Lecturers, vice chancellor oppose principal’s suggestion of UWI tuition-fee increase

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

UWI students at their graduation in 2019. –

President of the West Indian Group of University Teachers (Wigut), which represents lecturers, senior administrative and professional staff, Dr Indira Rampersad has said the union disagrees with the suggestion to increase tuition fees, made by UWI Campus Principal Brian Copeland and his team.

Speaking to Newsday, Rampersad said during the recent University Finance and General-Purpose Committee meeting, chaired by Copeland, Vice-Chancellor Sir Hilary Beckles also disagreed with the suggestion.

Rampersad said during the meeting, Beckles recognised the challenges faced by students and proposed a tripartite committee consisting of the campus executive management, students’ guild and the government. She said Beckles suggested the decision of the committee then be taken to the University Council, the highest governing body of the regional institution.

She also said UWI Chancellor Robert Bermudez’s governance commission report recommended a 100 per cent increase in student fees from the 20 per cent of the UWI budget, to which students are currently contributing, to 40 per cent.

On June 3, during a post-Cabinet media briefing, Finance Minister Colm Imbert and Education Minister Nyan Gadsby-Dolly announced the government would be cutting the funding to the university’s St Augustine campus by ten per cent while the campus finds other ways to address financial shortfalls owing to financial constraints. The annual contribution is $517 million and to offset the deficit by raising tuition fees.

On May 13, a prime ministerial-appointed committee, including Imbert, Gadsby-Dolly and Port of Spain South MP Keith Scotland, met with the St Augustine Guild on the issue of the proposed tuition hike, given the government’s reduced subvention. The increased fees would have seen students paying between 25 and 71 per cent more depending on the course of study, Gadsby-Dolly said.

In a statement on June 3, UWI said its fees will remain the same for the September semester but has recommended an increase going forward.

UWI said while it recognised and empathised with the concerns expressed, the campus has been operating with the same fees for the past 21 years.

It lamented that it was costly to run the institution because it has grown to meet the needs and standards of internationally accredited higher educational services.

“UWI St Augustine fees are currently the lowest in the UWI system and among tertiary education institutions in the Caribbean. The proposal that went before the Government and UWI seeks to align its tuition fees with those at other campuses.

“Tuition fees for the upcoming semester will therefore remain the same, consequent to the Government’s position. The campus will be required to operate with considerable reduction to its finances and, hopefully, with minimal disruption.”

UWI said it was working on documentation requested by the Government about the proposed student fees increase for the 2023/2024 academic year, and also working on improving its operational efficiencies.

But Rampersad told Newsday, “We are in solidarity with students. We don’t want to lose our students and we certainly will not lose our staff.

“Education is not a commodity you can quantify monetarily, neither is UWI a corporate enterprise. It is a public institute and governments of the region made a commitment to support it.”

She said the governments of the UWI declared their support to the universities at the 1989 Grande Anse Declaration in Grenada.

“Because this is a regional public university it will need heavy government support.”

She said the Open Campus funding was recently cut by 40 per cent and lecturers have been getting their salaries late. “That is not tenable.”

She also said the University Centre’s funding was cut by 40 per cent and is struggling.

“The problem is they were trying to use the fee increase to counter (government’s) subvention cut. It is not fair that students should be the ones to make up for that cut.” She said the government’s announcement was also untimely, considering the state of the economy since the beginning of the pandemic.

“The campus has been struggling for a very long time. We have already cut costs to bare bones. We have rationalised courses and revised the curriculum. Lecturers are doing the jobs of teaching assistants, research assistants and teaching huge classes and many classes as well.

“Lecturers are overworked and have not had an increase (in salary) since 2014. The union will not tolerate any cuts to staff. Lecturers have made a tremendous sacrifice, working from home with their own resources and like many other unions, we are ready for an increase.”