President David Granger: Ministers of the Government; Members of the National Assembly; Members of the Diplomatic Corps; Principal and Vice Chancellor of the University of Guyana, Professor Ivelaw Griffith; presenters; officials of the University of Guyana, members of the Judiciary; the Private Sector.
I’m very happy to be here this morning and I’m very sorry to have to leave you so quickly, but this is an important ceremony for me. As you know, I enrolled in the University of Guyana as an undergraduate in 1965, fifty-two years ago and I went back to the same classrooms I left the previous year as a student of Queen’s College [QC].
The University of Guyana established only two years before I entered in 1963- had no campus at the time. Classes had to be conducted in the evening when the QC students left. Prime Minister Forbes Burnham received five hundred and eighty-six hectares of the former sugar plantation Turkeyen on behalf of the Guyanese nation on the 24th May, 1966; just two days before Independence.
And he embarked on the construction of the campus giving the University of Guyana a permanent home and that campus as you know was opened a day or two after we became a Republic in 1970. At a personal level, I feel that I have been a witness to the University’s passage from its infancy. I loved the University as a student, I loved the University as a Lecturer, I loved the University as a Member of the Council and I loved the University as President of the Guild of Graduates. As President of the country, I still love the University not as a parent, but as a product of that great institution and I would like this morning to recommit myself to the University’s progress.
The University from that start suffered from what I would call birth defects; the ordinance was assented to only in April 1963 and the University was inaugurated less than six months later on the 1st October, 1963 and classes began on the 2nd of October, so there was something of haste. But worse than the haste, was that the University was born in the midst of political disturbances in the 1960s and regrettably those disturbances deprived it of the support of a significant section of society.
The decision of the government of the day not to integrate with the University of the West Indies family reflected its own refusal not to integrate with the Federation of the West Indies. Dr. Eric Williams, then the UWI Pro-Chancellor, failed to convince the government not to establish an independent University. Well, the decision to stay outside the UWI family is history, but there have been some consequences.
The University, in its early days (that is in my view) drifted from its objectives of discovering and dissemination of knowledge for national development. It enrolled a disproportionately high number of students in the arts and social sciences as compared with the natural sciences. About ninety-five percent of the students in the first decade, for example, were employees of the Public Service or public corporations of the teaching profession and fewer than five percent came from the Private Sector. Certain growing pains compounded the University’s birth defects. The economic situation in the late 1970s and the early 1980s had a negative impact on financing; several programmes could no longer be supported by State funds. The University, as a result, fell behind the UWI Caribbean campuses in Barbados at Cave Hill; in Jamaica at Mona and at Saint Augustine in Trinidad and Tobago.
I would say however, that the University experienced something of a scientific and technological shift as Guyana became a Republic in 1970. It was the start of a brilliant era of visionary leadership. Dennis Ervin, appointed Vice Chancellor in 1969, was a scientist, he thought as a scientist, he acted as a scientist and he served under a government which sought to encourage greater access to higher education by abolishing tuition fees in 1974. Ervin understood the need and he undertook the task of balancing the University affinity for the Humanities, with the necessity for embracing Sciences- you’ll get accustomed to that.
The University during the Ervin era employed lecturers from academia around the world. It enjoyed respect for its intellectual rigour; it expanded the breadth of its programmes to include agriculture, education, earth and environmental services, fisheries, the natural sciences and social sciences and technology. The University, thereby, in spite of its financial material constraints, provided the opportunity for thousands of Guyanese who never before dreamt of acquiring tertiary education. The University’s second science and technology shift is about to start. This country is on a developmental pathway to become a ‘green’ state. The Green Development Agenda will promote increased investment in biodiversity management, in coastal zone management, in solid waste management, in ecological and environmental services, in eco-education and ecotourism, in information and communication technology, in the extension of its protected areas and in the generation of renewable energy. These are the objectives of the ‘green’ state.
Guyana, located at the centre of the Guiana shield, one of the world’s last remaining tracts of virgin rainforest is rich in biodiversity. It is a green global asset which must be protected for mankind and for the sustainable development of countries which belong to the shield. Guyana’s ecosystems support diverse species to the extent that at least up to 2010, Guyana’s species status was estimated at 8,000 plant species, 467 species of fish, 130 amphibians, 179 reptiles, 814 birds, 225 mammals, 1,673 arthropods, over 1,200 fungi, 33 bacteria, 13 nematodes, 17 molluscs and an estimated 30 viruses. Guyana has a total of 1,182 native tree species.
Guyana therefore, possesses abundant natural capital- capital which ranges from the islands of the Essequibo, the three largest of which are the same size of the British Virgin Islands, from the lowlands and wetlands of the coastland, from the highlands, the grasslands, the rainforests of the hinterlands, the spectacular rapids, rivers and waterfalls and the lakes. All of these provide the habitat to scores of rare animals, including 20 of the world’s largest, including high level of endemicity. Guyana possesses priceless natural resources. We cannot sit on our hands; we cannot sit on these bountiful resources.
Guyana, larger than England and Scotland combined, is the British High Commissioner here? I normally take great pleasure in saying… [Laughter.]
Guyana, larger than England and Scotland combined, however, is deficient in the physical infrastructure essential for economic development, development in the form of aerodromes, bridges, highways, housing, deep water ports and stellings. Guyana’s coastal and riverine defences, its conservancies and drainage and irrigation systems must be repaired and maintained continuously in order to protect human habitation from the adverse effects of climate change and the rising sea levels caused by global warming, flooding and extreme weather patterns.
Guyana’s Green Development Strategy therefore, aims at advancing climate adaptation so as to protect its fragile coastland and to reduce environmental hazards, which can be destructive to our people’s livelihoods. The University, this University, UG is central to fulfilling the scientific and technological objectives which the ‘green’ state requires.
The University must drive intellectual processes of ‘green’ development by becoming the incubator of technology and the nurturer of skills and talents, the University must establish institutions to educate students, to advance our ‘green’ development, institutions such as the biodiversity centre. I think I see Dr. Thomas smiling. This country needs biologists; this country needs botanists, needs zoologists, to document and study this unique and unmatched biodiversity. It needs engineers to erect infrastructure in the hinterland, to install hydroelectric, wind, solar and biomass energy generation plants. It needs geologists and gemmologists to provide service in the sustainable management or extractive sectors. It needs agriculturists to promote food security. It needs technologists to develop our information and communication technology.
Ladies and gentlemen, Your Excellencies, the University of Guyana, if it is to survive and thrive must become a University for Guyana. The national University must be responsive to national needs. How could it be otherwise?