A leader of the 70-year-old, public University of the West Indies says the scandal surrounding an unaccredited, private medical school that hasn’t lasted two years is an embarrassment to higher education.
While touting the UWI’s new global ranking among the top five per cent of universities and in Latin America’s top 40, Vice Chancellor Sir Hilary Beckles said his heart goes out to the mostly young Indian students who had been left stranded without food, electricity, water and money while chief executive officer of the St Philip-based Washington University of Barbados Rao Venkata Gopi remains in custody facing multiple counts of fraud.
Sir Hilary, who was flanked by Principal of the Cave Hill Campus Professor Eudine Barriteau, expressed the need for stringent checks and balances in the establishment of educational institutions of all kinds and in the sourcing of foreign academic teaching staff to ensure they are above board.
His comments came in light of reports that Gopi, who is currently on remand at Her Majesty’s Prison Dodds, is also wanted by the law back in his native India.
“The circumstance that has developed here is clearly an embarrassment to the university sector. We [UWI] are a public university dedicated to the advancement of our people in their multiple identities…the economic sector, the social sector. Anytime a university finds itself in the circumstance where it is before the law for losing track of the primary objective which is to educate people…it is unfortunate,” said Sir Hilary, who is also president of the 100-member Association of Caribbean Universities (ACU).
“I have read the media coverage that these young people [Washington University students] are claiming that they have an ethical right to their education they have paid for. And my heart goes out to those young people. I am in deep sympathy with them. It is unfortunate that this circumstance has developed,” he told the news conference which was also attended by various faculty heads at Cave Hill.
The UWI Vice Chancellor was also careful to distance the UWI from the Washington University of Barbados, which, while being given a charter by the Ministry of Education during the tenure of the then Minister Ronald Jones, had not been accredited by the education ministry’s Barbados Accreditation Council (BAC).
Sir Hilary said he had no problem with the presence of for-profit universities in the Caribbean, but sought to make a clear distinction between those whose focus is the welfare of its people and those driven solely by financial gain.
“UWI is not only excellent, but ethical because we pay very close attention to the welfare of our students, the welfare of our societies, our relationship with our stakeholders. And that alone will distinguish from many of these other institutions that are falling by the wayside and are finding themselves in difficulty with their hosts societies,” he said, adding that the situation involving the offshore medical school is a sad one.
The UWI Vice Chancellor was also asked to describe what systems were in place to ensure that foreign academics who seek positions at the regional institution were bona fide.
“We are a global university. We seek to recruit the best academics from around the world. Our academic positions and our senior management are globally advertised because this is how we see ourselves. So we are global not only in terms of academic staff, but also our student population. We have students here at UWI from over 81 countries in the world and I suspect we have academics from probably even more countries. Clearly therefore, we have to have in place a structure of evaluating and monitoring of these things,” Sir Hilary told reporters.
UWI scrutinises and even writes to institutions to validate and verify curricula vitae which are submitted to the university, he said.
These checks and balances, he said, have unmasked charlatans from time to time.
“Occasionally, I should tell you, we pick up a few skullduggers. We pick up a few things. This is a competitive world, and [in] our system, we spot them and we get them. Occasionally, every now and then one pops up that we have to say ‘what is this fraudulent attempt?’ So we do have a system in place to verify, to monitor and to check the potential opportunity for fraud in respect of presenting false document, false records… and it goes way down [to] false publications. We are on this 24/7 because this could be a threat to your reputation,” warned Sir Hilary.
UWI works with other universities and university associations across the world to keep on top of the situation, the historian said.