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close this bookThe Courier N° 123 Sept - October 1990 - Dossier Higher Education - Country Reports: Barbados - (EC Courier, 1990, 104 p.)
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Education and training in the Caribbean

by Gerald C. LALOR

The region served by the University of the West Indies (UWI) extends from Belize on the Central American mainland in a wide arc, through the islands which delineate the Caribbean Sea from the Atlantic Ocean, to Trinidad and Tobago just off the Venezuelan coast - and further south to Guyana on the mainland of South America. The total population of the region is only about 5.6 million but as shown in Table 1, many of the island countries are densely populated with; relatively low per capita domestic products.

The distances between countries can be quite large: Nassau, in the Bahamas, is 950 miles from Belize City, Belize, and some 1800 miles from Port of Spain, Trinidad. Transportation between the countries is reasonably good but can be time-consuming, even by air.

Recent years have been difficult for most of the countries and the level of external debt is very high indeed. Falling profits in the agricultural sector have been a burden and, despite heroic efforts, it is becoming no easier to meet many of the basic needs of the increasing populations. Prices for low technology products and raw materials are generally low and substitute materials threaten the markets for traditional products, while computer-assisted manufacturing and robotics erode many of the advantages of cheap labour. These all make quality education even more essential but problems of scale and inadequate finances have made its provision difficult. However, to some extent these problems have encouraged the sharing of educational resources at the university level across the region.

Caribbean educational systems

As a consequence of centuries of association with Britain, the education systems of the Commonwealth Caribbean are quite homogeneous. In each territory a Minister is responsible for the administration, operation, and overall development, of the system. All governments provide, at least to some extent, pre-school, primary, secondary, special, and post-secondary level education including vocational education, teacher training, and other programmes. In general, students in these countries read for the same examinations and seek entry to the same university.

Formal education begins at about six years of age. After five years at the primary level there is an 11 + examination which selects for the “ academic” stream of the secondary level. Another five years bring the student to the Ordinary level examinations of the Universities of Cambridge or London and, increasingly, of the Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC) which has been set up to better reflect the needs and situation of the Caribbean. About one fifth of the candidates who have performed well at the ‘O’ level remain in school to complete the ‘A’ level which is a more specialised two-year course aimed largely at University admission.

Table 1: Some country indicators for the English-speaking Caribbean

The ‘O’ levels are, therefore, school leaving examinations for most of the students who then seek employment. Entry to the West Indian labour force with post-secondary education is very low and recruitment into public service, particularly in the smaller countries, is frequently done directly from the school system. The admission requirements to the tertiary colleges vary somewhat but are generally 4 or 5 CXC or GCE ‘O’ levels with some additional conditions.

Since independence, each decade has seen a very significant increase in student numbers and, necessary as this is, there have been problems. In some countries there are powerful statements about the low success levels and the poor quality of some programmes. For example, in Jamaica, mathematics and physics are reported to suffer greatly from an extreme shortage of qualified staff.

For most of the West Indies, education, particularly higher education, remains at a premium, and less than 1 % of the labour force are University graduates. Despite a population of over five million in the region, UWI has a student body numbering only 12 000 and this has only very recently been achieved. The numbers compare poorly with Latin America and South-East Asia, for example, and the comparison is particularly bad for the sciences and technology-based courses.

The shortage of middle-level technical and managerial manpower is a major constraint and so, too, is the scarcity of postgraduate and specialist level personnel needed to provide leadership and innovation, to ensure the efficient use of recent graduates, to aid in the transfer of technology, and to develop appropriate technologies. Training at this level is also inadequate. The need for more postgraduate training is felt particularly in the science-based and management disciplines where there is good correlation between the ability to advance scientific knowledge or to manage, and to use technology to generate national wealth.

The shortage of qualified personnel in the Caribbean is exacerbated by continuing migration. While the demand for education and training, both formal and informal, is large and continues to grow, expansion programmes are severely constrained by restricted finances and limited manpower. This must lead in some countries to a weakened capacity to generate new jobs, which in turn compounds the difficulties in retaining many of the best minds.

There is general agreement that all levels of the Caribbean education system require urgent attention, and the concern is how to manage the limited financial and human resources to maximise the efforts now being made and planned. In all this UWI must play a pivotal role.

The University of the West Indies

UWI is one of the only two regional universities worldwide. It is the successor institution to the University College of the West Indies (UCWI) which began teaching in 1948, in special relationship with the University of London, when 33 medical students entered the Mona campus, Jamaica. In the following year the Faculty of Natural Sciences admitted its first students and one year later the Faculty of Arts followed. UWI was designed as a very small elite school situated in Jamaica to serve the then perceived regional needs for medical doctors, teachers and the public service.

With independence, there were new opportunities and demands and the need for expansion was soon obvious. The former Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture at St. Augustine, Trinidad, became the site of the second campus in 1960. UCWI became the University of the West Indies in 1962, and the third campus, Cave Hill in Barbados, was established in 1963.

Table 2 shows the growth of student numbers. The breakdown by campus for 1989/90 is Mona - 5769; St. Augustine - 4166; Cave Hill 2264.

