Konrad Morgan, former Vice Chancellor, UOM

Interview: Konrad Morgan, former Vice Chancellor, UOM

“You cannot expect an organization to radically change its behaviour unless you also change
its organizational structure”

Professor Konrad Morgan, an academic with an excellent record and vast experience as Vice-Chancellor in several universities, left his post in Canada to come and take charge of the University of Mauritius (UOM) as its VC. He was selected after a rigorous exercise, through video-conferencing, by a panel whose expertise, competence and international exposure and involvement spanned a comprehensive range. During his short tenure he came to be appreciated for his mature and balanced approach to UOM matters, and this was reflected in the major restructuring plan which he had championed. He had to leave under most unjust circumstances, and Mauritius has missed a singular opportunity for concrete reform by his departure. What follows are his views on the events
that culminated in regretted exit. 

* Newspaper reports relating to your departure would suggest that you could not take it anymore – I mean the overbearing political interference with or supervision of your Vice-Chancellorship of the UOM. Is that correct?

While I remained Vice-Chancellor, I was the official spokesperson for the University and so was unable to speak in my personal name. Now that I have ceased to occupy the post I feel compelled to put the record straight because I have seen so many misleading statements about my reasons for resigning.

I wish therefore to make it clear that the timing of the PMO’s intervention to remove the members of UOM Council while Council had initiated the statutory 14-day legal period to vote on amending the University Statutes was, in my opinion, such a violation of the autonomy of the University and the authority of UOM Council that my position as Vice-Chancellor was no longer tenable.

The principle of autonomy for a University with respect to its own governance is widely recognized worldwide as an essential prerequisite for academic freedom, to enable the institution to pursue the advancement of knowledge without external restrictions or influence. This principle was recognized by the authors of the UOM Act during the birth of the Republic. If you read the UOM Act it is clear that the founders of the Republic had a vision of a National University for Mauritius which would grow into a regional flagship institution of higher learning with all the rights and powers enjoyed by the best Universities worldwide. Taking centre stage among these rights and powers is the autonomy of the institution to determine its own destiny under the direction of a supreme governance body, the Council.

This principle of University Autonomy is not some arbitrary whim. It is based on nearly a thousand years of direct experience of interference on institutions of higher learning by religious institutions and governments which have sought to limit the advancement of knowledge or to divert it in specific directions for their own ends. So profound and universal is the recognition of the need for University Autonomy in its Governance that the European Union has stated it as an essential right for Universities. Indeed leading Universities worldwide take great pride in stating their institutions undertaking to abide to the Magna Charta of the European Universities – a document governed by the ancient universities of Europe and espousing their autonomy in terms of Governance, free from external interference or influence that might pervert the free advancement of knowledge.

* In more universities than one, tradition has it that the Vice-Chancellor, who is expected to have the best interests of the University at heart, has the last word as regards the orientation and upkeep of the campus, concurrently with the Senate and/or Council. Is this tradition applicable in the case of the UOM?

At the UOM the VC implements the decisions of Council and Council is the supreme decision making body as per the UOM Act.

* Did you have to compromise beyond the acceptable limit for you to have no alternative than to give up your job so promptly?

As I have indicated earlier, the intervention by the Prime Minister’s Office to remove the Council members while they were in the legal 14-day statutory period to amend the UOM Statutes made, in my opinion, such a mockery of the supposed autonomy of the Institution and the supposed authority of Council that I, as a professional academic, had absolutely no alternative but to tender my resignation.

In the UOM Act, the Council has the legal right to change its own Statutes and it does this by calling a Statutory 14-day notice period to make everyone aware that Council is electing to use its supreme legal right of self-determination and change its own Statutes. To directly intervene and remove Council members to prevent them from exercising their right to self-determination during this 14-day statutory notice period is similar in some ways to removing a High Court judge just before they come to a legal judgment on a case because we fear we may not like their ruling.

* Your unexpected departure has cast a lot of doubt about the sincerity of the public agenda to make the University deliver what the country needs from it. To what extent can you say that you had obtained unqualified support from all concerned parties to deliver on that agenda?

I will be very frank and say that I recognize that there was and remains a great deal of frustration from some external stakeholders that UOM does not behave or perform in a way that conforms with many of the expectations of Government policy related to Mauritius becoming a regional knowledge hub. If one looks at the Government educational policy from a decade ago, it is clearly stated that they were seeking for the Tertiary Sector to become a vibrant part of a knowledge and innovation island.

The simple truth is that you cannot expect an organization to radically change its behaviour unless you also change its organizational structure to reflect the behavioural changes that you desire in that organization. The UOM Council must have recognised this when they assigned me the task of restructuring the University in June 2010 and approved the restructuring plan in principle during their meeting in August 2011. I can honestly state that I never had any doubt of the full support of Council right up until they were removed.

* In addition to the public agenda that the University should pursue, it looks as if it is severely constrained by certain private interests involving different interests within the University itself – academic as well as non-academic — which are in conflict with each other and with the goals that the UOM should set for itself. Has conflict management in this respect failed to the point of threatening the very tenure of the office of VC?

I agree that it is shame when private interests are allowed to overwhelm and divert what should be the legitimate governance of a state-funded institution.

