OF the 15,000 qualified students applying to study Medicine at the University of the West Indies, Mona campus each year, only 15 per cent are accepted because of space constraints, but this is set to change with the completion of a new $3.5-billion medical faculty building.
The 250,000 square-foot state-of-the-art facility is just 90 per cent completed; however, the university's current batch of 350 medical students started classes two weeks ago in the six-storey structure. With its ultra-modern fixtures and amenities, the new Faculty of Medical Sciences Teaching and Research Complex is a vast improvement over the old medical faculty, which was first built in 1948 to accommodate 33 students.
"Constructing a proper facility for the basic medical sciences was something that had been discussed for a long time," said Deputy Principal of UWI and former Dean of the Faculty of Medical Sciences Professor Archibald McDonald.
But while such a need existed, the urgency of the situation came into sharp relief in 2004, when government announced a cut in the university's subvention and the faculty was mandated to come up with $57 million to finance its budget.
"The way to do that was either to cut staff or to earn it," said the professor, who was at the forefront of the construction project which started in 2010.
The building itself is a lesson in modern construction and is expected to shape health care, both locally and internationally. There are five large lecture theatres — three of which are already in use — 25 tutorial rooms, 45 small research labs for staff, and 12 larger research laboratories that afford students a spectacular view of the Mona dam and equipped with the latest multimedia technologies.
But perhaps even more impressive is the use of numerous cost-cutting and energy-saving mechanisms in the building. A greenhouse forms the basis for a huge cogeneration electricity plant which will help power the entire facility, in addition to the University's new law faculty, the Department of Management Studies and the Mona School of Business, as well as a call centre which is being built nearby.
The facility will also harvest rain water for the flushing of toilets, and the installation of specially designed louvres on the outer parts of the building to protect it against falling trees and other debris during natural disasters.
The building is also equipped with an elevator, is wheelchair-accessible, and has a pool to assist in the rehabilitation of persons doing physiotherapy.
"This building represents a massive investment by the university to give our students state-of-the-art exposure in medicine," said acting Dean of the Faculty of Medicine Professor Horace Fletcher during an exclusive tour of the facility by the Jamaica Observer recently.
The building was designed by Jamaican architect Robert Woodstock, and will have various levels for anatomy, dentistry, bio-chemistry, forensic science, physical therapy, physiology and pharmacology. There will also be a museum at the front of the building for the benefit of visitors.
With construction almost completed, Professor Fletcher said UWI intends to aggressively pursue more international students.
"We have the best facilities; so now we can attract people from the UK, the US, Canada, and as far as Africa," he said, before adding, "The possibilities for studies here are enormous."
Professor McDonald said the enrolment at the university was increased from 100 students in 2004, to the current 350, in order to secure funding to build the new facility. With foreign students having to pay the full US$28,000 per year for tuition, more of these students were enrolled gradually over the last four years. The fees from these students, in addition to a loan secured by the campus were used to finance the construction.
"Less than half the students are Jamaican students. A large number of them are from Trinidad. Having better facilities has enabled us to take students not only from Trinidad, but from all over the world," said Professor McDonald.
By increasing its foreign student cohort, the university hopes to be better able to assist more Jamaican students who are not funded by the government. Those who benefit from a government subvention pay about $575,000 per annum. Currently, the faculty pays half of the tuition for those students who don't have this support through bursaries, so that they only pay about $1.3 million per year in school fees.
"The campus has put a lot of resources into that building, but it really is going to benefit the country of Jamaica and the entire Caribbean region," he said.
Pro-vice chancellor and principal for UWI, Mona Campus, Professor Gordon Shirley, said the new medical faculty is important for the future of the university and assured that the faculty did not intend to lower matriculation standards just to fill spaces.
"Quality is going to be a very important part of what we do, and so our capacity to expand will be a function of being able to ensure that we maintain quality, not only in the facilities, but in all aspects of the training and educational processes for our students," he said.
The old medical faculty building will be used for the university's engineering department.