The UWI's challenge after Prof Harris

Friday, May 16, 2014    

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Professor Nigel Harris' decision to step down as vice chancellor of the University of the West Indies (UWI) in April 2015 will create a void that needs to be adequately filled if the institution is to remain relevant.

Anyone paying close attention to his tenure will acknowledge that Professor Harris has, by his low-keyed, non-confrontational style, managed to keep the UWI from succouring to nationalism, which had threatened to make it three separate universities.

Under Professor Harris' tenure as well, the number of students has grown considerably to more than 15,000 enrolled in a variety of disciplines, the physical plant has been expanded, and research projects are thriving.

However, the UWI — like most other businesses and Caricom institutions — is experiencing dire financial problems.

The university is owed vast sums by Caricom governments, and even those who have supported the campuses in their territory have had to cut back, in particular the Government of Barbados, which slashed free education for university students.

The solution is anybody's guess. Our hope, though, is that it doesn't discourage candidates because the UWI is precariously perched at the apex of a pyramid of universities of varying academic quality within the Caribbean.

It has also had to be fending off incursions from foreign universities that deliver courses online.

There is no doubt that the UWI has lost its monopoly on university level education in the region. The fact that other institutions accept lower entry requirements and operate at lower costs only make matters worse.

In addition, insularity and nationalism have converted the UWI from a university with three campuses into three universities using the same name. Gone are the days when people from all the countries of the region mingled, discovered and reaffirmed their Caribbean commonality, forming an educated elite committed to regional integration.

Indeed, the UWI is no longer the choice in the way that it was in the 1960s and 1970s. This is partly because many of our brightest and best minds are enticed abroad even before finishing high school through the SAT system. They, like most young Caribbean people, are looking to graduate from a university which is a global brand and which can offer an experience of living outside the region.

As such, the person selected to be vice-chancellor, starting in 2015, will face a very severe challenge.

While we can think of a number of able candidates, our word of advice to the search committee is that net fishing is not going to find the best talent. Spear fishing will. Their focus should not be limited to Caribbean people, and the criteria must include adequate scholastic credentials and administrative experience. But, more important, the person must have a vision of how the UWI will strive in a global market for university level education and remain one of the top brands.





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