University of the West Indies

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University of the West Indies

The University of the West Indies comprises three campuses: Mona in Jamaica, St. Augustine in Trinidad, and Cave Hill in Barbados. There are also university centers located in noncampus countries. These constitute the out-reach arm of the university, providing classroom teaching and enabling the delivery of some courses via the Distance Education Programme. The university also maintains working relations with a number of tertiary-level affiliated institutions. More recently it has forged alliances in some islands with selected teachers colleges and community colleges that register students for courses approved by the university. Certification in such courses comes from the university.

The university has seven faculties (Agriculture, Humanities and Education, Engineering, Law, Medicine, Pure and Applied Science, and Social Sciences). Only the faculties of Agriculture and Engineering are specific to one campus (St. Augustine); the others are duplicated on all the campuses. The total on-campus student population in the academic year 20022003 stood at 22,463 (Mona, 9,440; St. Augustine, 8,644; Cave Hill, 4,359). There were 1,095 full-time academic staff altogether in 20022003 (706 males and 389 females).

From about 1926 the British government responded in piecemeal fashion to separate inquiries about the possibilities of university education from the West Indies, Singapore, East Africa, and Malaya. The onset of World War II made it more urgent to promise the colonies a better deal after the fighting and to impress world opinion that Britain was an enlightened imperial power. The social conditions in the colonies had to be drastically improved and more liberal political goalsself-government, for exampleagreed on. Not only primary and secondary education but also university education became a matter of importance, if only to control the new colonial elite. In the case of the West Indies, before an aid agency of British advisers implanted in the West Indies (Colonial Development and Welfare) could set in motion British-funded improvements in primary and secondary education, another set of advisers (the Irvine Committee) was set up for funding a scheme of university education for the islands.

The Asquith Commission was a landmark in the evolution of British government support for university education in the colonies. A branch of it, the Irvine Committee, was sent to the West Indies in 1944 to investigate and report. After a tour of major colonies this committee recommended that a small single-campus residential university allied with the University of London, which would issue degrees in its name, should be established in Jamaica. A major issue before the committee was whether a centralized university, meaning a single-campus university, or a decentralized university, meaning a university of colleges scattered over more than one island, should be set up.

The evidence provided by witnesses, except in Jamaica, suggested that the islands would have been more comfortable with a decentralized university, but the Irvine Committee was convinced that in order to cultivate a West Indian outlook two requirements were nonnegotiable: the university should be residential and it should be centralized on one campus.

With funds for buildings from the British government and commitments from West Indian governments to meet recurrent expenses, such a centralized university college came to life in Jamaica in October 1948, with teaching first in medicine, followed by natural sciences (1949) and arts (1950). Extramural staff to develop adult education and West Indian cultural activities were placed on noncampus islands, but this was not thought to detract from the principle of a centralized university. However, after about twelve years this centralized single-campus residential model was found inadequate to guarantee rapid expansion or to satisfy insular nationalistic drives to possess a part of the university. In 1960 the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture, a tertiary-level institution in Trinidad founded in 1922, merged with the University College and became its Faculty of Agriculture.

Two years later (1962) a Faculty of Engineering, with much funding from the government of Trinidad, started at St. Augustine, and the next year (1963) teaching in arts and natural sciences commenced at St. Augustine and Cave Hill. The university had begun its journey to decentralization.

The history of the University College (which became the University of the West Indies in 1962, having claimed its independence from the University of London) may be conveniently divided into three periods: first 1948 to 1960, when it was a residential single-campus centralized University College; then 1960 to 1984, when the struggles to find a new nonresidential, decentralized, multicampus model was most pronounced; and finally 1984 to the present, when a highly satisfactory decentralized model was agreed on, first in 1984 and then refined in the mid-1990s by a new governance system. At this point, for instance, each faculty on each campus got its own dean. The university grew from thirty-three medical students in 1948 to 970 students in 1960, and despite repeated difficulties in raising recurrent financing, it did succeed largely by a mix of students from different territories in creating the West Indian outlook the Irvine Committee dreamed of. However, this outlook was subsequently impaired, though not lost, by a number of developments. West Indian leaders failed to create a national state; the Federation of the West Indies lasted only from 1958 to 1962; territorial nationalism grew; some territories, starting with Jamaica and Trinidad, became independent after 1962; and Guyana withdrew from the university in 1962. Eventually the university authorities found that instead of dealing with seven governments as at the start, they were dealing with fourteen. The university was financed for limited periods, usually for nine years at a time, and it was not until 1989 that the West Indian governments declared their commitment to keeping it as a regional institution in perpetuity. Most of the islands could not seriously think of financing their own university apart from the University of the West Indies, but two islands, Jamaica and Trinidad, because of their greater size and greater resources, talked as if they could establish their own university. The more credible threat came in the mid-1970s from Trinidad, which had surplus oil revenues. But using hindsight now it seems as if all the threats of the leading politicians were only negotiating positions in the struggle to locate faculties and programs in their territories or to have more local power over the university.

