It was in the waning months of the Freundel Stuart administration, three months before a general election, that Minister of Education Ronald Jones boasted that the island was making great strides as a hub for medical education. Among the earliest and brightest jewels of the adminstration’s thrust was the Washington University of Barbados, housed at the repurposed Casa Grande Hotel, owned by entrepreneur Ram Mirchandani.
But the gem became a tarnished dud on Friday as police escorted Washington University’s chief executive officer, Gopi Venkat Rao, off the Oldbury, St Philip campus, a wanted swindler.
The head of the medical school turned out to be an alleged wanted fugitive in India, sought for bilking thousands of dollars from hundreds of students with promises of admissions into foreign medical universities.
Approximately, 200 students, mostly drawn from India, were gathered this afternoon for nearly three hours as a high-level Government team broke the news.
Led by Minister of People Empowerment and Elder Affairs Cynthia Forde, the team included Parliamentary Secretary for the Ministry of People Empowerment Neil Rowe, and officials from the ministries of labour, health, and education, and the Welfare Department.
The students and faculty employees were only made aware of Venkat’s deceit on Sunday, September 30 after media outlets India Times News Network and The Hindu newspaper reported the day before that over 200 students were duped by an educational consultancy firm of which Venkat is the owner.
Six of Venkat’s staff members were arrested in India, and police launched a hunt for the director, his wife Nikita Venkat and an associate identified as Zameer, The Hindu reported.
The fraudsters convinced clients that they had secured tie-ups with medical institutions in several countries. They allegedly promised them seats in medical colleges in the U.S. and China. Police also identified four similar cases where Venkat duped several students and then shut shop to restart in a different province, according to the respected newspaper based in Chennai.
Prior to his arrest, Venkat was unreachable by staff and students. His executive secretary, Tricia Newton, disclosed that the staff have not been paid and persons felt like they had been “defrauded”. The staff of approximately 40 people had not been paid for more than three months and on-campus staff and students had no access to food.
“It is a dire situation, I watch people at work every day crying [and] begging,” Newton revealed. She also divulged that Indian staff were routinely replaced after their work permits expired.
“It is basically a cycle where [management] pay for their [workers’] ticket, gave them work permits; their work permits expire; they did not renew them; they did not pay the persons for months. People were just around here begging; [management] would get rid of those and bring in another set,” Newton said.
Students gathered at the Casa Grande campus were confused, frustrated and concerned about what the day’s events meant for their future. They did not have access to food, electricity and water utilities had been cut off after the administration failed to pay the bill for five months and the university had yet to be accredited so they were unable to complete their degree or clinical experience elsewhere.
Some wanted to know if the university will remain in operation and whether the thousands spent and all their hard-work were for naught; others expressed the desire to return home.
Sowjanya Racharla, 23, pleaded for someone to send her home after she spent the last year being led by false promises. Racharla revealed that her family sold their property and took out a loan to finance her dream to become a doctor. As the oldest of her parent’s two children, success was always her hindsight but Racharla felt broken and betrayed.
“ I came against my dad; my dad said, ‘Baby you already have a degree why do you want to go back there?’ and I said, ‘Dad I want to become a doctor and this university is saying they can send me to the United States where I can get placed better than India’,” Racharla explained, saying that she had cried until she could not cry no more.
“I was the hope for my parents and he [Gopi Venkat Rao] was my hope and now he is gone,” she added.
Despite suggestions from Ministry officials that students could transfer to other universities on the island, Racharla expressed a loss of hope and fear that the circumstances could recur.
“Yes, they will transfer but again my father has to send me dollars to eat and stay here; Barbados is not cheap!”
“I am not rich, I am not even middle class, I am under poverty. My parents sold my property, took loans and sent me around $30,000 US to Barbados,” Racharla shared.
Saddam Husen, 25, has been studying at the institution since its opening in 2016. He was disheartened that what looked to be a promising future all came to naught for not only him but for his family.
“What about our future? What about our money. What has Government decided?
“We are away from our family . . . . There is nobody to protect us . . . . We don’t have any support over here,” he said, crestfallen.
A consultant for the Washington University of Barbados, Subash Agarwal, questioned the procedures the unaccredited university went through to be registered in Barbados. Agarwal was speaking as a parent who invested $32 000 US in his daughter’s education. He was recruited by the Venkat’s company in India and was assured that the institution met all the necessary health requirements by a video which was presented to the staff before their arrival in Barbados.
The video featured then Prime Minister Freundel Stuart and Minister of Health John Boyce guaranteeing that the institution met the necessarily stipulations, said Agarwal. Barbados TODAY has not seen the video.
He claimed a month after the general elections, former Minister of Education Ronald Jones visited the campus and assured the staff and students that they would soon be accredited by the Barbados Accreditation Council.
“They provided a letter to all the consulting people, gave us videos of the health minister, Prime Minister, videos in their function at the university . . . . I thought all was well,” Agarwal explained while adding that those videos were also shown to potential students to encourage them to join the school. “They collect millions dollars of money, hundreds of students careers!”
During his consultancy, Agarwal recruited 11 students. Now he feels deceived and “cheated” as both parent and an employee of the university. He expressed hope that the Government of Barbados would be able to transfer the students to another university in the interim.
Minister Forde emerged from the meeting to tell journalists she was flabbergasted by the events which unfolded.
The ministries were working to ensure that the students and on-campus staff would have access to water, electricity and food by the end of the day, she said. She added that provisions would be made for students wishing to transfer to another university.
She emphasized that Government would “give a helping hand” to the students and staff and urged them not to have negative images of Barbados.
“I pray that this message that will go out is not a negative message that will mar the name of Barbados we are not accustomed to this kind of behaviour and it is a pity that we were not made aware before now,” said the Minister.
“We will do what we can as a Government and as a people to give them the measure of comfort that we believe that they deserve”.
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