“Our peace dividend should be optimised to make Mauritius move higher up”

Interview: Prof V. Chinapah, Stockholm University — 

‘We cannot separate societal reforms from educational reform…

because education is part and parcel of the reform of the type of the society you are aiming to put in place’

* ‘If we look at our education system from a pyramidal perspective, we’ll see a lot of educational wastage down there’

Several governments have come and gone, speaking about the necessity to have an education system which delivers and becomes an essential building block for our economy, our enlightened social evolution and our place in the world. Yet, we appear to be continuing all the same, without making the necessary breakthroughs, adapting to the changing global environment and giving ourselves the standing and reputation of a recognized centre of learning. We may not go too far on this track. This means the country’s educational system may be caught napping when it should have made extraordinary efforts to become truly productive. Caught in this trap, what can we do now? We’ve asked Professor V Chinapah, a Mauritian who heads and holds the Chair of the Institute of International Education in the Stockholm University, why we seem to be stagnating and what are the ingredients we should chase up to make the required headway for a productive education system adapted to our needs and to the global society. Prof Chinapah delivered the keynote address at last week’s Diaspora international conference, organised by the MGI.

* Governments come and go, and each government which comes up goes about undoing or reforming whatever the previous one had done. When you, as an educationist, talk of reform, what does it entail and where does it start? And when is it really the time to initiate reform of an education system?

There is a fundamental piece of thought that one has to reflect upon before undertaking any reform process: reform is not just small changes and innovations, reforms have to do with the vision of the new society you are creating; it means that you have societal challenges like creating a knowledge society and to liberate our people for nation building. Reforms come sometimes after one and two decades; so, you do not have what we have seen in many places: bits and pieces rearranged here and there. It is mostly about societal needs that call for change – I mean fundamental and structural change.

Education is the instrument either to create the needs for reform or to support the reform. We cannot separate societal reforms from educational reform, because education is part and parcel of the reform of the type of the society you are aiming to put in place. When we talk of fundamental change, it can mean different things: moving from a monoculture to a more diversified economy. You can call upon the education sector to support the transition towards industrialisation, or towards what is increasingly being talked about in many places, including Mauritius – the Knowledge Society.

When we talk about a Knowledge Society, then we have to know what type and form of delivery system you need to put in place in order to respond to the needs of that Knowledge Society in terms of new skills and competencies, which obviously would differ depending upon what is it you are manufacturing or what are the processes different sectors would require.

Another aspect which any educational reform will have to take into account is about how the world around us is faring. We cannot have national reform without looking beyond our shores at what’s happening at the global level. The need for catching up with globalisation cannot be under-stated since we are now defining ourselves in today’s world in terms of global citizens, not national citizens anymore. That is why it has been rightly argued that we have to think globally and act locally. We cannot afford today to think only locally.

These are in the main the two pillars for reform though there may be many other dimensions to the reform process. But reform should certainly not be about mere simple changes and innovations.

* You spoke about ‘Educational Reforms and the 3 Es: Equity – Excellence – Efficiency’ at the Mauritian Diaspora, last week. How do you rate Mauritius’ education system – from primary to tertiary levels – on the basis of the 3 Es?

We have done a lot when it comes to Equity. For example, Mauritius ranks quite high on many global indicators, say with regard to gender parity where we are doing really quite well compared to the rest of the world. We are nearly at the same level as Europe and North America in relation to gender issues. We have also done quite well towards reducing regional disparities: Mauritius does not have the marked difference as regards the rural-urban divide, which can been seen in big countries such as India and China.

When it comes to Efficiency, there we have some problem. With only 8 out of 10 primary school children who make it at their exams, there is here a problem. Secondly, we are not being able to absorb all our HSC graduates. There is therefore a lot of work to do on the score of efficiency. If we look at it from a pyramidal perspective, we’ll see a lot of educational wastage down there.

On Excellence, here also we have a lot to do. We were supposed to be have excellent universities, but we rank very low among the world’s universities. We do not have any Mauritian university which comes amongst the 500 best in the world. It means there is a long way to go as regards Excellence.

To sum up, we have achieved quite well as regards Equity. As for Efficiency, we will hopefully do better with the Nine-year schooling system. As for Excellence, it’s quite of a challenge for most countries of the world when it comes to education: how to bring up the whole system – from primary and secondary up to university to world-class level. When we talk of world-class, it means becoming a top rank human resource delivery country that will produce competencies that can match with those from the US, Canada, UK and such others. This does not unfortunately appear to be the case presently.

