Three days after the student protest at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, over the administration’s firm response to the non-payment of fees, I had a most unsettling experience in the examination room for my Reggae Poetry course. University regulations require examiners to be present for the first half-hour of every exam, just in case any clarification is needed about the paper.
After about 20 minutes or so, it struck me that one of the brightest students in the class was missing. I walked up and down the rows of candidates more than once to make sure. I even disturbed one of her friends to ask if he knew where she was. Given the large number of exams that have to be scheduled, there are inevitable timetable clashes. So provisions are made for students to take a clashing exam at another time and venue under special supervision. But, as far as he knew, she should have been there.
I hurriedly phoned her. She was such a good student, I knew that even if she came late to the exam, she could pass it. She didn’t answer, so I left a voicemail message. Two days later, she emailed to say that she had come to the venue but wasn’t allowed to sit the exam because of registration issues. In response, I asked what, exactly, was her story. She didn’t seem to be the kind of student who would not make appropriate arrangements to pay fees. She came to class regularly, did her coursework assignments and was all set to earn an ‘A’ grade.
I haven’t heard back from from her. Of course, she owes me no explanation. But I did leave another voicemail message because I was quite concerned. I wondered if she was too embarrassed to let me know that she had been plain delinquent. Or had been hoping for a miracle.Despite the hard line I took last week in condemnation of those unconscionable protesters who stopped their classmates from taking their exams, I do have reservations about the policy to stop students from sitting exams. My missing student sealed the case.
A moral dilemma
As soon as I heard about the protest, I called the office of the campus principal. I wanted to know why the option of withholding exam results was not seen as a better solution to the problem of non-payment of fees. It seemed simple enough. Students could not register for the next academic year, or graduate, if they owed fees. But if they were prevented from taking exams, they, obviously, couldn’t pass them. A whole semester’s effort would be wasted.
As it turns out, for the last two years the university administration had, in fact, leniently allowed students in arrears to take exams and their grades had been withheld – officially. But sympathetic lecturers had been sabotaging the system by releasing grades to the students. Armed with the knowledge that they had passed their courses, students managed to manipulate the system and re-register. There seems to be widespread passive resistance to the official policy. And this is understandable.
Academic failure should not be the inevitable consequence of economic disadvantage. It becomes a moral dilemma, not just a cut-and-dried financial issue. Many UWI students are, in fact, quite poor and are struggling to come up with the basics of survival. True, many of them have expensive cellphones. But very few of them have credit. That’s a very elusive commodity. In fact, ‘credit’ seems to be purely virtual. I often overhear conversations that start like this, ‘Anybody have any credit?’ Yes, ‘have’. Most students speak Jamaican outside the classroom. The usual response to the credit question is a big laugh. Or someone will admit to having $20 or so.
With my ‘faas’ self, I often ask students how come they have expensive phones and claim they can’t afford to buy books. They always say it’s a gift. So I persist. Why can’t you ask your benefactor to buy books instead? They look at me as if I’m crazy. Books instead of a cellphone? A student actually told me that she’d lost her phone and her “whole life mash up”. So I’ve come to accept the fact that no self-respecting young person can live without a cellphone. It’s the not-quite-adult equivalent of a baby’s pacifier. Seriously, though, students do take lecture notes on their phones and search the Internet for assignments. So the cellphone is not just an expensive indulgence; it’s an academic tool.
UWI cheaper than prep schools
There is a small minority of students at Mona who are relatively wealthy. I suppose these are the students who would have gone to college in the US in better times: before Olint became Cash Minus. Given the high cost of tuition in the US if you don’t manage to earn a scholarship, UWI is a big bargain. Here, in many cases, undergraduates are taught by full professors, not graduate students. Even in brand-name US universities, most of the undergraduate teaching is done by graduate students.
In comparison to US tuition fees in excess of $40,000 per year, UWI tuition fees of approximately US$2,000 per year are quite affordable for some middle-class families. Much cheaper than your typical upscale prep school. But for the vast majority of UWI students, US$2,000 might as well be US$40,000. It ‘s still out of reach. And most students don’t want to take a student loan. As I understand it, the loan becomes repayable within three months of graduation, whether or not the borrower gets a job. So students would rather ‘batter-batter’ than get caught in what they see as the student-loan trap.
I routinely give nutrition lessons in my literature classes, warning students that they can’t function on dry biscuits. And I’ve taken to keeping sweeties in my office. It’s not real food, but the students appreciate the gesture. I once got a very ‘sweet’ joke in class. One of my students confessed that she’d been rummaging in her bag and unexpectedly came up with one of the sweeties. As she put it, “It was like heaven.” The whole class laughed, and some of them admitted that they’d had the same experience.
Fun and joke aside, funding tertiary education in Jamaica today is no laughing matter. Sensitive to the complex social issues, the UWI administration is giving debarred students the opportunity to take exams in the summer semester. This is a welcome stopgap measure. But the contentious problem posed by large numbers of students perennially in arrears is not going to disappear overnight. New, long-term solutions have to be crafted. Otherwise, as a society, we’ll be forced to concede that our underfunded public education system simply cannot earn a passing grade – from GSAT all the way to the top.