Dr. Onwubiko Agozino

January 24, 2011

The Caribbean region remains one of the most vibrant sites of learning in the world today; yielding the inventors of many genres of music, the inventors of musical instruments, master artists, creative writers, original theorists, giants of the struggle for social justice, excellent sports persons, and an incredible number of beauty queens– all lettered or unlettered.

University of the People

''After a rule of, in some cases, three centuries, there is no university in the French or British West Indies… Demands are being voiced today for such a university… A university however will be of no use if it attempts merely to reproduce the curriculum of Oxford or London, and fails to take account of the particular needs to be filled in the islands,'' Dr. Eric Williams observed in 1942 in 'The Negro in the Caribbean' .

UWI was founded six years later as a campus of The University of London, the very same year that CLR James published the essay on ‘The Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Question’,  in which he argued that the best minds in the world craved knowledge about the negro because they knew that the potential for violence against the system of oppression among the masses emerging from slavery was unprecedented, and so, implicitly, education was one way of channeling the creative energy of the people away from violence.

More recently, we have seen a rash of university ranking charts globally, and people bemoan the fact that no Caribbean or African institution is in the top 1000. However, I think that just as in every class system, we must be careful not to be misled into believing that anyone who is not in the upper class is without value, and that all members of the upper class are the fittest.

It all depends on the criteria used, and some may be surprised to find greater value in the people ranked below, and so it is with UWI (can anything good come from Nazareth?). In this essay, I will suggest a new criterion for ranking universities that will put UWI up there with any excellent peers in the world in terms of policy impact through leadership reproduction.

When I took up a position at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, as a Professor of Sociology in 2006, I arrived with great enthusiasm to learn what makes the Caribbean tick intellectually. Here is a region with a total population that is less than that of Lagos, a major city in Nigeria, and yet intellectual giants have emerged from its shores at such an incredible rate that I could have been forgiven for wondering if it was something in the water they drank, the air they breathe, or the ground that they walked on that made them such over-achievers in so many different areas of life!

I always joked that I could have been crawling on all fours, kissing every inch of the soil that I was privileged to walk upon in the Caribbean, shouting mwah-mwah-mwah, but I did not dare for fear that they would send me to St. Ann’s Mental Hospital in Port of Spain, and claim that I was mad, (as one calypsonian, David Rudder diagnosed: ''Where are we going? St Ann’s. Why are we going there? Because we mad, we mad, we mad'').

No sooner had I arrived, than I began to hear discordant notes from citizens and professional colleagues about the decline in educational standards. I had just relocated from institutions in the US having previously taught in higher education sectors in the UK and Nigeria and I could tell that UWI was still world-class. Who knows where I had been, some joked but some others wanted to know why I was a fan of UWI.

I told them that if universities in the world were ranked according to their impact on leadership at the highest level, then very few universities in the world would be able to rival UWI. For instance, the university has produced more than a dozen heads of state and heads of government (see the list of famous alumni on wikipedia). If this criterion was part of the ranking of world universities, UWI would be one of the top 100.

And why not? Maybe UWI colleagues should analyze this impact factor and see where the so-called world-class universities stack up. I bet that UWI would mash up the competition in many cases, the same way that the old Windies Cricket team taught the English a thing or two in ‘their own’ game.

Using Different Criteria

Some UWI colleagues remained credulous, and objected that those heads of government were just heads of banana republics. I beg to differ because a head of state, is a head of state, is a head of state. If we should compare apples with apples, the question is why those Caribbean nationals who were educated in so-called world-class universities outside the Caribbean have failed to match their UWI counterparts when it came to leading the region?

The answer must be in the level of confidence that the UWI inspires in its students as future leaders, compared to the training of Caribbean students abroad who may be made to feel that they were only good for menial roles at McDonalds by the white-supremacist educators who might belittle their intelligence and make them feel small. Of course, there are always exceptions like Dr. Eric Williams but even he may have been saved by the stint at the University of Woodford Square, after Oxford had deemed him unfit to teach.

Moreover, even when we compare oranges with bananas, we will find that the heads of government produced by UWI have distinguished themselves by turning the CARICOM region into what UNDP classifies as high income nations to the shame of their counterparts from comparable regions that continue to hug the bottom of the league tables of Human Development Index year after year!

I think that it was the Beijing UN Conference on rights of women in the 1980s that first commended the Caribbean for leading the world in the number of women in public office or civil service, and I believe that UWI has something to do with this. I share this assessment with Caribbean students who race across North America and Europe looking for admission to supposed world-class universities. I tell them to use this litmus test before they accept any admissions that would cost them an arm and a leg but without matching the records of good old UWI:

Ask the admission officials how many heads of government their university had produced since 1948. If they object with the quip from CLR James that every cook can govern, then ask them how many Nobel Prize winners they have among their alumni. Again, on this rough measure of academic impact at the highest level, UWI would whip the back-side of many universities in the world.

