The University of the West Indies (UWI) this year welcomed its 65th cohort of students. St Andrews University in Scotland can count six centuries since its establishment. But there is an enduring link between the two in the person of Sir James Irvine (1877-1952), Chairman of the Committee that recommended the establishment of the then University College of the West Indies (UCWI) at the end of World War II. Sir James was St Andrews’ Principal and Vice-Chancellor, a position he had held from 1921 until his death.
Just as St Andrews has an Irvine Hall, so too does the UWI; the hall’s foundation stone describing Sir James – in Latin – as the man who drew the shape and form of the new university college.
In her installation address, in February 1950, Princess Alice of Athlone – the university’s first Chancellor and, uniquely, the first female Chancellor anywhere – spoke about the process by which the UCWI had come to be.
“Three great universities from the old country have been mainly instrumental in the foundation of this College and to use a biological analogy, St. Andrews and Birmingham have both acted as midwifes at the birth while London has been the parent without whom I daresay all heroic efforts by the part of the first two universities would have availed nothing.
“The parent in the real sense of the word because for a few years to come, London is to remain closely associated with the destinies of our College by reason of the fact that our students continue to take the University of London External Degree Examinations and I think we should be proud that our first steps should be made under such august direction. It is a good augury that from the very beginning this college should be associated with Scotland and the ancient university of Andrews’. Ever since the days of John Knox, Scotland has set before itself a high ideal in educational matters and to a great extent has realized it….
“So although this university is new, perhaps the newest in the world, the fact that it is so closely associated with St. Andrews means that it can claim to spring from a tradition that goes back five centuries. I am sure that you will agree with me that none could possibly have a better foundation or at any rate be modeled on a better pattern than that of Scottish learning.”
Back in 1950, the students of St Andrews sent an ‘illuminated address’ to the students of the UCWI, and Sir James, a celebrated chemist, gave his collection of chemistry journals as a personal benefaction to the new library, in memory of his son who had died in World War II – while the work of the Irvine Committee was underway. The St Andrews University Court also prepared a scroll marking the connection. Donald Hardie, a recent visitor to the UWI Museum, recalls signing it as President of the Student Representative Council, with Sir James signing as Vice Chancellor and Principal.
A decision to present the current UWI Vice Chancellor, Professor E. Nigel Harris, with an honorary degree as part of the 600th anniversary celebration, is a new mark of connection between the two universities.