Table 2: Student numbers at UWI

These numbers illustrate the growth of student numbers and also emphasise the increasing significance of women in higher education. The percentage of female students overall is now 55% and there is every indication that this will continue to grow.

One consequence is that females greatly outnumber males at the secondary level in the teaching profession.


UWI now has eight faculties: Agriculture, Arts and General Studies, Education, Engineering, Law, Natural Sciences, Medical Sciences, and Social Sciences. There is considerable specialisation between campuses: Agriculture and Engineering are taught exclusively in Trinidad, and the second and third years of the Law degree in Barbados. Pre-clinical medicine is taught both in Jamaica and Trinidad, and Dentistry and Veterinary Medicine in Trinidad. Hotel Management and Tourism are taught in the Bahamas.

All the faculties prepare students for higher degrees including the Ph.D. Some masters degrees are by course work only, but others involve a considerable research element. Most postgraduate students are from the region but there is the desire to attract students from other countries.

In general the research patterns reflect the same specialisations but much effort is being made to encourage cross-campus and inter-faculty collaboration to strengthen the research base in areas such as agriculture, natural resources and environmental studies.


Continuing education has always been an important portfolio and is now receiving even more attention. The UWIDITE system, an interactive audio network supported by limited video, presently links the university centres in nine of the 14 contributing countries. This has made a great difference in providing credit and non-credit programmes across the Caribbean by allowing the beneficiaries to benefit without having to travel to a campus country. The provision of courses to teachers and trainers is particularly noteworthy. There are immediate plans for an upgrading and expansion of the UWIDITE system, both in technology and programmes to allow all the supporting territories to benefit and to place additional sites in the larger and/or multi-island states: UWIDITE will have a very significant effect on aspects of education.

UWI is involved in one way or other in most aspects of Caribbean education and particularly in teacher training. The University is becoming the hub of a network of the tertiary institutions and already the state colleges in the Bahamas, St. Lucia and Antigua are preparing students for UWI credits. This is expected to increase and it is expected, for example, that the Faculty of Agriculture will shortly assume close links with the various agricultural colleges of the region.

To support UWI’s outreach efforts, Offices of University services serve the non-campus countries. The Office in Cave Hill has a responsibility for the Eastern Caribbean states; the one in Mona deals with the Western Caribbean.

The financing of UWI

The university is funded through a University Grants Committee, and a Campus Grants Committee for each of the three campuses. The contributing governments pay by the number of students admitted on a per capita basis. Before 1984 the costs of students were averaged across faculties and campuses but since then, costs of students for each campus are calculated separately. These costs do not include indentifiable expenditures on research on special projects which are funded separately. The total budgets attributable to the governments, in millions of Jamaican dollars for 1989/90 are: Cave Hill: 125.311; Mona: 135.708; St. Augustine: 109.654. Total: 370.673.

The need for expansion

To date UWI has graduated 35 000 students - not a large number when the Caribbean population is considered. A large expansion of the undergraduate programme would require also the expansion of good education at the primary and secondary levels. But at present the applicants to UWI far exceed the number which can be accepted; in some areas the ratio of applicants to acceptances is as high as four or five to one. The need for additional educational opportunities at the tertiary level seems obvious. This cannot be met by UWI alone nor indeed is it likely to be met solely by conventional educational systems. The hub concept and UWIDITE are capable of real contributions but a great deal more will be necessary to meet the demands which the increasing population and the requirements of the next century will place on the Caribbean.

The role of the university

UWI is expected to do much more than serve the needs of the region for higher education. It is expected also to: contribute to the growth of knowledge and national and regional development; provide services of various types; and point the way to innovative solutions of problems.

One major priority of UWI is the application of science and technology to find appropriate solutions to the needs of the region. These efforts will include the development of science and enterprise parks in collaboration with the private sector. While the human resources available in the region for research is presently quite inadequate, UWI does possess significant staff resources and infrastructure in science, agriculture, and engineering. Collaboration with UWI is becoming more and more accepted and the Government of Jamaica’s recent Science Policy document states: “Thus effort will be made to harness the potential of university staff and their research students to produce data, methods, and information aimed at contributing to national development, and simultaneously to train personnel for continued development. Support will be given to the university to obtain funding for programmes, particularly those with regional impact.”

The governments appreciate the important role of the University and remain convinced that the regional nature of the institution should be preserved. Moreover, it must do so in a cost-efficient manner because the region as a whole is finding it increasingly difficult to finance even the basic needs of its people.

UWI has already made an enormous contribution to the region during its 42 years of existence. It has produced professionals of all types: teachers, medical doctors and support staff, clergy, lawyers, managers and staff of vital institutions including CARICOM; members of government including ministers and prime ministers and many others. Yet the conditions of the Caribbean are such that the job has really just begun. There is now a remarkable window of opportunity for UWI. If the University and the region it serves, including governments and the private sector, can rise to the challenge, it will truly continue, as the theme of its 40th anniversary celebrations puts it, to make a world of difference.