“The Laureate system is an antiquated system, it belongs to another age, another generation”

Interview: Dr Teeluck Bhuwanee – Educationist

“The rich could not care less about what type of education there is in Mauritius.

They have the means to choose where to educate their children. Which middle class is Pillay talking about?”

“Every year one or other so-called “marginalized” schools will certainly produce a laureate. There is nothing special to celebrate, except that one of these students was able to beat the system”

“Access is not all; equity and quality are even more important. When secondary schools that admit students considered “la crème de la crème” fail or get poor results after 7 years of study, there is something wrong”

Dr Teeluck Bhuwanee has recently returned to Mauritius after having spent some 10 years in UNESCO as a Programme Specialist in the Regional Office in Dakar in 2004. His main mission was to provide strategic planning advice to the member states as well as for strengthening the programming and implementation capacity of the UNESCO Office in Dakar and its personnel. Afterwards he was assigned to Haiti where, following the devastating earthquake there, he helped in rebuilding the education system. He was Registrar of the University of Technology, Mauritius (UTM), Senior Lecturer at MCA and MIE and also Rector for many years. In this interview he gives his candid views on the current educational issues in Mauritius, with no-holds barred comments on the laureate system and the proposed reforms, including Nine-Year schooling.

Mauritus Times: The HSC 2013 results were proclaimed this week and besides the coverage in the print media and on the airwaves of different local radios in relation to their announcement, the celebrations of the laureates at their respective schools occupied almost most of the airtime allotted to the news bulletin of our local TV station last Monday. Critics can of course decry the kind of excessive celebration of competitive elitism that such coverage may represent and foster, but seen from a different perspective it may also be viewed as a just and legitimate celebration of merit and assiduous hard work. What do you think?

Dr Teeluck Bhuwanee: Merit and hard work need to be celebrated but there is limit of decency with regards to such celebration. I was watching TV news on Monday last and I was really overwhelmed with the 40 minutes plus of celebration of the laureates. More than 10,000 students took part in the HSC exams and yet I found it totally insensitive, excessive and showing a total lack of decorum for the news team to devote 40 minutes to some 40 students who became laureates. Just think of the other 10,000 students who could not become a laureate. Just feel their misery and that of their parents who had high hopes that had been dashed. Also think of so many parents who taunt their children for failing them. Also think of those who did not succeed or who got poor grades.

Like the CPE students who are trained and drilled to pass examination papers, HSC students also are drilled into facing these exams. That does not make them super heroes. What MBC-TV could have done would have been to devote a special programme later the same night. The laureates are those who are better prepared to be among the first ones. I still remember in the mid 1970s both the press and the laureates themselves refused to parade or celebrate their “success”. The same or next day, both on TV and radio, I heard some laureates cheekily saying that they MAY not return to Mauritius.

The Laureate system belongs to another age, another generation. In Mauritius we have two State universities that provide courses in practically all subjects – Arts, Humanities, Sciences, Engineering, Medicine, Law, etc. There are also so many tertiary institutions providing higher studies. I don’t see the logic of continuing the laureate system, which I think, is antiquated. There are so many other ways of rewarding our best students. I don’t see why in the second decade of the 21st century, we are promoting an educational system that produces a society where the fittest are seen as those that pass written examinations and who can dominate the more vulnerable in such an inhumane fashion. My understanding is that the HSC-Pro that is being offered by MES will not be part of the laureate system. Does this imply that those who take up the HSC- Pro do not merit the State scholarship because it is not “academic”?

* While it may be argued that the laureate scheme may be viewed as a State-sponsored brain drain — since it is believed that quite a good number, if not most, of the laureates do not come back to serve the country – one could still contend that our education system has served the country well; our “elitist” education system has supplied Mauritius with the leaders, professionals, technocrats and researchers who have driven the country on the road to progress. So what’s wrong with it? Are we paying too high a price for maintaining the status quo?

I don’t agree that our present education system has served the country well. I have yet to see any laureate becoming a major Mauritian star or one of our laureates shining internationally or making major strides in research or contributing to the Mauritian development in a special way. I don’t know if either TEC or MRC or the Universities have carried out studies on the special contribution that our laureates have made in the social and economic development of the country, compared to the others who are non-laureates.

