Caribbean v-c faces struggle for funds

May 28, 1999

A university jointly run by 14 English-speaking Caribbean countries has appointed to its top position a man who lists choreography as his profession.

Recently inaugurated as vice-chancellor of the University of the West Indies, Rex Nettleford will be directing this show with limited resources.

The university has been hit by Jamaica's general economic difficulties. The nation, which is the third-strongest economy of the member countries, still owes half the money it promised to contribute last year.

The lack of new funding has meant the faculty of social science has had to turn away half the qualified student applicants.

Dr Nettleford says the university is negotiating with Jamaica's government to find workable levels of contributions. "It realised it was putting the institution in great jeopardy," he said.

The university also faces problems trying to represent equally each of its member countries - it has campuses in Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, and offices in the 11 other countries, plus a presence in the Bahamas - because each country is pulling a different load. The variation between the Caribbean economies also creates complicated logistics, as academic salaries and student tuition fees are dictated by the country of origin.

The empty promises of some countries have led the university to resort to tactics that cause public embarrassment, such as when the vice-chancellor urged governments to pay their monthly contributions in the university's annual report.

The university's finances, however, may soon find some breathing room - Barbados has been enjoying an economic boom, and further negotiations with governments are planned. The university has also had some success in its fundraising campaigns, landing Harry Belafonte and Jimmy Cliff to play concerts, and persuading Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records, to cut a commemorative album, due out this summer, with profits going to the university.

General economic damage, however, has meant that attempts to increase the level of higher education among the five million people the university serves have had to be scaled back. Only 2 per cent of the population of the member countries possesses either a tertiary or college education. Dr Nettleford would like to see this number raised to 10 per cent.

The university's research is typical of other higher education institutions with more than 20,000 students. It ranges from sophisticated DNA detection discoveries of pathogens to intelligent tutoring systems, recently recognised by North American software manufacturers.

International exchanges, conferences and studies, however, seem to have taken a back seat to work that is unabashedly regional and nationalist. Outreach programmes and distance education figure prominently beside the more traditional faculties of medicine and graduate studies.

That sense of a common cause has helped develop a tight relationship between the university and its faculty association. According to Peter Whitely, head of the West Indian Group of University Teachers, the government is the common target of their frustration.

But for Phillip Chambers, president of the guild of students, a common front means little when he sees students unable to carry the costs of study. Last year, he sent more than 200 letters to major Caribbean corporations, soliciting funds for poor students. He did not receive a single response.

Mr Chambers says he has seen a growing respect for higher education. If only, he adds, banks and big business showed the same admiration.

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