Many of the students who listen to what some colleagues called my ‘spin doctoring’ for UWI eventually settle for a place at this university of world-class wizardry. But I do not want to take credit for this, given that a vast majority of Trinidad and Tobago students who win an open scholarship that they could take to any university in the world, quite rightly decide to spend their learning days in UWI.

I believe that they are making the best choices of their educational careers, rather than go to some over-priced institution elsewhere in the world, where students are evaluated with multiple choice questions rather than with unseen essay type examinations, and, where a good performance from a Calliban might be frowned upon, instead of being celebrated as a normal continuation of an impressive track-record.

Just before I left UWI to relocate back to the US, I proposed to produce a video documentary on this marvelous phenomenon of over-achievement by the UWI system. I proposed to interview all the living heads of government produced by UWI, and all the living Nobel Prize winners who cut their intellectual teeth at UWI, to see if I could identify the secret of the success of UWI. I did not get funded for the project but if any video-producers out there want to collaborate on the project, I am still game.

Not Without It s Problems

Of course, like all universities in the world, UWI has its own problems. A major problem that UWI is facing is the alarming disappearance of male students on the campuses; with up to 80% of the graduates being female on some campuses. As Barry Chevannes has argued from the Mona campus, this is not because the male students are less intelligent, but because they were participating less in higher education.

While at UWI, I visited several high schools to motivate the students to aspire to higher education, especially while the government of Trinidad and Tobago had the good sense of awarding scholarships to all students admitted to UWI. I eventually drafted a ‘Positive Masculinity’ manual for UNICEF to address this problem systematically to make sure that the worldwide problem of declining male participation in higher education does not become worse in the Caribbean, and globally.

Furthermore, UWI is facing increasing competition from new institutions in the region, but I have suggested to my UWI colleagues that this is a welcome development given that a healthy competition would raise standards overall, while the presence of other institutions should result in collaborations through which the institutions seek to do some things better by doing them jointly.

The difficulty for UWI is that it is based on the British colonial model of A-Levels based admissions for three-year degrees, while the new kids on the block are more flexible, accepting high school diplomas for a four year admission. UWI should allow four-year options to students and parents who do not want to spend two years slugging out an A-Level, but introduce a compulsory study skills program for all students admitted to a four-year program. In a sense, they already did this through the department of continuing education as a path to admissions.

In addition, perhaps following the Obeah-man equation of Dr. Williams after Jamaica withdrew from the West Indian Federation of 10 (10-1 = 0) the UWI contributing countries still lag behind in the promise of federation such that professors from one campus visiting another campus would need visas if they were not Caribbean nationals. Even in Barbados, which I admired for having the rare policy of granting Nigerians visa-free travel, I was denied access to the country to visit the Cave Hill Campus when I stopped over there en-route to London.

I ended up spending five hours at the airport, waiting for my connecting flight. I also missed a major conference on Caribbean philosophy in Jamaica, because the visa appointment came up after the conference ended. The success of UWI is testimony to the potentials of Caribbean unification in a federal state to raise the opportunities for the people to continue astounding the world with their unusual pool of talents.

In addition, travelling abroad for conferences required that I should get a visa each time I was returning to Trinidad and Tobago because the immigration officials simply refused to give me a multiple entry visa to cover my five-year work permit. I ended up paying visa-waiver fees every time after being made to wait until everyone else had been processed. They said that I should make an appointment to get multiple entry visas but each time, the appointment date was so far in advance that it was usually over-taken by another foreign trip.

Positive Impact

Despite travel difficulties based on my always-suspect Nigerian passport, I enjoyed my three years at UWI and remain grateful for the support that my colleagues and the institution, the students and the wider community extended to me. Only in the Caribbean have I named former and current government ministers and law-makers as colleagues and even students of mine.

I was frequently stopped by total strangers along the street to discuss my appearance that they saw on television or even recognize my voice that they heard on radio, I felt beloved and valued by the people so much that I did not want to leave but then a new challenge turned up and I took a leave of absence without pay which eventually led to my reluctant resignation.

Thank you UWI especially for those book grants that came annually and I could not wait to stock up my book shelves with delicious books from the university bookstore. Thanks to my colleagues and the university for the leadership opportunities they threw my way. And thanks to students for challenging me with questions that often gave me the opportunity to clarify that we were all survivors.

‘'Were you not the ones who sold us into slavery?’'

''No,'' I would answer, ''I would have been one of those who did fight to prevent people like you from being captured and enslaved.''

First published in Caribbean Icon.

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