The “elitist” system has certainly produced many professionals and technocrats but I am yet to see the special way they have driven our country to progress. Many of our leaders are those who were not necessarily the best products of our education system. Yes, these professionals have done well, they have developed later in their careers, they have certainly made their respective contributions but I will not give credit for these to our elitist system. On the other hand, if we look at the harm the elitist system has caused, at those who have been sacrificed all the way, with no possibility of a second chance, we certainly are paying a very big price for maintaining the status quo.

* Former Education Minister Kadress Pillay has been saying lately that it’s the “egoistic” middle class – “des forces obscures”, he said — that have conspired against and resisted change, that the government he formed part of was not ready for his reform plan and his 60 Middle Schools. We do not know whether there had indeed been a conspiracy within the then government and from the middle class to shoot down his plan or whether Mr Pillay is looking for a convenient scapegoat, but did it, in your opinion, propose the correct reform package?

I don’t agree that there is any class (as a composite class) that is so “egoistic” and that has so much conspired against change, except probably the richest class in the economic field that does not want to lose its total economic control over the system. In any case, the rich could not care less about what type of education there is in Mauritius. They have the means to choose where to educate their children.

Which middle class is Pillay talking about? The teachers of CPE who will ALWAYS resist getting rid of CPE because of the private tuition that will disappear? I think Kadress Pillay is mistaking a handful of “middle class” civil servants at the ministry as representing the whole of the middle class of the country. Or maybe a group of parents who want the elitist system to persist. Not necessarily the “egoistical middle class”. That is certainly a sweeping generalization. Just as when the leaders of our socio-cultural organisations speak, we should not take the “elected” group at the head of these organisations to represent the followers of the groups they are supposed to represent.

The middle school is a reality in the American system. It has a strong rationale and can be strongly advocated in an American package, with the accompanying community colleges, etc. But you cannot merge one dimension of the American system in a purely British system that has strong historical roots in a very traditional Mauritian society. Kadress Pillay may have been convinced about the “middle school” in the Mauritian context but I am not sure he was able to convince the Mauritian people. His own staff in the ministry was not convinced even though they accompanied him on his pilgrimage throughout the country to talk about the “middle school”. The same staff at the Ministry of Education that accompanied Pillay, then supported Steve Obeegadoo, later Dharam Gokhool, and now Vasant Bunwaree.

* To come back to this question of the “egoistic” middle class, it must be the aspiration of all sections of Mauritian society, whether the rich, the less rich and the poor, to get their wards admitted to the best schools which, they hope, will pave the way to higher education, here or abroad, the finality of which would be a secure future. It may not always be a question of financial means to pay for private tuitions; it has a lot to do also with personal sacrifices, ‘encadrement parental’… Why should they be penalized for entertaining such aspirations? For the sake of political correctness, or should we say social correctness?

I agree that it is the legitimate aspiration of all parents to obtain the best that the system offers. At present, the best is the “laureate”. As a pittance, some additional scholarships are also offered to those so-called meritorious students. However, the bottom-line is maintaining the status quo. Education functions to maintain the transmission of norms and values in society. These norms and values are those that we have not really questioned since independence. It is still the same colonial heritage that we have only tinkered with by adding some Mauritian history, Mauritian geography and some local contextual references. We are still in a structural Functionalist mode believing that the transmission of norms and values through the system should remain that of an elite. The notion of meritocracy can be put into question as there are doubts about the ability of the school to grade people in terms of their abilities. This is because there are so many factors that affect educational achievement. Moreover, there are very weak links between income, occupational rewards and academic achievements. Finally, instead of promoting efficient grading and selection of people in terms of their abilities, the social stratification system is in itself a barrier for achievement.

On the other hand, the problem does not lie within the school system only but also in the economic infrastructure. The education system can only be reformed through revolutionary changes in the economic infrastructure itself. If we use Merton’s typology of adaptations we can see that the way in which pupils deal with their school life depends on whether they accept or reject the aim of academic success and its norms to achieve them. Pupils who do well are those who conform to the norms of the schools. Those that reject the goals of education are not concerned about achieving academic success or gaining teachers’ approval. Others develop more deviant adaptations and reject both the goals and means laid down by the school, but without outright rebellion. They pass time by daydreaming during lessons but do not consciously try to oppose the values of the school. Other pupils are indifferent to school rules, academic success and reject accepted standards of behaviour. They are less afraid to hide their deviance. Finally those that don’t do well reject both goals and means and their replacement by alternatives.

