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Making UTT a National University

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
October 27, 2010

I am sure that Sat Maharaj's would say that ah follow fashion. However, the truth is that his recent discussion of UTT, its academic standards and it place in the society reminded me of questions I raised two years ago when Ghana's former President John Kufoor visited Trinidad and I made an address in his presence. Just for the record, my speech can be found on on August 6 2008. My interest in this matter goes back a long way. This contribution only adds to Sat's concerns. At least, there are some things on which we agree.

In reading Sat's article, "UTT Degree Questioned" (Guardian, October 21) I was reminded of a statement the Hon. Patrick Manning made two years ago at an academic conference. Asked whether Trinidadians and Tobagonians should study in their own country, he responded: "I would always recommend that you should do a first degree in your country, you should not do further studies there. You should go outside to avoid the academic incest...Your first degree should be done at your university." Certainly, a part of the question to our Prime Minister revolved around the issue: as it is constituted presently, can UTT educate our citizens to take their place in our society?

Asked further, if UTT was modeled after any university in the United States, the Hon. Prime Minister responded: "I am sure it is. I am not familiar enough with other universities to be able to answer that question definitely. What I do know is that the president of that university, Professor Kenneth Julien, who was dean of electrical engineering and faculty of engineering at the University of the West Indies, is the major actor in the execution of our energy policy. He has been extremely successful in attracting business to the country...They don't have faculty, it's modeled in a strange way, but they have partnered with a lot of top schools around the world for almost everything. They have partnered with a university abroad that has distinguished itself in that particular field. So we have access to quality education. It's a tremendous idea."

Such a response raised more questions than answers. I argued that one should differentiate between what educators call schooling and education and their implications for building a nation. I also argued that UTT should outline a curriculum that emphasized the cultivation of a citizen who had a more integrated exposure to the humanities, the arts and citizenship skills so that he or she could participate more effectively in nation building.

UTT says that it wishes to create an academic institution "to meet the need of Trinidad and Tobago for a highly qualified technological manpower base." This led me to ask that if an undergraduate had to be educated (not trained) at home before going abroad to do a graduate degree, was the Prime Minister satisfied that the skills our students were receiving at UTT are the best was to prepare a Trinidadian/Tobagonian citizen/scholar/technician for a Trinidad and Tobago society?

This was part of the question that Sat was asking when he asked how well UTT was doing in training its graduates. Mine was a more basic concern: how well is UTT training our undergraduates and does the university's curriculum fit into our concept of what it means to be an educated person in Trinidad and Tobago. Surely, we do not wish to set mindless automata lose within the nation or around the world who only possess techniques and skills but have no idea about what it means to be a socially responsible citizen.

There are other problems about how this university conceives itself. In what sense can it claim to be a national university? And if it is a national university, what constitutes its nationness? Without a faculty and without a set curriculum, how could a university that has been in place only four years offer post-graduate degrees? On what basis are these degrees granted and are there any residency requirements to obtain such a degree?

As it now stands, it is theoretically possibly for someone to live in Alabama, never set foot in Trinidad & Trinidad, know absolutely nothing about Trinidad and Tobago and yet be the proud owner of a degree from the University of Trinidad and Tobago.

But what happens when such a degree is recognized by no one save and except those who grant it?

Under the circumstances, the question arises: what makes a degree from UTT unique, distinct or even desirable? Professor Julien, the first president of UTT, may be very good at attracting business to the country. He may even be an energy czar who has done a lot for our energy industries. The question remains: how did such experiences translated into his conducting a university that is respected by the world and should he be be responsible to no one but himself? It is question that Professors Kenneth Ramchand and Ramesh Desoran will have to answer.

UTT should be about the business of developing conscientious citizens who are good technicians. We cannot do this by creating a satellite institution, without a Board of Trustees that reflects its heterogeneous offerings, a president who is responsibility to no one, a vacuous or largely-unknown faculty and a comprehensive, well thought-out statement about what this university is supposed to achieve.

We can achieve a viable UTT only through public discussion and debate. In The Knowledge Factory Stanley Aronowitz, a distinguished Professor of Sociology at CUNY argues that "at the secondary and post secondary levels, the role of the humanities is to articulate, in the public sphere as much as the classroom, the essential elements of national culture. If the student is to situate himself in society, it is by means of imbibing those knowledges that mark him as a national subject. Some recent writing on the higher education insists that the process of social and cultural formation is effected, in the main, though literature rather than through history and philosophy."

Certainly, a curriculum that is defined by its foreign technical content; a faculty that has no commitment to national development or knows little about our society; and a President who is responsible to himself alone cannot fulfill the civilizing role that we expect of a national university. The national content in UTT is an indispensable prerequisite to its success.

In a next article, I would offer some suggestions for the future development of the university.

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