They're recruiting again in paradise

January 14, 2005

Briton heads influx into the University of the West Indies, reports John Kirkaldy

The University of the West Indies has just taken on the first British academic at its English languages department in three decades after a long-term recruitment freeze was lifted.

John Lennard's appointment as professor of English and American literature coincides with that of two other non-Caribbean appointees: an American and an African.

Professor Lennard, who has worked at the London campus of the University of Notre Dame and was director of studies in English at Trinity College, Cambridge, said he had "very favourable first impressions" of the University of the West Indies.

It is hard not to be impressed by the university on first sight. Its main campus in Jamaica must qualify as one of the world's most beautiful. It is based at Mona, on the edge of an old sugar estate, where the Blue Mountains provide a backdrop straight out of a tourist brochure. Around the campus is a spectacular variety of tropical vegetation.

The existence and growth of the university is a unique success story. It has a presence in about 15 countries in the Commonwealth Caribbean: Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, the Cayman Islands, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, Montserrat, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago and the Turks and Caicos Islands.

Although all the countries share a colonial history, there is often fierce rivalry between them. An attempt to establish a federation between the main territories in the late Fifties ended in failure.

In October last year, Nigel Harris was appointed vice-chancellor. He was a strategic choice. He is from Guyana, the one former British colony in the Caribbean that is not a member of the University of the West Indies, so he cannot be accused of territorial bias.

Professor Harris has no doubts about the institution's future, pointing out with pride that seven countries serviced by the university are led by former students. "The overwhelming majority of graduates in the region's churches, businesses, armed forces, law and medicine are from this university," he said.

Commitment to the institution as the university for the region was reaffirmed by the heads of the Caribbean in 1979, in what has become known as the Declaration of Grand Anse.

There are three main campuses: Mona, Jamaica; Cave Hill, Barbados; and St Augustine, Trinidad. Some courses, such as law at Cave Hill, are based at a single campus; others, such as humanities, stretch across the three sites.

Professor Harris is a great believer that improved use of the internet will be a major contributor to the university's future. Enrolment is booming.

In 2002-03, there were a record ,001 registrations, including 2,764 on distance-education programmes, 1,430 in tertiary level institutions and 230 on courses at affiliated institutions.

Student motivation is high. As in so many developing countries, a university degree is seen as a vital step in economic advancement in an area where unemployment remains high. "Our problem is always to keep the brightest and the best," Professor Harris explained, "especially with the high salaries offered in North America."

Although much of the university structure is still recognisably British, the North American influence grows every year. Professor Harris has said that he would like to see closer links with France and Spain, two other former colonial powers in the region.

The university was founded in 1948 as an external college of the University of London and became independent in 1962. Links with Britain, however, remain strong. Many staff have studied or researched in the UK.

Rex Nettleford, the previous vice-chancellor, for example, was a Rhodes scholar to Oxford. But despite such links, expatriates warn that new recruits such as Professor Lennard need to be aware that the university is strapped for cash and should be judged by developing world standards, not Western ones.

Moreover, opportunities in arts and social sciences are limited for non-West Indians despite the recent spate of expatriate appointments in the English languages department.

Those expatriate lecturers who have spent some time at the university are, for the most part, satisfied with their experience. Facilities are good, as are the climate and culture. Most people seem to adapt well to the laidback Jamaican "soon come" lifestyle.

But it is not all sun and surf. Jamaica has seen a worrying growth in crime and violence, especially in urban areas.

Most causes are social and economic but, in the past, politics has also fuelled violence - in the 1980 election, more than 800 people were killed.

Official figures show murders for 2004 running at about 1,500 (out of a population of 1 million).

On the Mona campus, armed guards stand outside the bank; access to lecturers' university accommodation is via barriers and security guards, and entry to the campus is closely monitored. In Kingston, security is even tighter.

Another concern is economic. Jamaica has many assets but, historically, they have not always been well managed. And inflation is running very high.

Since the Seventies, though, there has been a growing sense of regional identity. An example is the Caribbean Centre for Teacher Training and Excellence.

There has also been a growth in research. In 2002-03, there were a record 2,487 students registered for research degrees. Many are investigating areas of regional concern, such as HIV/Aids.

"This university is seen increasingly as the premier research area for the whole Caribbean," Professor Harris said.

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