The notion of “best” schools is primarily a variable of the school intake – the socio-economic status of the students when they join school. Another study that needs to be made is to explain why other than the “best” schools, laureates are “obtained” elsewhere. “Une hirondelle ne fait pas le printemps,” they say. Every year one or other so-called “marginalized” schools will certainly produce a laureate. There is nothing special to celebrate, except that one of these students was able to beat the system.

* Even if some progress has been achieved over the years in terms of access to both tertiary and secondary education and more and more schools are gradually joining the club of the “star” performers, most of the educational reforms initiated by past governments have only succeeded in maintaining the status quo. Why is that so? Did they address the wrong questions?

If you understand by “progress” the pass percentage of students at examinations, then yes, the authorities may boast that educational reforms are bearing their fruits. Dr Barteman, the first director of education, appointed in 1901, published a report in 1923 with the following concluding paragraph: “Schools exist in Mauritius and cannot now be closed, but they were better closed than remain monuments of wasted money and useless energy, where children are looked after, perhaps kept out of mischief, but certainly not educated.” (Ramdoyal, 1977, p.117). Is this not a fair description of some of our schools in Mauritius, a hundred years later? Access is not all; equity and quality are even more important. When secondary schools that admit students considered “la crème de la crème” fail or get poor results after 7 years of study, there is something wrong.

* We have often found ourselves stuck in deep marsh down the years with futile debates on admission criteria, A+ or ranking, medium of instruction, reserved seats, etc., and altogether forgotten the fundamental question that should perhaps be addressed: the kind of student profile of the school leaver or of the university graduate that the market, both local and global, is looking forward to in this age of the globalised economy. Would that be a good starting point for any reform initiative?

Any reform initiative should have the following three thrusts:

– What constitutes a quality basic education? I am not referring to primary, lower or upper secondary education as presently conceived. As you rightly mention, we need to view the exit profile of the student who completes a basic education. We need to look at the pedagogy, curriculum and assessment that accompany that “basic” education.

– Basic education is a cycle and needs to be viewed in a holistic perspective, ensuring that it is inclusive, coherent and seamless

– The development of a skills and competency based integrated curriculum framework to the expectations and needs of ALL children and Mauritian youth as a basis for lifelong learning.

* What about Minister Bunwaree’s Nine-Year Schooling proposals, which have been formulated in the wake of the ‘Assises de l’Education’ on the theme “Preparing our Children for Life” organised by the Ministry of Education and Human Resources. Would you say Mr Bunwaree’s plan addresses the crucial issues?

We have hardly heard anything about the nine-year schooling proposals. A high level Committee (probably the same people who worked for Pillay, Obeegadoo, Gokhool and Bunwaree) is apparently working on these proposals. As for the Assises, the findings, conclusion and recommendations were that CPE will be reviewed (possibly with continuous assessment, inclusion of PE and Arts for certification, abolition of A+ Grade and admission to National Colleges after Form III), curricular relevance will be ensured, innovative initiatives will be embedded to consolidate quality learning, holistic development will be catered for and so on.

I see the same things being mentioned over and over again and I am not convinced that anything drastic will change. All these were issues that had been mentioned in the Master Plan on Education in the late 1990s. 23 years later the same recommendations have been made. Unless there is a radical rethinking and restructuring of the whole system, reviewing the aims and objectives of the present education provision and having a clear view of the profile of the school leaver, all these recommendations will be a waste of time for the different committees set up to revamp the system. Ironically, in the Assises, all that is mentioned about preparing the students for the world of work is “giving a new push to TVET”. This is a joke.

* More buildings to house schools would have no doubt improved access, but about the teaching and learning processes that take place inside the classrooms? Would Mr Pillay’s plan or that of Mr Obeegadoo or of Mr Gokhool have made a difference to what the system has been put up to deliver?

I agree with you that what matters most in the system is what goes on in the classroom. The Regional Directorate and the Zoning system were set up to bring the ministry closer to the grassroots and to be the ears and eyes of the Ministry. Unfortunately they remain the rubber stamp of the Ministry; Headquarters don’t want to lose power, and the regional directorate does not want to either empower rectors or teachers. This attitude of Big Brother does not allow for more initiatives and innovation at school level.

