UWI’s art­ful walk­back

Jamaica Gleaner - - OPINION & COMMENTARY -

HIS LIT­TLE tan­gle over which com­mit­tee of Par­lia­ment was in­tended to en­gage not­with­stand­ing, Hi­lary Beck­les de­serves com­men­da­tion and re­spect for the charm, and re­spect for trans­parency, with which he walked the Univer­sity of the West Indies (UWI) back from a po­ten­tially dam­ag­ing en­counter with the leg­is­la­ture over the use to which it puts the money Ja­maican tax­pay­ers con­trib­ute to the academy.

We can only as­sume that Pro­fes­sor Beck­les, the univer­sity’s vice-chan­cel­lor, wasn’t con­sulted prior to his bur­sar, Wil­liam Iton, dis­patch­ing his mus­cu­lar let­ter to the Pub­lic Ad­min­is­tra­tion and Ap­pro­pri­a­tions Com­mit­tee (PAAC) to the ef­fect that as an au­ton­o­mous re­gional, roy­ally char­tered in­sti­tu­tion, the UWI isn’t ac­count­able to the Ja­maican Par­lia­ment for its fi­nances. If par­lia­men­tar­i­ans wanted to know where and how it spent its money, they should ask the Ja­maican gov­ern­ment rep­re­sen­ta­tive on the univer­sity’s Fi­nance and Gen­eral Pur­pose Com­mit­tee. And here is the le­gal opin­ion to prove it. Thank you very much!

Mr Iton, in the strict le­gal sense, is right.

MISAPPREHENSION

There is a misapprehension among many Ja­maicans, though, that the cam­pus at Mona, and its re­cent off­shoots, are in­deed the sum of the UWI and that its own­er­ship re­sides in the Ja­maican Gov­ern­ment. Such per­cep­tions have deep­ened in the three decades since re­forms in­spired by Ed­ward Seaga di­min­ished the re­gional char­ac­ter — with 17 con­tribut­ing gov­ern­ments — and gave as­cen­dancy to do­mes­tic cam­puses.

But mere de jure as­ser­tion of Ja­maican ig­no­rance, as Pro­fes­sor Beck­les im­plied in his let­ter to the PAAC’s chair­man, Wyke­ham McNeill, misses a larger and more fun­da­men­tal point. In the fi­nan­cial year to July 2015, Caribbean gov­ern­ments con­trib­uted ap­prox­i­mately J$26.1 bil­lion to UWI, or a bit over 46 per cent of its in­come. Ja­maica’s por­tion of that pay­ment was J$6.1 bil­lion, or 23 per cent. Looked at dif­fer­ently, Ja­maica ac­counted for 11 per cent of the univer­sity’s in­come.

With a third of its en­rol­ment, Ja­maica is se­cond to Trinidad and Tobago (43 per cent) with the num­ber of stu­dents reg­is­tered at all the cam­puses, which, in the ab­sence of deeper anal­y­ses of rel­a­tive costs at Mona and other hid­den con­tri­bu­tions by Kingston, makes the mag­ni­tude of this coun­try’s con­tri­bu­tion to the UWI. Yet it is sig­nif­i­cant that de­spite being among the re­gion’s poor­est economies, and un­der­tak­ing tough fis­cal ad­just­ments, Ja­maica has, in re­cent years, been the best in meet­ing its fi­nan­cial obli­ga­tions to the univer­sity.

CON­CEPT OF AU­THOR­ITY

There is, how­ever, a larger con­cept than ei­ther the de jure or de facto au­thor­ity of those who over­see the af­fairs of the univer­sity, that is, their need to ap­pre­ci­ate its own­er­ship by the Caribbean peo­ple in whose trust they man­age it. Being asked to ap­pear be­fore na­tional par­lia­ments, or in­vited to ac­count at a com­mu­nity meet­ing at, say, Bolans vil­lage in An­tigua, shouldn’t be met with hubris or pre­sumed to be a diminu­tion of its re­gional char­ac­ter. In­deed, it may well be an op­por­tu­nity, to the ben­e­fit of the Caribbean, to re­in­force its re­gion­al­ness.

In­deed, as Pro­fes­sor Beck­les ob­served in declar­ing the univer­sity’s will­ing­ness to ap­pear be­fore the McNeill com­mit­tee, it is “in re­spect to Ja­maican in­vest­ments in all the cam­puses, not just the Mona cam­pus”. In a way, Pro­fes­sor Beck­les may have a struck a blow for Caribbean in­te­gra­tion by, if only a short win­dow, bring­ing a re­gional in­sti­tu­tion closer, and more ac­count­able, to its peo­ple.

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