Education Reform: From good intentions to unmastered turmoils

Forceful imposition to meet political deadlines, inherent elitism and double-standards have been the unfortunate hallmarks of the Minister’s NYS reforms

By S. Callikan

There was a lot of speculation in the press and by Opposition MPs about the current Parliament being recalled a few weeks prior to its dissolution, particularly when, to their surprise, some Bills, that came to the floor of the House, even those that were in the pipeline for long, seem to have been rushed to completion.

The Child Protection Act of 1995 had indeed to be seriously dusted up or replaced by a more comprehensive legislation to match desirable international norms of practice (the Geneva Committee on Child Rights, in particular) and equally perhaps to take stock of recent trends and issues related to our local experiences. We recollect that a detailed set of draft proposals was prepared and submitted to the authorities by a platform of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and individual members of civil society working with children across various sectors, including education, health and rights as far back as July 2015.

A draft Bill was readied but a plethora of mega socio-political shake-ups and three successive Ministers at the helm of Family Affairs did certainly not help despite the obvious increasing importance of the matters at stake. It was in February 2018 that a consultative meeting, launched by a newly appointed Attorney General and the equally new Minister of Family Affairs, engaged key stakeholders to finalize the draft.

And now that the third incumbent at the post, Vice-PM Fazila Daureeawoo, has brought the Bill to Parliament, it may be disconcerting that two major issues (the penal and marriage age of children) have still fuelled such controversies, perhaps even among government ranks. The impression could not be dispelled of efforts at opportune check-boxing of legislation to suit the terminal months of the regime and its upcoming electoral spin.

The other piece of legislation that has attracted some flak for similar reasons is the Skills Development Authority (SDA) Bill, guided by the Minister for Education and Human Resource development and voted through last week. Although the Minister and a couple of government MPs defended the idea of yet another Authority, another overarching or apex structure, in jargon favoured by legislators, to regulate the Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) sector, MPs of all Opposition parties, particularly Dr Arvin Boolell, Veda Baloomoody and Aurore Perraud, did point out the wasteful confusion and overlaps between the existing and the proposed new player to the field of technical skills and competencies.

Institutional confusion may either reveal a surprising absence of knowledgeable input, consultation and planning to a sector that undoubtedly should be one of the pillars of our future human capital development. Or an undue haste to come up with legislation that only offers political check-boxing with the dimmest of hopes that the Act will actually be promulgated and officialised with operationalisation of a Skills Development Authority for which there may have been no provision in the last Government budget. There may yet be other factors linked with the setting up and operations of the Mauritius Polytechnics Ltd or the now famous “more jobs for the blue-eyed boys” as some have alleged or even the saying that “too many cooks”, each wielding his or her own spoon, may actually spoil the broth.

Observers know that the post-secondary technical and vocational education sector took flight since the late eighties with the setting up of the IVTB. Ten years later its conflictual role both as a public vocational course provider and the sector’s de facto if not de jure regulator had rightly to be terminated. Three separate functions were, it seems, identified and structured:

(a) technical/vocational, with the MITD as a major public course provider alongside such others as the Hotel School or the Fashion & Design Institute and the large number of private technical training providers;

(b) management of the Training Levy imposition and partial reimbursement of private training providers were devoted to a new body – the Human Resource Development Council (HRDC) – also responsible for conducting such studies, forecasts and trend analysis as to provide valuable informed advice to the Minister on the education and training needs of the country’s human capital;

(c) the MQA — Mauritius Qualifications Authority – set up in 2001 as the apex body for establishing national standards and qualifications in respect of the whole technical and vocational sector and undertake the registration and accreditation of all public and private training institutions, trainers and courses.

There was therefore no dearth of institutions which could have been upgraded or revamped or even restructured to address the specific missing functions being addressed by the recent Skills Development Authority Bill without having recourse to another apex body with its own administrative overheads (Chair, Board, Staff, Offices, etc) and the consequential wasteful overlap of functions.

The extent of that confusion may best be illustrated by quoting the ebullient Hon. government MP Rutnah “the MQA will continue to exist. It will continue to exist independently whereas this law is providing for an independent regulator to ensure assurance and confer awards by the institutions which are going to set up their own courses and exams…” If the clear had not got clearer, an explanatory shot from the Minister herself should dispel all doubts: “So, whatever is being done by MQA and by the MITD will be regulated by the Skills Development Authority.” In other words, in a sector which all agree should be a cornerstone of our human resource development, the apex regulator continues, but now gets another apex regulator…

Still another area that remains unclear is the source of the Skill Development Fund that the SDA will manage, since there seems to be no mention in the current Budget and its 3-year forecast, leaving room for speculation about alternative sourcing from the existing Training Levy managed by the HRDC.

Singapore Inc will continue to smile benignly at our own particular way we plan sectoral development, with four separate institutions for the TVET sector. We will recall that a similar level of planning had brought the Higher Education Bill, enacted with similar gusto and rhetorical winds in December 2017. The one-stop Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) was to be split into a Quality Assurance Agency, a reduced-role Higher Education Commission and another advisory structure, termed the Higher Education Council. Whether the split into three overhead structures was justified or not, large parts of that Act, we understand, have yet to be promulgated or acted upon.

Education policy has not spared the country from a general sense of good intentions turning into relatively unmastered turmoils. The Nine-Year Schooling (NYS) reform, announced in the Lepep manifesto, launched and conducted with great drive by the senior Minister Dookhun, an experienced frontline practitioner at the Roman Catholic Education Authority, despite some positive elements, including holistic education initiatives, has failed to convince many parents and more attuned observers, while latent problems of indiscipline, racketeering, outrageous behaviours and substance abuse within or in proximity to school premises have demonstrated alarming trends.

Not many parents were aware that among the NYS implications would be more selection pressures, with the regional (Primary School Achievement Certificate) competition replacing national CPE exams, a new highly selective national exam at Grade 9 governing limited access to new elite “Academies”, more private tuition and hassle for public sector children, the end of Grade 7 admissions in all traditional star State colleges, while private and confessional authorities and institutions could continue with their time-tested systems and their own star schools leading from Grade 7 to Grade 13 (Upper Six). No wonder demand for their seats exploded, hitting even many Ministry and Education cadres.

A throw-back to the 2000-2005 period when similar ill-advised reforms by then Minister Obeegadoo left public-sector children with unacceptably stressful prospects which did not apply to private and confessional schools. Both have steadfastly and adamantly pursued their reform agenda and objectives without much regard for popular feelings and disenchantment. They may find much to share in their political reunion under the wings of the MSM-ML-Transfuges umbrella. Not much can be said in favour of the fate of extended stream students even by advisors, Rectors and frontliners. On balance, no applause can go either towards the closure of nationwide access to Grade 7 public state schools for three years to make way for the Elite Academies. Forceful imposition to meet political deadlines, inherent elitism and double-standards have been the unfortunate hallmarks of the Minister’s NYS reforms.

* Published in print edition on 27 September 2019

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