that Caribbean students should pay minimal charges for tertiary education at their own University, certainly far less than they would pay in the United States or Britain. There have been howls of pain as tuition and other costs rise and students are asked to pay a more realistic share of the actual economic cost. (This varies dramatically from subject to subject and from campus to campus, with Barbados two to three times more expensive than Jamaica, and Trinidad somewhere between.) The final bill, including living expenses, is beyond many students’ capacities, and most need loans or scholarships: at Mona, 40% of undergraduates are from low-income families.

By the beginning of the nineties, UWI was heavily in arrears and there were serious cash flow problems on all three campuses, quite apart from a reconstruction campaign in Jamaica following the battering which Hurricane Gilbert bestowed on Mona in September 1988. The university was reaching out to foreign governments, international agencies and foundations, and its own alumni; it was running appeals funds in all its constituent territories, part of a Development and Endowment Fund with HRH Princess Anne as Patron. The major success has been a soft loan of US$56 million from the Inter-American Development Bank for boosting technological and science capability, extending the outreach programme, creating extra space, and computerisation. This breakthrough, backed by valuable counterpart funding from the Caribbean Development Bank, marked a switch away from the government dependency into new financial markets.

Last year the University staged a “gathering” of alumni, which produced a wave of excitement and enthusiasm for the future. The aim is to capitalise on that spirit and involve UWI graduates in development work – fundraising, teaching and contacts, scholarships and book grants, whatever it might be.

The current development plan aims to double enrolment, especially in science and technology, management and distance education. By 1989, there was real concern over the arts/science balance: 30% of all first degrees had been in the arts and general studies, 20% each in natural and social sciences, and much smaller percentages in engineering (9%), medicine (8%), law (6%), agriculture (4%) and education (3%).

The vision is of more research and development, better information technology, chairs filled by distinguished scholars, more centres for advanced research, more post-doctoral work, links with other universities in the Hispanic Caribbean and Latin America in addition to the traditional North American and British connections, much more distance education (especially in non-campus countries and remote areas) so that people at home can follow university courses, continuing education programmes, summer schools, the sale of professional and consulting services.

“We must learn or perish,” says Vice-Chancellor McIntyre. He warns that the whole function of a university must change in a world where job security is vanishing and adults must expect constant career changes and adaptation to new knowledge, where 850,000 new books are published each year and a single New York Times contains more information than a 16th-century man would have to process in his entire life.

“UWI can no longer guarantee to fulfill the historic goals of a university, to turn out ‘educated and cultured persons’,” McIntyre insists. “What we can and must do is provide an introduction to learning.” A university can only offer each generation the tools for unleashing its potential. A degree is not a job guarantee but merely “a door to that largely unraveled world of knowledge, a start on a long and uncertain road.

Sir Philip Sherlock makes this prediction: “A university in ten years’ time will be a completely different place.” That’s for sure.