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UWI snubs House - MPs push for reforms to make university answerable to Jamaican Parliament

Published:Wednesday | October 12, 2016 | 12:00 AMJovan Johnson
Dr Wykeham McNeill
Professor Archibald McDonald, principal of the UWI, Mona.

Jamaica's elected representatives, smarting from being snubbed by the University of the West Indies (UWI), now say that they will be pushing for necessary changes to ensure that the university, which, this year alone, is set to get funding that could cover two government ministries, is answerable to the Parliament.

Representatives of the university, which has a campus in Jamaica (Mona), the University of Technology, and the University Council of Jamaica were invited to appear

yesterday before Parliament's Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC) to explain how they have been spending taxpayers' money.

Section 73A of the Standing Orders, which govern the rules of the House of Representatives, empowers the PAAC to monitor government expenditure.

However, members were left stunned when the committee chairman, Dr WyKenham McNeill, read a letter from the university's registrar, William Iton, which made it clear that the UWI had no legal obligation to appear before the Jamaican Parliament.

"Please be advised that the UWI is a public autonomous regional educational institution which serves 17 countries in the Caribbean," Iton said in the letter dated October 10 to Dr Maurice Smith, permanent secretary in the education ministry.

"The university was established by (British) Royal Charter in 1962. The university therefore has to be distinguished from other agencies of your ministry," the letter continued.

The royal charter makes the institution only legally answerable to the British monarchy, identified as the 'visitor', or its representatives.

Iton's letter said as a contributor to the university, Jamaica was "entitled" to information and recommended that the Government use its representative on the university's finance committee "to request the necessary information".

Professor Archibald McDonald, principal of the Mona campus, told The Gleaner yesterday that each CARICOM contributing country has representatives on the finance committee, which is a subcommittee of the university council - the UWI's highest decision-making body - which also has government representatives.

He said there was no formal reporting requirement from CARICOM, which lists the UWI as one of its "associate institutions".

The university had submitted a report, signalling its intent to appear before the committee, but according to Smith, the university withdrew and submitted an opinion it said it received from the attorney general's chambers in 2007, which affirmed its legal independence.

Questions to the Office of the Vice-Chancellor, headed by Professor Sir Hilary Beckles, were not answered up to press time.

In a May research paper, the library of the United Kingdom's House of Lords, similar to the Senate in Jamaica, noted that "royal charters and the affairs of chartered bodies are not generally debated in Parliament".

McNeill said the Jamaican situation is unacceptable and his committee would be recommending that Parliament consider the issue with the aim of starting to ensure that Parliament could do its job as an oversight body for public funds.

"It's not that we're casting any aspersions on the UWI. Any expenditure made out of public funds must have scrutiny. You must understand how it is spent and for what it is spent," he argued.

Continuing, he said: "Where the systems are in place, our job is to ensure that those systems are followed, and where we find a system where there is a deficiency, say in this case, then we have to move to adjust it and to agree to it. The one thing I can be certain of is that we will put in place the necessary mechanisms to ensure openness and transparency."

Attorney-at-law Bert Samuels said the situation "must be embarrassing" for the Parliament because its work is being impeded by a charter from the same monarch that is the head of the Parliament.

"It would be very short-sighted of the Parliament to be addressing the stronghold that the visitor, in the form of the monarch, this foreign monarch, has over the UWI without looking at its own self. What it's bringing into sharp focus is the need for us to go without this old colonial past stifling our way forward," he argued.

"I'm happy to know that that has come to haunt the Parliament," Samuels added, noting that even local courts have no jurisdiction to settle some university internal disputes.

The PAAC said it would be requesting advice from the attorney general on how to proceed.

Jamaica contributes about 20 per cent of the annual funding of the UWI, according to the permanent secretary.

This year, Jamaican taxpayers are providing $8.3 billion, an amount that could fund the justice and transport and mining ministries.

In June, it became public that Jamaica owed $182 million in tuition payments to the UWI, which the Ministry of Education has since said has been addressed.