We can promise the moon to everyone provided the country has the means to do so and can afford it. Good governance above all means responsible good governance
By Mrinal Roy
A New Year is a harbinger of hope. At this critical juncture in our history as a nation when so many things are amiss and fundamentally wrong in the country, we collectively owe it to the young and the future generations of the country to do what it takes to urgently set things right. The prospects of general elections in the country provide a golden opportunity to usher the long overdue changes required. This is the more so as it is patently evident that in terms of governance, political ethics, democratic values, strict application of the rule of meritocracy, transparency and accountability, nepotism favouring relatives and the coterie, the country has all the trappings of a banana republic.
The hegemony of government over major state institutions, state owned companies, parastatal bodies and key diplomatic outposts through a ragtag group of political appointees has watered down managerial acumen and sapped efficiency. To crown it all, a cohort of advisors diligently maintains this abject system of governance as their survival depends on preserving the status quo and ensuring that no one upsets the applecart. This can’t go on.
From day 1 into the New Year the people have been jolted by irresponsible government decisions which will worsen the prospects of the country further. Despite a subpar growth rate, a rising current account deficit, a worsening balance of trade and deteriorating economic fundamentals, the Prime Minister has glibly announced in his New Year message that tertiary education will be free in the state university and public institutions as from the start of the 2019 academic year.
This peremptory decision commits hundreds of millions of Rupees of scarce public funds, without any consultations with the stakeholders, the people or the presentation of a White Paper on its modalities and financing for a national debate thereon. This begs the following question: How can a nominated Prime Minister who has not been chosen by the people through a formal plebiscite and vote at the polls arbitrarily decide on such an important national issue having such enormous financial implications? It is a blank cheque for an inefficient allocation of limited public funds. It seems yet another desperate step by government aimed at bolstering its plummeting popularity ahead of the general elections which have to be called by December 2019 as the National Assembly will automatically stand dissolved.
Such a rash decision raises some fundamental questions about the whole education system and tertiary education in particular. The promotion of the tertiary education sector as a new pillar of the economy has privileged quantity rather than quality. A plethora of private institutions has mushroomed across the country offering a broad range of subjects to students whose parents finance their studies through loans or their savings. There does not seem to be any plan to ensure that the qualifications obtained match the requirements of the job market and assure the employment of the qualified young.
More fundamentally, a new approach to education is required. The focus at all levels of the education system must be on quality education, critical thinking and problem solving skills, on how to learn and reflect on and retain concepts or independently search for information and relevant papers on the internet to broaden knowledge through the development of an inquisitive mind. It is about what the student has learnt from his courses. It is about lifelong learning. It does not end with a degree or a job. The quest for knowledge is never ending and its immensity is humbling as the more you learn, the less you know.
At the University the emphasis of research must be on the quality of papers published in relevant specialized publications rather than on quantity. What must be encouraged is quality research and publications which contribute to and broaden the space of knowledge. Teaching is an equally important role within the University which must also be encouraged. The University has above all to be a congenial and vibrant place of learning and research which enables students through their individual learning pathways to become proficient in their respective fields of study and contribute meaningfully as professionals at their work place and the advancement of the country.
In England, university graduates with diverse qualifications including humanities and the sciences are recruited in, for example, the financial services sector which assures their training through a programme of placements and in-house training programmes at the place of work. In line with international norms it is the job of the private or public sector employer to do likewise locally. We should also remember that we must as a society inculcate a culture of work and work ethics among students. They should learn that they have to earn their keep and not expect to obtain everything for free on a platter.
Living beyond one’s means
We can promise the moon to everyone provided the country has the means to do so and can afford it. Good governance above all means responsible good governance and basically cutting one’s coat according to one’s cloth. This time tested principle seems to have been thrown out of the window in so many instances by government over recent years. Government is obviously living beyond its means. Instead of addressing the core problem of bridging the widening inequality in the country by systemic reform and a fairer distribution of the fruits of prosperity, government feeds the people with a host of populist measures which burdens costs without in parallel ensuring a re-engineering of production up the value chain towards higher value added products able to sustain higher costs and boost exports.
The government policy framework also raises interrogations. For example, how does the government Africa policy help the local economy in terms of revenue inflows, employment and quantum of exports? In plain terms, what’s in it for the country?
Fixation with legacy
Are prime ministers of the country bent on contriving a legacy at the expense of public funds instead of a legacy built through their vision and innovative initiatives to boost the prospects of the country, significantly reduce inequalities, create opportunities for all and markedly improve the quality of life of the people? Free education, free transport for the students and the elderly, free exams fees and now free tertiary education in the state university and public institutions, you name it. They are all funded by the people from public funds as the bulk of tax revenue is reaped from VAT, excise and taxes on goods and services. Let the objective scrutiny of history gauge and be the impartial judge of the real legacy of politicians.
The political history of Mauritius showcases so many instances where such pre-electoral inducements have not changed the outcome of elections. Despite the government decision to grant free secondary education in 1976, the Independence Party lost the 1976 general elections. It was saved by a coalition strapped with the Mauritian Social Democrat Party with a two-seat majority. By September 1981 the country was on its knees with a heavy debt burden, high tax and unemployment rates and tottering after two Rupee devaluations in the space of two years. Thousands of government jobs created as a political inducement on the eve of general elections in 1982 did not prevent the rout of the Parti de L’Alliance Nationale.
In another disconcerting development, the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) has undermined its independence by deciding to radically change its stance and take sides at public expense in the case the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) has submitted to the learned guidance and clarification of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council on a number of fundamental legal issues pertaining to the interpretation of some key elements of the law governing the offence of conflict of interests in relation specifically to the Medpoint case.
How can an independent anti-corruption institution financed from public funds which in September 2011 initially lodged the case on grounds of conflict of interests under article 13(2) of the Prevention of Corruption Act of 2002, now radically change its position and engage public funds when the public interest is already being defended by the office of the DPP? Let it be clear. The people want credible answers on this disquieting volte-face and the commitment of public funds on a major issue of public interest which it is best to leave to the wisdom and learned guidance of the Privy Council. These legitimate interrogations of the people will not be silenced.
Government therefore needs to get its priorities right. Government has all the statistics required to frame targeted policies to address the core problems faced by the people or hobbling the economy. For example, 249,400 employees of the private sector or some 54% of the total workforce of 462,860 and 9,200 employees of the public sector earned up to Rs 14,000 per month in 2018 when the household basket of goods cost Rs 29,800. The existential reality and hardships endured by such an important swathe of the population represent one of the real challenges and priorities facing the country. They demand government action and have to be urgently addressed with cogent measures whilst also ensuring the sustainability of the productive sector.
* Published in print edition on 11 January 2019