Golden Jubilee: UWI at 50

Rex Nettleford and Hilary Sherlock on the first 30 years of the University of the West Indies

  • Mona campus, with Assembly Hall and Senate buildings in background
  • March 1955: vice principal of the University College, P. M Sherlock, left, and the registrar, H. W. Springer. Photograph by UWI
  • Sir Shridath Ramphal welcomes Nelson Mandela and Winnie Mandela to the Mona Campus. Photograph by UWI
  • Sir Arthur Lewis. Photograph by UWI
  • Sir Alister McIntyre. Photograph by UWI
  • Sir Winston Churchill visits the Teaching Hospital. Photograph by UWI
  • Teaching Hospital. Photograph by UWI
  • 1948, first students from the Eastern Caribbean arrive in Jamaica. Photograph by UWI

Professor Rex Nettleford examines the first 50 years of UWI as “a history of creative response to the challenge of change”

In 1948, when the University College of the West Indies was established as a collaborative exercise between Great Britain and its so-called “subject peoples” in the British West Indies, the cry for self-determination had long been heard among emerging West Indian politicians, trade unionists, intellectuals and creative artists. The university was therefore seen as a radically transforming idea that would, in part, base the quest for democratic governance on the vital and active presence of an institution of higher learning dedicated to the fostering of “light, liberty, and learning”.

Such was the institution that became the University of the West Indies. From its inception it pledged to meet the challenge through research based on rigorous intellectual enquiry, academic standards judged on the basis of teaching of sustained high quality, and the capability to disseminate knowledge by way of strong outreach programmes and original publications.

Some people were critical when UWI began as a medical school. “A university starting as a medical school?” they scoffed. “That’s like a technical school.” Yet this decision by the Colonial Office has been vindicated as the nexus between health and productivity has been appreciated. The region and the world have benefited significantly from research by the university into such areas as Sickle Cell Anaemia and Tropical Medicine. The department of Social and Preventive Medicine, which is a result of the vision of some of our own graduates, has been able to establish a branch of community medicine which is a great investment in the development strategy of Jamaica and the wider region.

The first decade

In the first decade of its existence, the university naturally sought out ways of meeting the required standards with the assistance of the more experienced University of London, with which it was in “special relationship” until 1962 when the University College became the University of the West Indies (UWI). Significantly, this coincided with the beginning of the end of the colonial presence in the region, starting with Jamaica and the twin-island state of Trinidad and Tobago, both of which attained their independence in that year. The rest is history — and more. The decolonisation process continues still, with the university as a major contributor to the quest.

The second phase

The second period of development saw the expansion of the university’s intellectual services throughout the region. This involved the decentralisation of activities from Mona in Jamaica, where the university was first located, to two additional campuses — St Augustine in Trinidad and Cave Hill in Barbados. Much of the credit for this goes to Sir Arthur Lewis, UWI’s first Vice Chancellor.

Non-campus countries in turn established university centres with the help of Canada. The Canadians gave the money for the buildings and the contributing territories gave the land. The idea was to locate these centres near national tertiary institutions such as technical colleges and teacher training colleges where they existed.

We saw the Morne in St Lucia as the flagship of this new development, and the university had tremendous encouragement from the then Minister of Education. As it turned out, St Lucia, with the Arthur Lewis Community College, became the flagship of a new strategic alliance between UWI and national tertiary institutions. The centres conducted a wide range of “extra mural” activities followed by university extension courses, so that all countries contributing to UWI could feel that they were genuinely active stakeholders in the regional enterprise

It is important to link this to what was happening in the region at that time. The failure of the Federation of West Indian nations in 1962 had led to a determination that the university for West Indians would not suffer a similar fate. Even Dr Eric Williams — the Trinidad and Tobago Premier who contributed to the final collapse of the Federation with his doctrine that one from ten leaves nothing — was adamant that the university would remain a regional institution.

And so, with the hopes and promises of the Federation dashed, it was to the young university that the region looked. According to a report from the Interim Commission set up to liquidate the Federation, it was the hope of many “that from this source will come a new generation of political leaders, more responsive than their predecessors to the demands of restraint and compassion, and better able to nourish that seed and redress the past.”

Undoubtedly, UWI has done much to redress the past, creating, as it has, a generation of regionalists. For while one generation — Burnham, the Manleys, Errol and Nita Barrow — became committed regionalists as a result of their sojourn in England, those of my generation became committed regionalists as a result of our sojourn at Mona. All around the Caribbean, Permanent Secretaries and top civil servants can ring each other up because they used to be at UWI together, and this has made a tremendous difference, particularly during this early period.

The medical school which started the university had, by the end of the sixties, been joined by faculties of Social Science, Arts, Natural Sciences, Education, Agriculture, Engineering and Law. Agriculture and Law were offered in different campuses in an attempt to maintain the regional integrity of the university.

