Bring your swim trunks to the SCR

August 24, 2001

Lecturing in Jamaica has its drawbacks but has its sunny side too, writes Tony Ward in the fourth of our series from the grass roots.

Rising student numbers, not enough time to do research, and pressure from above to produce papers in "good" journals. Sounds familiar? Welcome to the University of the West Indies, Kingston, Jamaica.

Working abroad is a great way to broaden your horizons. A new culture makes you examine your knowledge in new ways. At the same time, academia the world over seems to be following the same blueprint.

Here at UWI we seem to be experiencing the tensions of the British system in microcosm. The university evolved out of the old University College after independence. As such, it seems to have retained many of the traditions and attitudes inherited from the University of London. There is still a senior common room (though this is actually an open-air bar with swimming pool and squash and tennis courts). The overall ethos is still very much "old" university, with the emphasis on research and publications. At the same time, resource constraints have led to expansion in student numbers. This has largely taken place in the social sciences, and lecturers in these increasingly popular areas struggle to cope with heavy teaching duties. I found myself teaching two classes of about 140 students in my first semester.

In social science, one can rely on only the basic equipment being present in a lecture room - white and blackboards. There is rarely amplification or an overhead projector, though thankfully there is usually air conditioning. At first I was reluctant to go back to chalk and talk. I quickly came to realise, however, that many of us have come to be slaves to overhead projectors. Writing out key points as you progress has a sense of immediacy and makes you more ready to diverge and expand as a class progresses.

The students themselves were a revelation. Many colleagues had told me what to expect, but I find UWI students at least as good as any I have taught in Britain - and that includes periods spent supervising students at Cambridge University. The main difficulty for a new English lecturer here is getting accustomed to the local accent, but as they say, it "soon come, man".

My discipline of psychology is a relative newcomer to this campus and is only now finding its feet. Jostling for position in the staff stakes to reach an acceptable staff-to-student ratio is one concern. We also have to persuade our colleagues that, unlike other social sciences, we are a laboratory-based discipline. Without investment in infrastructure, it is difficult to teach students the methodological skills they will need if they progress to postgraduate level. As if that were not enough, we also have to build strategic alliances with medical colleagues to facilitate our new clinical programmes.

I have every faith that progress on all fronts will be made in due course for the simple reason that psychology continues to attract ever-growing student interest. In the UK and the US, psychology is often among the biggest disciplines on many campuses. The reasons are not too hard to discern. Psychology is rapidly becoming the secular religion of the 21st century. It is to us that students turn when they want to learn about the human condition, and it is to us people turn when they have difficulties living their lives.

For many academics, personal finance is a big downside of their situation. It is not that academics expect to be rich, they simply want to be fairly rewarded for their efforts and to be able to support a decent standard of living. With Labour in power for a second term, many colleagues will be looking for increased investment and there will be the inevitable talk of increased student fees.

This is a familiar debate in the West Indies. The benefits package on offer here is as good as if not better than that on offer in the UK, which is surprising for a developing country. The salary scales are considerably below those in the UK, but many academics are provided with free housing on campus. This is often substantial - Jthree bedrooms, three bathrooms, maids' quarters and so on. Those living off campus get an additional 30 per cent of their salary. Also, generous provision is made for buying books, professional subscriptions and travel to conferences.

But the regional governments struggle to keep up their funding, and there is constant pressure to look to students for more contributions. This pressure is not always from the government - the university has on occasion suggested raising fees. Politicians, however, are wary of raising the current level. In this stand-off, day-to-day resources are severely constrained.

Despite these negatives, lack of resources, increased student numbers, pressure on time for research and such, there are many positive features to being an academic here. The total contact time per academic is still reasonably constrained. The morale of colleagues is generally good. Academics in this society occupy a privileged position and are held in high esteem. It is never cold (though it is frequently too hot), and petrol costs about 35p a litre. Schools are of a very high standard and Jamaican children must be among the politest in the world.

Although Kingston is not the prettiest or most untroubled city, nowhere is very far away in Jamaica. Within a few hours' drive you can be relaxing on a beach in Montego Bay, enjoying a Red Stripe in a laid-back bar in Negril or hiking in the Blue Mountains. Then there are the off-the-beaten-track towns such as Port Antonio, full of colonial architecture and historical edifices.

Christmas Day in 30C heat, with jerk chicken for lunch on Treasure Beach might not be most people's idea of a traditional Christmas. But for soothing away the frustrations of campus life and recharging the academic batteries, it cannot be beat.

Tony Ward lectures in psychology at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica.

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