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The Debe Campus’ real issues; Sunity goes beyond geographical furore

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.

Photo: The site for UWI's Debe campus. (Courtesy sta.uwi.edu)
Photo: The site for UWI’s Debe campus.
(Courtesy sta.uwi.edu)

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.

Photo: Former Trinidad and Tobago president and former UWI principal Max Richards. (Courtesy unctt.com)
Photo: Former Trinidad and Tobago president and former UWI principal Max Richards.
(Courtesy unctt.com)

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?

Photo: UNC political leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar celebrates victory at the 2010 General Elections. (Copyright Frederic Dubray/AFP 2015)
Photo: UNC political leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar celebrates victory at the 2010 General Elections.
(Copyright Frederic Dubray/AFP 2015)

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?

Photo: Dorms at UWI's Debe Campus.
Photo: Dorms at UWI’s Debe 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.

Photo: Former Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar (second from left) greets JCC founder Emile Elias (far right) while JCC president Afra Raymond (second from right) looks on.
Photo: Former Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar (second from left) greets JCC founder Emile Elias (far right) while JCC president Afra Raymond (second from right) looks on.

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.

AboutSunity Maharaj

Sunity Maharaj
Sunity Maharaj is a journalist with 38 years of experience and the managing director of the Lloyd Best Institute of the West Indies. She is a former Trinidad Express editor in chief and TV6 head of news.

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41 comments

  1. Thanks Sunity for doing some real journalism and providing some background information to enlighten us on the real issues on this project instead of simply mouthing off like others did about convenience for students. How many lawyers do we need? Why the huge expense for this particular field?

  2. Did you really just say “Scorn of the Indian Community”? Wow, smh

  3. Anywhere there is and opportunity for sunity to divide this country, she takes the cpportunity . SHE CONTINUES TO BE THE SCORN OF THE INDIAN COMMUNITY . as she can only Procreate destruction

  4. When it comes to Kamlalibaba, the question mark ‘?’ always seems follow the ‘$’ sign!
    Section 34..? $8,000,000.00.
    Anandgate..? $400,000,000+.
    Lifesport……? $
    ‘Childsport’, childrenhospital gate, South highwaygate, just to name a few of her benign incredible multibillion dollar national expediture escapades.
    This was pure uncontrollable greed, I say!

  5. The buildings can always be used for something else.A medical research centre or an agriculture research complex.

  6. I agree with the sentiments expressed in the article. Four years ago, The Hugh Wooding Law School was producing about 120 attorneys annually. Today that figure is now closing in on 400. What is the national plan in terms of human resources and skill sets, that this country needed to focus on Law with such an investment. What is the short or long term benefits to Trinidad. Is Trinidad being positioned to be the Legal Center of the world? I am lost with this investment. This is indeed what I extracted from Prof. Richards contribution which also questioned why Law as against Science and Technology.

  7. What is being accomplished here is the increase in property values for the people of Penal and Debe and the ability to say to the South people, ‘Hey, I gave you something, unlike the other Govt.’ When they are then criticized, they can then claim that the residents of the area are being victimized based on political affiliation. It’s a win win situation for the previous government.

    • Valid point. When I see the price of property in these remote areas being advertised at prices like St. Clair and Westmoorings you want to know what’s up. Hope valid valuations are done on properties being brought …unless ppl paying cash of course!

  8. Cecil Paul i endorse you statement,a case of misplaced priorities ,the technical competencies need to be improved,the methodologies used to construct this magnificent edifice ,is just a memorial to say well i built this and i did,this does not add to rural development ,a few rooms where students have to deal with unscrupulous land lords ,what has been accomplished here,here to boast about.

  9. To even start to comment about this campus is exhausting. I remember when word came out about it my first question…..was a feasibility study done to show the amount of students coming out of South and is this in line with the economy’s educational needs. Needless to say, to this day I still can’t get an answer on that. But I do remember the previous administration stating that this was campus was built as ” multiplier effect” for south i.e. More jobs, apartment rental for students etc and to cater for all the “south lawyers”. I also know of law students who went to get funding for their second year and they were told that their funding were being placed on hold until the campus completion. Like I said before …..exhausting. Another waste of state funds without anyone being reprimanded. Smh

  10. Do we not have too many lawyers at present?. What about eye doctors, dentists, teachers, nurses,other doctors like diabetic specialsits to avoid amputations, construction skills that we are now importing, engineers, agriculturists to reduce the high food import bill. We need to train people in areas where we are short of expertise and skills not perpetuate those areas where we are over supplied. If we don’t know what we need we have to do a needs analysis for all areas of our society.

  11. lol it would seem so…but it is an insult to the good ones out there….