Individual territories, themselves in the process of acquiring independent status, were by now demanding greater access to UWI services. The governments were, after all, impelled by the urgent need for skills coupled with strong and relevant bodies of knowledge to support the formulation and implementation of national development strategies.

The Seventies

The third period in the university’s development, lasting throughout the seventies and into the eighties, placed the institution in uneasy, if creative, tension with the contributing governments. The end of every triennium meant having to bargain to see if UWI would exist for the next triennium. UWI members of the staff, academic and otherwise, do not know how difficult this period was. The late A. Z. Preston, the beleaguered Vice Chancellor who had to negotiate with 14 governments, was sorely tried, and I believe that period took a toll on him.

The issues turned on questions of access by more nationals to higher education funded from the public purse, at a viable cost. UWI had to find ways of dealing with rapid global change and its impact on the social and economic development of all the countries in the region. One clear priority was for “men and women who could spur the transition from an economy based largely on the export of raw materials to one that could produce finished products” with the support of science and technology and management expertise.

The expansion of the university’s student population was achieved, in part, by courses delivered via teleconferencing and conventional forms of distance learning. This exposed more West Indians in both the non-campus and campus countries to quality higher education on their home ground.

These successes led to the commitment by contributing governments in the 1989 Declaration of Grand Anse that “in view of the major role which the University of the West Indies is being called upon to play, it shall remain a regional institution indefinitely.”

While many now take this declaration for granted, it signalled a major milestone in the development of the university. Without that assurance, it would have been extremely difficult for UWI to have progressed to this juncture, and for it to even now be contemplating the way forward.

The Way Ahead

The Declaration of Grand Anse heralded the period in which the UWI now finds itself, on the threshold of a new millennium. A Commission on Governance, established by the Chancellor, has since 1995 provided a format for the journey into the 21st century. It has summoned the university to even greater creative response to the challenge of change in a complex, globalised world. The present UWI is the prime development resource for the peoples and countries of the Commonwealth Caribbean (otherwise known as the West Indies), through education and training in disciplines critical to tenancy of a diverse, competitive world.

UWI is building up tertiary level capability throughout the region, with itself as the hub in a network of national educational institutions. The quality of the university experience can only benefit from alliances with tertiary colleges and other institutions, which can focus on much of the remedial work with students that is currently being done at UWI; for example, the teaching of remedial English.

These alliances would help to ensure that when students enter UWI, we can take them further rather than having to go back to the basics. As someone who has benefited from the intellectual interchange that is possible between lecturers and students, I believe we are selling ourselves short when we try to deploy our resources on remedial work.

UWI is seeking to ensure that it strengthens the feeder sources that provide us with the people we are asked to train.

The university is also paying attention to the overall development of the region’s human resources, in terms of greater support for students. We have to be much more student-friendly than we are if we are to retain student loyalty. We are busy trying to raise money from the alumni. However, our experience shows that people who graduated up to the mid-sixties are the ones who are most ready to come forward with assistance to their alma mater. After that time, the quality of student life did not keep pace with rising enrollment. We have much to do in placing the student back at the centre of the cosmos. This is central to the current plan, which will see UWI providing proper facilities for study and learning by its undergraduates, postgraduate students and academic staff.

Finally, UWI is seeking to become financially self-reliant through internal efficiency and the strengthening of its capacity to attract funding. In addition to the contributions of governments, it is exploring national and international grants and private benefactions including alumni donations. As a young university, UWI still lacks a wide base of well-to-do alumni on which to draw, but we hope that in the not-so-distant future alumni will help to take care of the university; governments will not be able to give as much as they used to, being called upon to finance their own national tertiary institutions.

The alumni body supports the view that its alma mater is a centre of excellence. Five decades of output have produced world-class intellectuals and academics as well as scientists, medical professionals, international civil servants, technocrats, prime ministers and other political leaders serving the region, as well as creative artists in the literary and performing arts, among them a Nobel Laureate for Literature.

The University of the West Indies can now celebrate a 50-year history which has maintained a commitment to respond to the challenge of far-reaching changes. As has been said elsewhere, “study and experience have taught us that development begins with people, with a release of the creative potential in an individual or society; that science and the arts are both aspects of that creativity; that the vitality of a nation’s system of education and educational institutions, as well as the effectiveness of its development policies and programmes, are best judged by the extent to which they enable an individual or society to achieve that potential.”

Such study and experience will no doubt continue to inform the development of the University of the West Indies over a good part of the next 50 years.

Professor Nettleford is Deputy Vice Chancellor of UWI. He is the co-author with Sir Philip Sherlock of The University of the West Indies: A Caribbean Response to the Challenge of Change (Macmillan, 1990), from which the above article is adapted

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