The Government should ensure that its intentions expressed in the Government Programme be clearly grasped by the University of Mauritius and not given short shrift
By Sada Reddi
In the course of our history, State initiative, entrepreneurial investment and knowledge institutions have been the formula for success in the rough seas of our economic development. So when the University of Mauritius set up a Faculty of Ocean Studies in 2014 to support the Blue Economy, this was undoubtedly a step in the right direction. However, to our surprise, a search on the website of the University shows that the Faculty has disappeared and it has dwindled to the level of a department in the Faculty of Science. This is indeed a preposterous and myopic decision, and one can only hope that the University revises its decision and set up anew a full-fledged Faculty to give its full support for the Blue Economy agenda.
The Government Programme 2019-2024 has reiterated its intention to develop further the Blue Economy. It intends to come up among others with a Unified Regulatory Framework, an Offshore Petroleum Bill, a Seabed Mineral Bill and also aims to set up a Marine Biotechnology hub. It also hopes to develop a sustainable aquaculture and fishing industry through training for semi-industrial and industrial fisheries and skills enhancement of artisanal fishers.
It was in 2012 that the government launched the Blue Economy project to tap the vast resources of our 2.4 million kilometres of our Exclusive Economic Zone. In 2013, a roadmap was prepared to consolidate the existing sectors and develop emerging ones such as marine biotechnology, aquaculture and renewable energy. The Mauritius Oceanographic Institute initiated several projects; international conferences and local workshops were organized on the ocean economy. In line with government’s policy, the University of Mauritius decided to set up the Faculty of Ocean studies.
Why did it then downgrade the faculty to the level of a department is unknown. All we know is that there was a lonely protest by the student representative that was simply ignored. The university may have had valid reasons for doing so in light of the findings of its feasibility study on the relevance of the faculty, but this is very surprising to us. One of the arguments that could have been put forward was that the students were not interested in this area, and the Faculty had to close down.
Such an approach is like the trader who gave up his shoe trade in a village where people did not wear shoes whereas another one saw it as an opportunity to motivate people to do so and developed a flourishing business.
Or it could have been the result of the internal politics within the institution which most often kill initiatives and frustrate the staff, or the result of simply a cost-benefit approach which decided where the axe had to strike. We should also not exclude the possibility that academics too might have caught the virus from politicians which consists in simply erasing the legacy of their predecessors – which I hope it is not.
However that decision was reached, the government and the concerned Ministry will be very unhappy for it will cast some of the policy decisions in the Government Progamme in a bad light and make them look ridiculous. It is a well accepted fact that knowledge gained from all sources, organized, processed and absorbed and used by society is critical for the development of any society and this applies to industrial development as well.
In the past, our industries had been set up thanks to initiatives taken by the State and a few private entrepreneurs; however they were all eventually sustained by research and educational institutions.
The British Colonial government encouraged planters to focus on sugarcane cultivation and sugar production; it provided them access to the British market for selling their sugar. Later it found it necessary to set up a Department of Agriculture, then a College of Agriculture, and later the MSIRI was created to sustain the sugar industry.
Without the expertise developed by these institutions, the sugar industry would not have been able to meet all the challenges it encountered in its long history. Only recently, in a newspaper article, Dr Jean Claude Autrey reminded us of how Dr John Rhys Williams, an entomologist working at the MSIRI, saved the sugar industry in 1977-78 from a cane disease in a environmentally-friendly way.
Take any of the sectors which had been developed in the island: could they have been sustained without the contribution of educational and research institutions even when they also sourced their knowledge from abroad? Can we think of tourism during its critical phase without the contribution of Ecole Hôtelière Sir Gaëtan Duval?
Developing a knowledge base has formed part of our model of sustainable economic development whatever sector we look at – be it banking, finance, tourism offshore, etc. It is therefore important that a full-fledged faculty of ocean studies be reinstated and further developed. One may argue that the different faculties and departments are all tackling some aspects of the Blue Economy. This cannot be denied. The economic aspect is being taken care by the economics department, security by the department of international relations and logistics by the faculty of management, but there is as yet no coordination between these different departments on the Blue Economy. There have been so far one or two international conferences with Mauritian participation and one or two workshops, but no structure for coordination and consultations at the University of Mauritius itself and with the private sector.
Some of the new areas of the Blue Economy require a vast amount of research, and very much more needs to be done over and above what is being done at the Oceanography Institute. A department with five or six academics, with two or three undergraduate programmes and two or three master’s programmes is grossly inadequate to support our ambition to make the Blue Economy a pillar of our ocean state. We need a bigger faculty, more academics and t massive investments if we want to make great strides in this area.
Dr Rhys Williams was not a Mauritian; he was recruited by the Colonial Agricultural Services and later employed by the MSIRI in 1957. There may be a number of Mauritians or other researchers abroad who could be recruited to beef up the faculty, but it is up to the University of Mauritius to decide whether it should make the faculty a priority. Further, the Government should ensure that its intentions expressed in the Government Programme be clearly grasped by the University of Mauritius and not given short shrift.
* Published in print edition on 7 February 2020