Enhancing Comprehensive Access To Education

The Education (Amendment) Regulations were made on 6th February 2013. The new regulations provided for the award of 24 additional scholarships to enable students to pursue higher studies, on top of those already being awarded to students ranking at the top of the various categories at the Higher School Certificate.

The first of these 24 additional scholarships to students who took part in the HSC examinations of October/November 2012 were awarded last week. Unlike the customary annual scholarships (the laureate system) which are based on HSC rankings, i.e., purely on merit, the 24 additional scholarships are based on both merit and social criteria. The first 16 of these involved students appearing among the first 500 in the Cambridge International Examination Rank Orders as published by the Mauritius Examination Syndicate (merit) and on family income which, in the aggregate, did not exceed Rs 12,000 per month (social factor). Wealth was not a factor under consideration in the award of the scholarships. The remaining 8 scholarships were accorded to students who had the best results in the Cambridge Higher School Certificate exams of 2012 (merit) and whose family income did not, in the aggregate, exceed Rs 6,200 per month, i.e., almost half what it is for the 16 others.

Twenty-two of the additional scholarships went to boys and girls from the island of Mauritius while two others were given to a boy and a girl student respectively from Rodrigues Island. Twelve of the scholarships went to boys and the twelve others to girls. The scholarships entail annual grants ranging from Rs 150,000 to Rs 300,000 per annum depending on whether the tertiary-level studies are undertaken in Mauritius or overseas.

Even if the concerned students in the allocation of the 24 additional scholarships could have afforded, one way or the other, to go to university, it goes without saying that the scholarship amount will permit families living with such low levels of income to have a certain amount of relief. The families would have been under strain to meet their own regular cost of living on top of providing for tuition and other costs associated with a university-going ward, with an attendant risk of him/her dropping off from the studies at some stage if the family budget got stressed up. In that sense, the government’s decision to award the scholarships goes in the direction of what is termed ‘affirmative action’.

The selection criteria laid down by the Ministry indicate that the decision to award the scholarships is based on objective criteria, merit according to ranks secured at the exams and income level as attested by reliable sources. We are informed that the Ministry of Social Security has collaborated with the Ministry of Education in the verification of family income. Since the decision to go for the additional scholarships leans heavily on the social criteria, one would assume that the maximum amount of rigour would have been applied to favour, for example, a student who deserves no less than another on merit grounds for the scholarship but whose family income, as may be objectively tested, is lower than that of the other within each of the two income ranges for eligibility. Once the element of subjectivity is eliminated altogether from the selection process, the selection process will be credible not only for the current year but for coming years as well. Any subjective ‘triage dans café’ in the selection will necessarily impair the higher pursuit of making higher-level education available to those who can least afford it.

It may be recalled that, perceiving education to be a key factor for making economic and social progress, social and political leaders of the past generation made access to education by the masses of the country a priority on their agenda. After much struggle, access to education was gained by numerous persons left out of it altogether heretofore. Public education took further strides in the pre and post-independence period as new schools were built up and access widened as a consequence. By 1976, the government made education free at nearly all levels for everybody. An educated workforce has proved to be an important asset for the country towards its successful economic diversification into the provision of services, locally and internationally. The economic factor has however stood in the way of many families intent on giving a sound education to their wards. Hopefully, the new scholarship scheme will create enduring opportunities for those having insufficient financial means to make it to the tertiary level.

The additional scholarship scheme can be considered as a further step towards providing a fair access to education by introducing an element of equitableness in the system. It is addressed to those at the bottom of the economic ladder even though it lays stress simultaneously on those belonging to this group having a good level of academic skills. It will help embrace in the educational fold those not having sufficient economic means to pursue higher studies but who are intrinsically fit to undertake further studies. It repairs to some extent the impact of the generally skewed distribution of income and other resources prevailing among the population. Those having acquired a good command over resources usually tend to perpetuate themselves by being able to afford the best of all that is in store. In so doing, the latter finally create a zone of exclusion from which are excluded those who can’t afford to pay or go for higher studies. So doing, the better endowed secure for themselves alone the best of all the system has to offer. The additional scholarship scheme makes a breach in this model by opening up to those who have lesser economic means. It adds an element of inclusion.

Unless we redefine from time to time what is taken as a given in society, society will not evolve positively. Equality and competition tend to become the hallmark of social progress in the absence of corrective factors which tone them down to what is humanly acceptable. But there is more to it than these values. There are other values that society should endorse and make its own such as fairness broadly defined, inclusiveness, integrity, moral standards, distributive justice and compassion. Affording higher education to those who do not have the means to do so goes in this direction once the rules of the game are made as transparent as possible and everyone is given a fair chance to overcome handicaps from a not very successful past.

* Published in print edition on 8 August  2013

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