  12. I agree that we need a coherent education plan. That is an important and salient point. Moreover, although I hate to see a waste of state funds the under-developmemt south of Grand Bazaar has to stop and its about time more is done in the southhland. That being said half billion could have been better spent, imagine if a couple million had been spent on the now defunct CSO we would have the statistics to clearly analyze what faculties we need to invest in and expand.

    • We don’t need to spend millions to determine our needs. What about those documents gov’t state bodies produce called strategic plans on which millions are already spent. Is there nothing of note in these documents? What I see is a lot of money being spent but I am not too clear on what the big picture is. And yes it is good for development to spread throughout the country.

    • These strategic plans are costly but much of it is difficult to assess. With no real statistical data a lot of the claims are rendered baseless. Secondly, these governmental plans are all short term and do not emphasize a strategic long term plan that is accepted by all including private sector. That is the direction we should head in. Finally, if you want quality data millions must be spent. The countries that lead in innovation spend at least 3 percent of their GDP on resarch and development. I am not aware of the figure we spend but I can make a calculated guess that it is well under that number.

  13. Law school is like an academy for politicians these days. ?

  14. The campus at debe is not proposed to be ” another law faculty” it is supposed to be the ONLY law faculty. The one in st Augustine to be disbanded once the faculty and students move to debe.

    • I did not realise that was the intention, and it does not make sense to me. But then again, I am not doing law! In theory it mightp be a good idea if it is an extension of the campus but if it is to be THE campus, that’s another story.

    • Just to add that while law is to be based at the south campus (which is being outfitted with a moot court and a full law library – neither of which currently exist at st Augustine) it will accommodate classes related to other degrees as well. In fact, uwi already offers courses for a few soc sci programmes in south (I think the classes are held at Naps). I don’t live in the south but I know what students go through when they have to make that commute or spend extra on accommodation. And I remember what a difference it made when PTSC added the St Augustine Campus/Sando route.

    • When people speak about the struggle of students and the commute to st Augustine it makes it sound like the majority of law students are from south. That has never been confirmed by any study tho, and from a face count appears untrue. so in fact, a travel burden would be imposed on another set of students. Also before the last administration built the debe law campus, it was proposed that a law faculty be built in st Augustine near to the Hugh Wooding law school so that both schools could share the state of the art library. Also most tutors at the faculty are practicing lawyers who work in pos. to commute to debe to tutor would be impossible for practicing pos attorneys. And given the professional nature of the degree there is need for practicing attorney tutors. I have no problem with decentralization, but surely at Augustine is more central ( consider north south east and west Trinidad) than debe. And even it it’s wanted to take it out of st Augustine what about couva or chaguanas? These are all relevant issues for discussion.

  15. While we at it human resources and customer service should be readily available courses.

  16. We should be focusing on doctors and nurses, even petrochemical operations. I wouldn’t worry too much of a brain drain since we would get some money coming back indirectly into the economy.

  17. I would think the serious question is why a law school when we are swamped with lawyers graduating each year with no hope of jobs when we are in short supply of doctors why not a medical school

  18. Yes , surprisingly , she has left out some of her venom .

  19. “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.” Thank you Sunity i rest my case

  20. Your first point made me pause Nerisha. How do you know Sunity didn’t complain about Wallerfield? Are you assuming the circumstances between the two campuses are identical or guessing?
    And, even if Wallerfield was a waste, why should that mean we can’t point to flaws in a more recent project?
    I’m always suspicious of any version of the PNM/NAR/UNC did it too argument.

    • Nah sorry wasn’t talking about her…was talking about Max lol…but despite skepticism I think that the UTT campus makes more sense in terms of courses offered are mostly not offered by main university but I see they have introduced new courses that are…and it was not in the context of they did it too but in the context of the benefit to stakeholders. UTT for example in the mainstream does not compete with the main campus as they have wider and different programs do they service a need. But can’t understand need for another law campus. Location is not my issue just how do we benefit.

    • well Nerisha is on point in that BOTH the Wallerfeld and Debe Campus adventures were based on the “build it and they shall come” concept.

      The major difference is that the Wallerfield campus was supposed to be more than one specific faculty…

  21. 1. Why wasn’t such criticism levelled at UTT when it planned to open campus in Wallerfield. 2. I do question the need for another law campus which would be competing with the main campus for resources. 3. When GATE finally runs its course what is the gov’t going to do with all these white elephants competing for scarce resources. Like we have a shortage of lawyers? Why wasn’t time taken to find out what careers are needed and put resources to use-an expanded teaching hospital for nurses and doctors possibly? Sigh…

  22. Once more, as is her wont, Sunity steps back and forces us to look at the whole picture, the big picture. Once we frame the discussion the way she does, the real issues are revealed and we can all see them clearly now. But in Trinidad, the so-called leaders, even at the UWI have no respect for the ordinary man’s intelligence and so they tell us nothing importance. Contempt, one might say, to the Max!