Celebrating Our Laureates

Whatever the leakages of laureates staying permanently abroad, talented and gifted individuals should be driven to explore their potential and raise their sights, even if their plough-back contribution to the society that nurtured them is only delayed…

By Jan Arden

The past week has seen the announcement of results for the HSC examinations, marking the traditional end to the seven-year stretch of secondary studies. Average pass rates were a commendable 90% both for Mauritius and its outer islands, in particular Rodrigues, although we understand there may have been some “special consideration” by Cambridge in view of the special circumstances of the pandemic and some unfortunate weather conditions. What was obviously more disruptive were the extension of the traditional 2020 teaching year by some 5-6 months, that is, well into 2021 and the various efforts to combine face-to-face teaching with the less interactive web or MBC lecture modes.

The Ministry of Education was stretched, handling vaccination of personnel and the recurrent school closures upon any reported Covid cases among staff or even students, while keeping parents and educators informed. Nothing was plain sailing during that period, yet everything had to be done by the authorities, the educator community and parents, often forced into lockdown, to ensure some continuity of education even if it meant putting in extra efforts by teachers and parents alike and extending the school year for catch-up and syllabus completion. To all those stakeholders, despite the occasional inevitable misfiring and failings, we no doubt owe a debt of gratitude, as it concerned a whole generation of teenagers that have faced inordinate struggles to complete the final year of their O-level and A-level studies as best they could and face examinations that were themselves not exempt of sanitary protocol disruptions.

This traditional announcement, marking the end of a cycle for the Form Six students is accompanied by the no-less traditional excitement at the official list of those who have emerged as “laureates” with the best overall marks at the Cambridge examinations, some 45 at this stage in various disciplines from the arts through the sciences to the technical side. They are guaranteed a scholarship from the state or from the SSR Foundation and the MCB, covering their flight and full tuition and living costs to the university and country of their choice. The Education establishment and the Minister in person traditionally have the privilege for disclosing the awaited laureate list and he or she relishes this annual exercise, something we cannot begrudge Education Minister Leela Devi Dookun-Luchoomun.

This crowning of seven years of efforts by the students, their teachers who can fairly easily identify and support those potential “high-fliers” and the supportive parents, is accompanied by much rejoicing – more muted this year under pandemic conditions — by students, parents, teachers and rectors at those colleges which have earned such distinctions. Schools, colleges and even universities, whether abroad or locally, have fashioned enduring traditions which cement their identity and build lasting relations in those formative years despite the obvious element of competition as the final stretch gets closer.

Laureates act as role-models in their school for effort and perseverance, some with their parents exercising conscious efforts to avoid an excessive concentration on academic studies, others with some natural hobby or interest. Inevitably, with the highly mediatised and social platforms of this day and age, the laureates provide countless opportunities for taking easy grist to the mill of radio, TV and internet stations for days of coverage, interviews and broadcasts. On a not entirely dissimilar plane, none of our able-bodied or para-olympic participants are encouraged and trained over four years just for a participation on the international scene: we are aware of the sacrifices undergone and rejoice at the stage they have reached to be selected but rejoice even more, with a sense of national pride, should they bring medals of whatever colour. They would in all likelihood receive equally intensive media coverage.

That phenomenon of laureate celebrations, without the excesses of some past years, is a moment treasured by the students, their colleges, the educator community and the parents. We can also spare a thought to recognize the no-less meritorious efforts of the dozens who, for a matter of a few marks, missed the laureateship, but may still be able to pursue tertiary studies overseas or locally, either through other scholarship schemes or on their own, in our tuition-free public universities.

The merit-based laureates are completed shortly thereafter by the merit-cum social conditions of parents and candidates, a laudable measure introduced since 2013 which allows to add nearly 30 laureates to the 45 already announced. Laureateship and the accompanying celebrations should not therefore be lightly and rather haughtily dismissed as a mere “tam-tam”, offensive to some adults and, even worse, illustrative of a failed education system or alleging that it costs a “bomb” to taxpayer pockets at some Rs 250m annually in an Education budget of Rs 17 billion!

Yes, there are many problems yet to be addressed in our education system, its pathways, its exam-centric approach, its heavy selection pressures, even its costs to the national exchequer and such adult discussions deserve to be held and opinions heard. The extended stream, the lack of structured alternative education pathways for the otherwise uninterested by long academic pursuits, the necessity of Academies which have in turn imposed another selection to Grade 10 are other matters for a healthy debate. But surely there are more appropriate times for such discussions than to act as peeved observers by throwing the bath, the baby and the towel on the day of such celebratory achievements for the young students, their parents and educators. That is simply beyond the pale…

As for the laureates’ future studies and their eventual return to the homeland, we would have suggested that the Minister of Education considers the importance of a dedicated “laureate advisory and monitoring cell” to constitute an updated repository of academic avenues and conditions in various countries, provide meaningful advice to students on promising future fields and disciplines,while being mindful of the student’s own wishes and particular circumstances, follow-up and keep track of their performances and any problems during their studies, and assist their transition to the working environment upon their return. While it is no doubt true that many illustrious careers and contributors to the country’s development were not laureates, particularly when there were only a handful, those who feel the privileged moment they are living today should also feel part of a special family and as welcome back as when they left for further studies.

There should be no overbearing compulsion either for them to return home immediately upon their 3- or 4-year university stint overseas, particularly if we want to combine high-level competencies with quality experiences acquired in foreign work environments for a number of years until, for their own reasons, they feel ready to bring their acquired education, training and work experience to the country’s benefit. Whatever the leakages of laureates staying permanently abroad, talented and gifted individuals should be driven to explore their potential and raise their sights, even if their plough-back contribution to the society that nurtured them is only delayed and this is accepted as the price to pay for taking a longer-term perspective on national development.


* Published in print edition on 21 September 2021

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