* A general feeling prevails that the University has not embarked on adequate relevant research of social and related issues to make its impact on the social and economic development of Mauritius felt in any significant manner down the years. If that is true, would it be because of insufficient or weak resources made available to the University for the purpose or simply due to other transcending personal pursuits of potential researchers dwarfing the focus that the University should have had on this kind of research?

Certainly when I first arrived at UOM, I had meetings with all staff and the primary request to me was to improve the capital investment for teaching and research. In response, I made some of the largest capital investments for teaching and research in the history of the institution (for example Rs90 M in 2011 in comparison to an average of Rs 9 M per year for the past decade).

I also introduced changes to the annual research week to provide Rs 1 M to every faculty to try and encourage every academic to have their own projects funded without any favouritism regarding disciplines, as I was very aware that funding in the past had been rather selectively allocated. I am hopeful that this will start a process of increasing grass root research provided that these initiatives are continued.

* Can we, as a small country with limited resources and without writing off what has been achieved already by the University in the past, really aspire to join the ranks of performing universities at the global level? For example, can we push the limits of research in particular fields of our interest, as the University of Singapore does, to be in a global lead position in particular domains close to us?

I am confident that UOM can become a regional flagship institution but there are constraints which would need to be addressed. During my tenure, UOM made it into the top 20 best Universities in Africa (as ranked by the Spanish Research Council) and hopefully future VCs will improve on this performance.

* Are there any preconditions to be in that league?

I actually think the UOM should focus first on getting every staff member to be active as a researcher before they seriously explore ambitions to international excellence. Otherwise you will create different tiers of academics and that can reduce the social cohesion within an institution which I believe is more important than simple world rankings.

* Is the university faced with competition from inside acting as a catalyst for it to do even better than private competing institutions? Or, would the university be better off if it could occupy the entire space in the tertiary sector without such competition?

As I often said at public events during my tenure as VC, I believe that UOM has a unique role as a public good. In such a role it does not compete with any other institution instead it serves the people of Mauritius. For profit institutions will come and set up in Mauritius while times are good but will leave the island during harder financial circumstances. The UoM will remain in good and bad financial times and should, in my opinion, seek to serve a higher purpose for the people of Mauritius.

* What are your personal views about making Mauritius a Knowledge Hub? Have the right conditions been set for us to be able to attain that objective?

In terms of the national aspirations to become a knowledge hub, I think there would need to be a significant increase in the percentage of GDP allocated to higher education twinned with a significant commitment from a multinational company to make Mauritius the research and development (R & D) centre for one segment of its products. This international investment from a multinational to locate its R & D in Mauritius would transform Mauritius in the same way that mobile phones transformed the economies of Sweden and Finland.

In terms of attracting large numbers of international students to come to Mauritius, I think the Mauritian Government needs to have high level discussions with the research councils of the Nordic nations to encourage them to set up South/South scholarships for students from Africa to come to Mauritius to obtain world class education and then return to their own countries to improve African long term development. This initiative would be attractive to the Nordic nations as a way to improve the effectiveness of their educational development funding for Africa (because at present most scholarship holders come to European countries to study and then remain in Europe). Under a South/South scheme the students would be much more likely to return to their home countries after their studies. Even if such a scholarship scheme worked for only 5 years, it would firmly establish Mauritius as an international study destination.

* It is said that with a view to increase enrolment at the University, quality is being sacrificed at the expense of quantity – for example, enrolment eligibility has been brought down. Is that true?

This would be a study that the academics could perform themselves to determine the answer. If the answer was positive, then they would have empirical evidence that could be presented to TEC and the Ministry to change the situation.

* Do you believe that education at any level should be a commercial product guided by the rules of market competition or should it be tailored to meet more noble objectives of society, abstracting from commercial and lucrative pursuits?

My personal belief is that Higher Education is the single most important national investment that a country can make for its own people and for its long term future. Unlike other national investments there is no immediate discernible impact as might be seen in terms of new roads, hospitals or infrastructure. However the changes that are made in the young people who have studied at a good University provide a lasting constructive influence of intelligence, tolerance and justice that permeates all aspects of society, from business through to personal and family life. Higher Education is the cornerstone for any society that aims for positive improvement in itself and its relation to the wider international community.

Higher Education provides both a regular resource of highly skilled new graduates each year and a research and innovation capability that can serve national and regional needs. But beyond these quite practical interests Higher Education can and should serve a much more profound purpose in the deep transformation that it can make on future generations in terms of their attitudes, behaviours and expectations for the society they will help create.

Plato and many in the original academy argued for a form of education where the student was guided to ask questions and answer them in such a way that knowledge and learning was a journey of self discovery. I would argue that good education has a focus on learning and self discovery as well as the acquisition of skills that might be essential to training for a specific career. Too often education has become the puppet to pure commercial interests when instead it should be the single most influential social mechanism for improving individuals and collectively for improving nations.

When education is done badly it mirrors the worst aspects of bureaucracy, when done well it allows each student to learn not just about an area of knowledge but also about themselves and their strengths and weaknesses. As such good education should not just be about exams, tests, fees and graduations. It should also be about providing individuals with access to experiences that expand their social skills, show them the values that lead to positive growth and give them the knowledge and skills to thrive in their chosen future career.

* Published in print edition on 16 March 2012

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