The importance of the UWI experience

I noticed these comments by Barbadian writer George Lamming a few days ago – pardon my delinquence in only just getting to them.
Lamming made some spot-on observations about the state of the University of the West Indies last week when receiving the Order of the Caribbean Community at the Heads of Government meeting in Antigua and Barbuda last week.
Lamming noted that with the increasing decentralisation of UWI, our regional education institution is losing the Caribbean diversity that is so essential to its character. Specifically he said:

The university, therefore, has been suffering a gradual erosion of its regional character, and we must be very careful that we may not be left with the chain of insular politics, held together by a very fragile medium…

UWI Vice-Chancellor Professor E. Nigel Harris agreed with it and traced it back to 1984 when the decision was made to decentralise the university according to campus. So it has come to pass that students, if they are Jamaican, Trinidadian or Barbadian (which is most) don’t have to leave their home territory in order to study unless they are doing one of the few subjects that are still specific to a particular campus like law (Cave Hill), mass communications, geology, international relations (Mona) agriculture or engineering (St. Augustine).
Speaking to the Antigua Sun, Harris said that ‘regionality is an essential part of UWI’s five year plan (2007-12). An excerpt:

Within the context of the new 2007-2012 plan, regionality is important,” he said.
One method being looked at is increasing cross-campus linkages, so that even students from the campus territories are encouraged to conduct some portion of their studies in another territory.
“These campuses now have somewhere around 15,000 or 16,000 students, of whom say in Jamaica, 14,000 are Jamaican students. It would be very difficult to move them, but what we are doing is working to ensure that there is cross campus collaboration…. We are encouraging as much movement as we can of students across the campuses,” he said.

This is something I am absolutely passionate about. I am a huge regionalist (ahem … hence this blog) and I consider myself lucky that I attended UWI in another territory besides my native island. Sure UWI had its drama (I think that is just attendant with putting a set of young people with raging hormones together anywhere) but I would not trade my UWI experience for anything … and I say that having also gone to university in the north subsequently. UWI tops it for sure.
The thing is, with the way UWI is now, unless you live on campus or make a concerted effort, you could end up bypassing the whole experience of regionality. I have always felt a bit sorry for the off-campus students from the campus territories who never really got the full experience and for whom university was basically an extension of their secondary school experience. Because they were not pushed out of their comfort zone, they hung out with the same people they did in school and hardly got to broaden their range of friends or their knowledge of the Caribbean.
Whereas, having lived on-campus for my whole time at UWI, I have friends from just about every territory. I can pick up tomorrow and visit nearly anywhere in the Caribbean and I know I will find someone who will be glad to see me and put me up. This makes my island-hopping and carnival-going much cheaper- LOL!
But more than that, I learned. My world was widened. I got to really understand in more depth the outlooks, idiosyncrasies and backgrounds of different Caribbean countries. I got to understand the dry, limer-talk wit of Trinis and the hype and ‘extra-ness’ of Jamaicans. I got to understand the cadence of Bahamian accents and realise there is a world of difference between that and an American accent (which it can sound like at first).
I experienced food from different islands, shared in the news and gossip from other Caribbean countries and loved and lost and was courted by men from different Caribbean countries.
I can certainly understand the economic necessity that would inspire most people to stay close to home. Obviously, it makes far more sense to just take a bus or taxi to get to university rather than a plane. You can live at home with your parents and that saves a hell of a lot of money too – my student loan certainly attests to one of the drawbacks of going to another island – imagine if I had to pay school fees on top of my living expenses!
But … it’s so boring. That’s what I tend to think when I hear about the UWI experiences of my friends who went in their own island, with the same old friends they always had and went to the same old fetes they always had.
To me … that’s not UWI. I think the university and the governments should try to do something to encourage most students to study in other islands. For one, make it easier for students to transfer and study their same subject in another territory. In my three years, I only knew two students who were able to do that.
I think, given the chance, students would take the opportunity to experience another territory. I still think that regionality has some allure. Or maybe I’m just one of those UWI idealists … what says you islandistas?

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