A bill to set up the legal framework for the establishment of a campus of the University of the West Indies (UWI) in Antigua was passed in the Lower House on Thursday, despite concerns that it was premature.
The University College of Antigua and Barbuda Bill, piloted by education minister Michael Browne, sets the stage for the creation of the fourth landed UWI campus at a location in the Five Islands area.
While there was no resistance from the main opposition United Progressive Party, independent MP Joanne Massiah questioned a number of its provisions.
Her primary concern was the extent of the education minister’s involvement in the institution. She also believed that the agreement between the state and the UWI Council should have been tabled in the House to better inform the discourse.
“I think the bill is premature, that’s what I’m saying and I think we all would be in a better position to have seen the agreement to be properly guided because there are a number of things in this bill which I do not believe ought to be in a bill establishing a university.
“We are limiting ourselves to how we’ve always operated in this country, we only know high school, primary school, state college; we’ve never had a university in this country that we ourselves are managing. I mean we have to start somewhere but I think we should try at the initial stages to get it right,” Massiah said.
Prime Minister Gaston Browne in his contribution to the debate said it was unfortunate that others did not share his government’s vision to have the UWI campus in Antigua. “Even though we’re making baby steps, we’re moving and we’re moving in the right direction.”
According to the PM, a report shows that the OECS has “the lowest rate of graduates in the entire hemisphere.”
“The statistics have shown that there is literally a crisis … not only in terms of access to, but individuals completing tertiary education within the OECS region,” Browne said.
He added that UWI will be given the land at Five Islands upon which the campus will be situated.
“One of the things we intend to do very shortly is that we’ll be transferring the Five Islands facility to the University of the West Indies. We’re giving them full freehold ownership and what we’ll be asking for in return is for there to be a wash on the amounts owed, because we owe them tens of millions of dollars spanning a number of years,” the PM stated.
According to Browne, the existing tertiary institutions such as the state college, Antigua and Barbuda International Institute of Technology, the hospitality, nursing and teacher training schools will all be consolidated into the formation of the UWI campus.
“So already we are carrying the burden of accommodating these students, so what we will have to do now is reallocate some of the proceeds that we utilise to send people abroad and to use those funds to fund the new university campus.”
Education minister Browne in wrapping up debate on the bill acknowledged Massiah’s concerns but stated that a start had to be made.
“We won’t be able to get everything exactly as we want them to start; but once we make a start, we’ll be able to make the adjustments.
According to the minister, the absence of a university in the country meant that there were many students who were “stifling their dreams” because of the prohibitive costs to attend those overseas.
The bill, which was passed with sundry amendments, will next go to the Senate for its imprimatur.
A release from UWI on Thursday lauded a recent proposal presented by the Antigua and Barbuda government on the proposed campus which it noted received unanimous support.
The [UWI] Council acknowledged the need to examine the proposal made by the Government of Antigua and Barbuda and authorised the vice chancellor to establish a Technical Task Force comprising university officials, students and other stakeholders to conduct a feasibility study.
The study will examine and evaluate the financial, operational and strategic viability and the sustainability of the establishment of the new campus.
According to the release, the task force’s findings are to be made at the next regular meeting of the Council, scheduled for April.