PTAs are seen as primarily helping the school financially. Members of PTAs are not trained to run their association and in some cases are either shunned or feared. I am not aware if, as in other countries, PTAs have clear rules and regulations governing them and whether a member of the PTA knows his or her roles and responsibilities.

On the other hand, teachers don’t have the impression of being considered as the MOST important element of the educational chain. Feedback from my courses at the university with teachers tells me that teachers feel that policies are all the time imposed on them and they often have no say in policy decision. They get a little training here and there, like the one-day training given to some teachers on the use of electronic tablets and they are supposed to train other teachers in their school. Who cares about the teachers?

* * *

On the UNESCO Assignment/ The UNESCO Assignment

I joined UNESCO as a consultant in 2000 but was eventually appointed as a Programme Specialist in the Regional Office in Dakar in 2004. For some 5 years, I was responsible for the programme implementation of Secondary, Technical and Vocational, and Science and Technology Education in the 46 member states of UNESCO in sub-Saharan Africa. My main mission was to provide strategic planning advice to the member states as well as for strengthening the programming and implementation capacity of the UNESCO Office in Dakar and its personnel. During this time I reviewed the education policies of many member states that asked for our advice and funding and also made recommendations to the authorities for improving education provision at different levels. In this connection, I initiated the BEAP (Basic Education for Africa Programme) a UNESCO Programme that focuses on access, quality, relevance and equity in an expanded basic education framework, promoting a 9-10 years free and uninterrupted basic education of quality, linked to additional two years of pre-school education (ECE). More information can be found at the following website (http://www.unesco.org/new/en/dakar/education/basic-education-in-africa-programme/). I am happy that our Minister of Education may be inspired by this Programme in his proposal of 9 year schooling in Mauritius.

* * *


After Dakar, I was in Haiti for 2 years (the maximum time that UNESCO allows its officers to be in post in post-disaster countries) and I am still tormented by the major earthquake that caused the death of some 250,000 people and other catastrophic consequences. I still suffer from traumatic recollections of Zombie-like Haitians running amok in the streets of Port au Prince. I was the Head of Office there and also UNESCO representative working with the Haitian authorities not only in the reconstruction of the education system there but also in the safeguard of culture. In the aftermath of the devastating earthquake that hit Haiti’s capital, Port-Au-Prince, on January 12th, 2010, the magnitude of human suffering and loss was overwhelming.

All that was compounded by the legacy of colonial exploitation and postcolonial mendacity. It was also the culmination of the grim chain of human-induced events that tumbled recklessly, one after another, exacerbating the disaster. There can be no doubt that Haiti’s losses are deep, and the artists and arts community have suffered and are still suffering in ways that have not been adequately represented. In the midst of staggering death, UNESCO had to assist in restoring destroyed paintings, murals, sculptures, and old books: many of these were irreparable or irretrievable. As one Haitian artist interviewed by the New York Times, Patrick Villaire, stated plaintively, “The dead are dead, we know that. But if you don’t have the memory of the past, the rest of us can’t continue living.” Unfortunately I could not stay long enough to supervise the reconstruction of Haiti, its education and culture.

Later in 2010, I was transferred to Bonn, Germany where I was Head of Office and later the Head of the UNESCO-UNEVOC Network, consisting of some 288 Centres in some 165 countries. This network is the only network of Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) institutions with a global outreach that links and fosters interaction and learning among diverse institutions of TVET stakeholders around the world. Incidentally, Mauritius has 2 UNEVOC centres, based at the MITD and the Ministry of Education but I am sad to say that apart from attending meetings and making presentations, the Mauritian Heads of the Centres have not made use of the full potential of the Network. I also deplore the fact that no major attempt has been made to integrate work and education in Mauritius.

There is a huge chasm between employability and learning in Mauritius and MITD should have been able to propose a better interfacing between formal education and training. Unfortunately, the 2 sectors namely education and training run parallel and it will take a long time to change mentalities. The world leaders are putting TVET and training of their young people as highest on their agenda but in Mauritius TVET remains a second choice. Rather than spend more resources on linking education and learning with the world of work and the related training that goes with it, we have a YEP (Youth Employment Programme) that aims to provide some employment opportunities for school and university leavers for a limited period of time. All reports on employment in Mauritius have shown clearly that what is not right is the fact that formal education and in some cases even training, is not directly correlated with employability.


* Published in print edition on 7 February 2014

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