The University of the West Indies celebrates its 50th Anniversary this year. The main events of that celebration are being held during this week. It is appropriate therefore for this column to hail and salute the UWI at this time. To fully appreciate the significance of this 50th anniversary celebration it is necessary to put the founding of UWI in a historical and comparative context.
While the British West Indian colonies had a history of the founding of elementary and secondary schools which paralleled that of the industrialised world, and while they always had levels of enrollment at the elementary level that were comparable to North America and Western Europe, and always had enrollments at the elementary level that were higher than that of the Spanish colonies, the British West Indian colonies were late starters in the inauguration of college and university education.
Universities were established very early in the settlement of the Spanish colonies. The universities of Santo Domingo, Mexico and Lima were founded in the sixteen century. By the end of the seventeenth century there were ten universities founded and operating in Latin America.
The North American colonies founded colleges very soon after schools were established. Harvard College was founded in 1636, William and Mary in 1693, Yale in 1701, Princeton in 1746, Kings College in 1754, and Pennsylvania in 1755, Rutgers in 1766, Brown in 1765 and Dartmouth in 1769. Nine colleges had been founded in the North American colonies before the declaration of American independence in 1776.
In contrast, up to the end of the eighteenth century not a single college had been established in the West Indian colonies. It was not until the 1830s, over three hundred years after the founding of the University of Santo Domingo in 1515, and two hundred years after the founding of Harvard College, when the Codrington Grammar School in Barbados was transformed into a theological college and Mico and Fairfield Teachers Colleges were founded in Jamaica, that the first tertiary institutions were established in the Commonwealth Caribbean. It was not until 1948, when UCWI was founded, that the first university was established in the Commonwealth Caribbean.
In the absence of university education in Jamaica, and the Caribbean, wealthy families sent their sons to universities in England. Kamu Brathwaithe in his study of Creole society in Jamaica showed that between 1770 and 1820, 229 Jamaicans went to Oxford and Cambridge. Up to 1948 very few Jamaicans and West Indians from middle and lower class families had access to university education. Their main route was through the few Island Scholarships awarded on the Higher Schools Examinations, the equivalent of ‘A’ Levels. UWI opened up university education to people from middle and lower class backgrounds. The vast majority of the over 50,000 graduates of UWI are from these segments of Commonwealth Caribbean societies. Speaking personally were it not for UWI I would probably not have been able to go to university, certainly not right after leaving high school.
Not only has UWI opened up university education to a wide cross-section of Caribbean society but it has provided high quality education that has allowed its graduates to compete with the best in the world. UWI graduates have gone into the best universities in other parts of the world and held their own. This is not just true of the early graduates of UWI but also with respect to its recent graduates.
To those who would become victims of nostalgia or fall prey to the temptation to see our young people as inferior I draw your attention to the achievements of Michael Taylor a 1990s graduate, son of Burchell and Ann Taylor, who did his Bachelors and Masters Degree in Physics at UWI and is now pursuing his Ph.D. in atmospheric Physics at the University of Maryland. Young Taylor, not only successfully did his Comprehensives in the first year of the Ph.D. programme but recently won one of the coveted NASA Fellowships, from a field of nearly 300 top graduate students in the United States and in circumstances in which only exceptionally brilliant proposals from non-nationals were considered.
In hailing the UWI in its 50th year one is not saying that the University is not without shortcomings or does not face serious challenges. Rather one is saluting the institution that established university education on Caribbean soil, opened up this level of education to segments of Caribbean society that previously were virtually denied access, provided university education that is internationally competitive and in the process contributed significantly and substantially to the development of the region.
July 22, 1998