From decentralization through two specialized faculties (Agriculture and Engineering at St. Augustine), the university duplicated faculties and programs on any campus that could afford them. It took some twenty years for the management structures of the single-campus centralized university to be adjusted to fit a decentralized university model. By 1984 a university center headed by the vice chancellor assisted by a number of provice chancellors had successfully claimed authority over enough administrative, academic, and financial functions to hold the university together as a regional institution, but large areas of autonomy were allowed to the local campuses.

With the abandonment of a single-campus residential model, student numbers rose sharply from the 1960s onwards. The addition of evening programs boosted numbers especially in the Arts and Social Science faculties on all three campuses. Mona stayed ahead with 3,735 and 7,503 students in 1974 and 1994, respectively; followed by St. Augustine with 2,202 and 5,231 students in 1974 and 1994, respectively; and then Cave Hill with 991 and 2,870 students in 1974 and 1994, respectively. But the proportion of university students was still small and in most faculties applicants outnumbered matriculants. Although the level of financial support offered to students varied from campus to campus, the general trend has been to put more of the real cost of their education on the shoulders of the students. There were never enough scholarships, and presently there is a conviction that students, not the general taxpayers, should pay for university education. Since the 1990s, in the spirit of globalization several overseas universities, especially from the United States, have offered degree, diploma, or certificate programs in Jamaica, Trinidad, and Barbados, usually in association with a local college but in competition with the University of the West Indies. The university now has to fight to preserve its place as the leading tertiary institution in the West Indies.

The West Indianization of the staff of the university began from the first period of its existence, and as the university established successful graduate programs, some of its bright graduates were able to join the staff. Because West Indian staff members tended to have research interests in West Indian fields, the West Indianization of the staff enabled the university to bring its expertise to bear on West Indian problems. So little research prior to 1948 had been done on West Indian problems that the staff had a wide-open field for research in every discipline. From the start the university aspired to place much emphasis on research, and with the addition of public service to government or nongovernmental agencies as further fields of academic action, those staff members so minded could find ample scope for action outside teaching. While politicians have occasionally complained that research done at the university was irrelevant to some perceived needs, the university has a history of responding favorably to all requests from governments for special help with national projects.

The University of the West Indies has been a serious contributor to the growth of the professions in the islands over the last half of the twentieth century. The rapid expansion of secondary education in the islands, one of the most democratizing social developments of the last fifty years, would have been impossible without the humanities and science graduates from the university. The creation of independent states demanded highly trained public servants, social scientists, economists, and other professionals. The public hospitals are staffed to a significant extent by medical graduates from the university. The university has the largest core of intellectuals in the islands and is the source from which the grand theories of West Indian societies emanate.

A source of much comment is the large number of female students and graduates in most faculties. This trend only started in the mid-1980s. No doubt it has its source in similar movements at the level of the secondary schools. Whether male or female, the student of the university still has the challenge of the Irvine Committee to face: how to nurture a West Indian outlook in a regional institution. The decentralization has lowered the level of the mix of students from different islands on each campus. Cave Hill has a better mix than St. Augustine, and the latter has a better mix than Mona. While the Mona campus in Jamaica was certainly not Jamaican in the early years from 1948 to 1960, it is decidedly Jamaican at present. The cultivation of the West Indian outlook now depends largely on West Indian curricula and a mix of West Indian staff, but even the latter has suffered some dilution. The inherent insular pressures of the decentralized university require constant efforts from the university center, led by the vice chancellor, to mitigate, if not reverse them.

See also Education in the Caribbean


Campbell, Carl. "The University of Our Dreams: Centralisation versus Decentralisation in the Planning of the University of the West Indies 1943/1944." Jamaica Historical Review 16 (1988): 1732.

Hall, Douglas. The University of the West Indies. A Quinquage-nary Calendar 19481998. Kingston, Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 1998.

Payne, Anthony. "One University, Many Governments: Regional Integration, Politics, and the University of the West Indies." Jamaica Historical Review 16 (1988): 3353.

Report of the West Indies Committee of the Commission on Higher Education in the Colonies. (Also known as the Irvine Report.) CMD 6654. London: H.M. Stationery Office, 1945.

Sherlock, Philip, and Rex Nettleford. The University of the West Indies. A Caribbean Response to the Challenge of Change. London: Macmillan, 1990.

carl c. campbell (2005)

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University of the West Indies