I refer to the recent KN Sunday editorial, titled “Higher Education at UG?” The editorial unfortunately discusses universities in general and the University of Guyana in particular in an old and limited way. It is thus severely misleading.
The editorial advances, as its main basis, the view that research is the raison d’etre (justification) for higher education. Inexplicably, some in Guyana still hold to this romantic notion when those who actually invented universities have long widened their perspectives on the role of a modern university. Universities (multiversities, as some call them) are today a different beast.
They are now complex conglomerates that strive to satisfy a range of demands and stakeholders. They encompass faculties, research centres, professional development schools, distance learning centres, graduate schools, consultancy units, hospitals, performing arts centres, etc. As small as UG is, it is part of this modern trend towards a “federated enterprise”. Its contribution to national development, therefore, must be judged across a broader spectrum of criteria. Would one devalue UG’s IDCE, for example, because it does not create knowledge?
The same perspective holds for university staff. Performance criteria have broadened. One of the most influential studies on this issue was conducted by Ernest Boyer in 1997. Boyer’s work expanded the definition of “scholarship” within academia to include not just the scholarship of discovery (i.e. traditional research), but also the scholarships of integration (making connections across disciplines and placing research in a larger globalised context), application (using research findings and innovations to solve societal problems, including as members of state boards, advisory committees, consultancies, professional associations, etc) and teaching (achieving effective learning).
It is difficult to argue successfully against the relevance of these four aspects of scholarship to national development. And if we subscribe (as I do) to the position that the scholarships of application and teaching are most important in the Guyana context, it requires us to be open-minded and fair in the way we assess the overall contribution of a UG staff.
Perhaps, the most profound shift in higher education in recent years has been the elevation of learning as a central focus. Many universities now advertise themselves as “learning colleges or institutions”. Most students and employers, two key stakeholders, are more interested in the ability of universities to produce graduates who can effectively apply knowledge and perform at the workplace (as problem-solvers, critical thinkers and doers). The Kaieteur News editorial ignores this matter completely.
Without doubt, research remains a huge focus of top universities. Research adds to the stock of knowledge, boosts prestige and enriches the intellectual environment on campuses. Beyond these noble objectives, however, a more mundane and powerful force is at work: the commercialization or consumerization of university research. In developed societies, a huge market exists in the economy for research output. Universities have the financial incentive to chase private and government research contracts and grants. No such market exists in Guyana. Any discussion of research in Guyana that ignores this aspect would be incomplete and misleading.
Yet despite the fact that the research market in Guyana is scant, useful research is done at UG. As Exhibit A, I point to the university’s Research Day conference, held in the last two years, where whole days are devoted to presentations of staff research. If memory serves, Kaieteur News carried a detailed report on this year’s proceedings. I express appreciation on behalf of the organizers. To be sure, at an individual level, staff must produce more research. But to suggest that little research is done strays from reality.
Finally, the evidence continues to mount that the core problem in Guyana is not just the inability to create knowledge (to do research). It is more about the inability of too many educated Guyanese to apply knowledge to solve problems and find solutions.
Our range of problems (from poor government policies, to social ills to collapsing bridges and wharves) more reflects a limited ability to search for, understand, apply and analyse already discovered information and knowledge.
Let’s then pose the question to students, employers and other stakeholders. What should be the justification for the University of Guyana? In an environment of limited resources, should it focus more on producing graduates (learning) or research? Maybe, this is a research the university itself should undertake.
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