Foundation of the Universities



The University of Santo Domingo was established in 1538, the University of Havana in 1726. Well before many American cities, and even those in the old European continent, the West Indies saw their first universities. New Spain had created others much earlier, since the University of Lima was founded in 1551, and that of Mexico in 1553. The anteriority of university institutions in the northern Caribbean and New Spain reveals interpenetration between the evolution of the New World and the Old, in relation to the missionary vision of Spanish colonization.

The university is place of learning, but, whilst both the name and affiliation have survived, the universities of the 16th century and similarly those of the 18th, have very little in common with their present-day successors. The establishment of universities in New Spain was narrowly linked to the evangelizing and missionary project that accompanied Spanish colonization. The Jesuits, Franciscans, and Dominicans provided both the inspiration and energy. It would not be until the 19th century, with the economic, cultural and political evolution of the West Indies, as in the metropolitan homelands and the young United States, that new university institutions would take shape. Most often, they consisted of colleges of law, like that in Martinique in the 19th century. They frequently acted as the crucible for republican ideas. Most of the present day universities came into being after the Second World War or following independence. The chronologies overlapped.

Two rationales converged in the drive to create universities in the Archipelago. A political rationale which, whatever the type of institutional development, sought to throw off the yoke of subjection, and to give the succeeding generations the keys to greater knowledge and learning, from which much is still expected and awaited. At the same time, an economic rationale, providing an increasingly qualified workforce, was integral to the general evolution of industrial societies in the metropolitan countries.

Two examples, albeit politically opposed, illustrate these two lines of reasoning. Puerto Rico, with the support of industrial investments made available through favourable American policies towards the island, developed a system of technical training very early on, followed by Higher Education initiatives that today have led to twenty university institutions with a total of over 100 000 students. Cuba, after the Revolution, made education a top priority, and succeeded in massively raising the qualification levels of the population.

Generally, across the West Indies, the level of school attendance is higher than that found globally in the 'South,' and out of line with the countries of Central America. Following totally different paths, the (British) West Indies, Cuba, the French administrative regions (of Central America), have all consciously adopted education and training as a central tool of development. The latter is still far from resolving all the problems of markets, of employment in these small territories, but undeniably it is pulling all these societies along in their wake. With more than 30 universities across the Basin, many with multiple campuses, increasing inter-university collaboration and cooperation faces obvious challenges, not least the legacy of three dominant European languages in everyday use. Without doubt, access to training and degree programmes offer activities that translate directly into economic gains for local communities. As such, Higher Education may be viewed as both a new resource and catalyst in the future development of the Caribbean.

Author: Monique Bégot
Translation:  : Louis Shurmer-Smith