UWI: Bastion of Upper Class Academia

The University of the West Indies Mona is building yet another new hall, a third post graduate residence right beside the first post-graduate residence on Gerald Lalor flats. The multiple high rise buildings are in the same style of Towers (Elsa Leo Rhynie) and New Postgrad (Marlene Hamilton): 6 floors apiece with central staircase. Cookie-cutter condos, I call them, but without the grandeur.

But this isn’t news. September last year, UWI signed a deal with K Limited (parent company of 138 Student Living which is building the behemoths) which would see the university providing land for the company to build housing accommodations on. After a period of time (unspecified) the company would then hand over the buildings to the UWI ‘free of cost’ in ‘good condition’.

This business is disturbing on a number of levels.

First, Professor Archibald, Princpal of UWI, has said that this partnership represents a new direction in tertiary education funding. He’s expecting an increase in the enrollment of international students who can ‘pay their own fees’, hence the gung-ho enthusiasm about ‘world class accommodations’. These international students will offset the burden so that the university can offer grants and scholarships to Jamaican students who cannot afford university.

So he says.

It sounds nice, but how realistic is this pipe dream? How many international students are willing to come to a Caribbean university with very little clout in the global workforce? Is our accreditation valuable when they return home or go further abroad in search of business opportunities? Aside from housing, what else is the university doing to entice international students? I’m not seeing much going on.

Then, will an increase in international students really translate to an increase in the financial resources available to Jamaican students? Maybe I’m jaded by Jamaican bureaucracy but I don’t see that happening. Our academic and political leaders have glib tongues; so good at soothing our ears and lining their pockets.

Third, while the property belongs to UWI the buildings belong to 138 Student Living who will reap returns on the rent paid over. Not that I’m concerned about the state of the university’s coffers (except as it relates to them justifying yet another outrageous hike in tuition fees), but how much of the rent will the university get from this arrangement? Then when the buildings are turned over to the university after an unspecified length of time I doubt they will be in anything resembling ‘good condition’. This just means more financial losses for the university.

(Memba when Rex did jus buil? Only ten years later, it start to look jus as pop dung as the rest of them. There is no building in the world that can withstand the natural disaster that is the University Student).

One thing that reinforces my distrust is the price tag attached to these new halls. According to Aldeam Facey from Life as a Jamaican, the cost of rent per month is touted as $395 U.S. dollars (~$46,000 JMD). Not even our tuition is quoted in Jamaican dollars these days, sadly. How is the average Jamaican student supposed to afford this cost of living? Those grants and scholarships Professor Archibald was going on about rarely cover accommodation costs and will only help a select few.

According to Aldeam (again), the residence is being marketed to ‘graduate students, medical interns, residents and Norman Manley Law School students’. With a setup painfully reminiscent of hall life (check out the Virtual Tour on their website), I don’t see anyone who’s already been through university clamoring to sign up. Unlike Marlene Hamilton hall (new Post Grad), kitchen and dining room facilities are shared. You only get your own bathroom (a tiny one, it looks like) and the list of prohibited items is extensive. Sounds like undergrad all over again.

And 138 Student Living isn’t stopping at one new hall of residence. They have their sights set on demolishing and rebuilding Irvine hall (notorious for being one of the more affordable halls on campus). And when the Gleaner asked about similar plans for the other traditional halls (Chancellor, Seacole, Taylor), the chairman said he would wait and see.

All this is leading me to conclude that the university is starting on a path of exclusion and exclusivity. Once, not so long ago, tertiary education was the domain of the upper class because of the prohibitive costs. Is history repeating itself? Are we going to reach a point where the ever expanding lower class will be barred from getting higher education (and thus launching themselves out of poverty)?

Tell you what. I’ll wait and see.