To frame the discussion about the UWI Penal-Debe South Campus purely in terms of location is to shortchange the conversation that has long been needed about this TT$509.4 million investment in the expansion of the University of the West Indies.
The case for and against—as articulated by both the former Prime Minister and former President—are really two sides of the same coin of geography as seen from opposite sides of the great socio-political divide of the Churchill Roosevelt Highway.
Looking south, the former President sees it as misdirected expenditure outside the prevailing centre of influence; looking north, the former Prime Minister sees it as a just and overdue redistribution of resources consistent with the policy of decentralisation and rural development.
As an investment in infrastructural development, it is hard to argue with the campus location, at least in principle. All over the world, new communities and towns spring up around universities located outside of city centres.
As the former President indicated last week, not everyone has the pioneering spirit to pick up bag and baggage, leave their feathered comfort zones and take a chance on a new community just breaking ground. But, it is in the nature of opportunity that for every one person who will not venture, several others will.
In any case, in the context of tiny Trinidad, the whole notion of distance is relative to one’s experience.
For the sheltered individual whose existence has been confined to a northern sub-zone of this island-rock, only intimidation lurks in such romantic names as Sapatay, Tabaquite, Palo Seco, Erin, Mon Desir and Golconda.
The longing to lay equal claim to all of these as personal patrimony may not beat as powerfully in all breasts. But still, you would expect one who was a President of all of Trinidad and Tobago not to validate such fear in championing the cause of insularity.
To condemn the Penal-Debe South Campus solely on the basis of current physical isolation is, therefore, to see the world as static and incapable of a graceful yielding to the processes of change.
The more significant issues surrounding UWI’s Penal-Debe campus, however, are more than a matter of geography. They are mainly about purpose and process.
Why a law school and not another faculty or institution, enquiring minds would like to know?
We are in a muddle over this matter because neither the UWI administration nor the Persad-Bissessar administration believed that the public was entitled to a detailed explanation of why half a billion dollars of taxpayers’ money was being spent on building a Law Faculty at a new campus when one well-recognised and respected faculty already exists at St Augustine.
If either party had convinced the public about the wisdom of their decision, the isolationist argument would’ve got no traction when dropped into the public domain last week.
It cannot be simply that the Law Faculty is being relocated to Penal-Debe for the primary convenience of students in that community. Parental anxiety aside, the university years are, for many young people, a time of adventure when they test their wings beyond the nest, explore new and unknown horizons and intensify the journey to self-discovery and build new sources of self-confidence.
The idea of going to pre-school, primary school, secondary school and university in one’s own backyard may be comforting for some—mostly parents—but for a good many young people, the university years are about selfhood and the chance to find the clarity of purpose to carry them through their lives with a good chance at happiness and well-being.
This is where the UWI needed to fill in the blanks for us.
What is the strategic purpose behind building a Law Faculty in Penal-Debe as opposed to any other campus?
In the absence of a coherent university rationale, the political rationale will prevail in the minds of many. Which is that the UWI, the regional university, was supine before a territorial Prime Minister, who was willing to spend TT$509.4 million of public money on a political project.
This is where the issue of process becomes relevant.
In May 2012, the construction industry’s Joint Consultative Council wrote to the principal of UWI, St Augustine warning that the South Campus project had: “all the makings of the next Commission of Enquiry into a construction fiasco…”
This was well before the selected contractor, China Jiangsu, got embroiled in the Commission of Enquiry into the Las Alturas Housing Development. By that time, the JCC said, China Jiangsu had already missed the delivery deadline for Eteck’s TT$200 million headquarters while pressing ahead with UTT’s TT$975 million signature building.
Describing as “remarkable” the fact that the sod-turning ceremony had taken place a month before the closing-date for tenders, the JCC called for the project to be scrapped because of what it considered to be a highly flawed procurement process.
It challenged the tender assessment criteria on the basis that it allowed room for a low-cost, low-quality tenderer to prevail.
So yes, there are many serious questions to be asked about the UWI’s Penal-Debe South Campus, any one of which would reduce the issue of travelling distance to nothing more than a private sideshow.
If, and when, this campus gets going, hopefully it will last longer than the NAPA building. Hopefully, too, it will attract staff and students from throughout the Caribbean and beyond in an exciting and dynamic encounter of cultures that will enrich, and be enriched by, the dynamic culture of Penal-Debe.
The last thing T&T needs are educational arrangements that deepen insularity and entrench divisions.