* Why are we unable to do that?

Because it would appear to me that the focus presently is more about the massification of higher education due in the main to the big demand from lots of people who want to pursue higher education. In that process, there is no guarantee that quality is being taken into consideration. There should be some loopholes that need to be fixed. The thing to remember however is that if you do not produce “quality”, you will have problems in the future.

Quality should become our logo. Mauritius is indeed very attractive to the international community because of its bilingualism, political stability, democracy – most of the necessary ingredients to enhance the attractiveness of the country are there, but the sad thing is that we cannot talk in terms of high “quality” when it comes to the tertiary education sector.

* Given what obtains in Mauritius presently in the tertiary education sector, putting up an education hub is going to prove a tall order?

The will to achieve that objective is no doubt there, but that’s not enough. We cannot talk about education hub without preparing our own people, for we cannot depend only on others to do that for us. It appears to me that the thinking here is that we are going to outsource people from elsewhere for that purpose. I think that’s a wrong approach. Because then you are just trying to put up a hub in Mauritius without building local capacity to address the needs and demands that countries in Africa and from many parts of the world are looking for.

The peace dividend that Mauritius possesses is something that one needs to exploit as much as possible. We are a country of peace; we do not have a rocking budget for defence like so many places elsewhere which are spending loads of money for defence. This peace dividend should be optimised to make Mauritius move higher up. This advantage, I am afraid, is not being adequately utilised.

Moreover, I think we suffer from a lack of self-esteem; we tend to look down upon ourselves when the situation demands that we should look up and aim higher. We possess many elements that have contributed to making who we are today. As I was telling many young students the other day, we are amongst the best in many fields, but we don’t seem to appreciate that. We seem instead to lack confidence in ourselves, in our scholars. We do not trust our scholars; we do not have an environment and a culture to promote our own research capacity, our innovation capacity. We buy or borrow from elsewhere and we want to become an education hub – that’s a very fundamental contradiction.

* Can the Mauritian Diaspora be tapped for that purpose?

Of course, the Mauritian Diaspora is the key to unlock our potentialities. The Mauritian diaspora will give a totally different assessment of the system. This is because we, working in different environments as members of the Diaspora, are competing at an international level; we are always confronting our counterparts from everywhere else and we keep an open mind to judge how good we actually are. As we come across others in the field, we get the opportunity to see all that needs to be done to match up to them. It is a fact that once Mauritians are abroad and live in the realities of those external environments, they make the necessary efforts to excel and come up to the level of their global peers. Unfortunately, many who are brilliant outside develop a tendency to lose all of it once back home. It is important to overcome this handicap.

* Why do they get lost in the system?

Because the system has other elements that make you ‘de-learn’; you rapidly get ‘de-educated’. That is the problem we are facing in Mauritius. When you get into the system, you see some key people going up the ladder and they do not deserve to be where they are. That has implications at delivery points for the system as a whole because inherent contradictions then warp up the whole system.

* To come back to the three Es, achieving Equity, Excellence and Efficiency all at the same time or even Equity and Efficiency concurrently may prove an uphill task for most countries. Such should also prove to be the case for a country like Mauritius, given the social context and the limited resources at its disposal, isn’t it?

I will not agree that we have limited resources; we have an abundance of resources in fact but we are not exploiting our resources optimally. But we can refer the 3 Es to countries like China. It is a big country and nobody knew that China would be the way it has become now judging it from what the system was in the past. I have been there for the past 35 years. I know how China was 35 years ago and where China stands today and why.

China is already the best among the emerging countries of the world not only economically but even in terms of scholarly work. They are now the top rank in research and innovation. And it is not the size but the commitment the Chinese are making which accounts for the difference. They have the same ingredients we have: stability, going for excellence, being very efficient and they know that in order to survive they have to compete with the best. And I’ll say we also have all the necessary pre-requisites to compete because we inherently have the best potential to forge ahead.

* What is required to unlock the system here in Mauritius?

The system has locked itself and it is going on doing business as usual while the world outside is already embarking on another agenda. There is a need for us to quickly become part and parcel of the global village or the global world. We are not making the breakthrough because we have always assumed that others on the other side are better than us. We have not allowed ourselves to be exposed to these so-called competitions, participating in research with different countries, building teams around us by being in the driving seat. Yes, we are not in the driving seat, unfortunately; others are driving us instead. That is what I was saying: think locally and act locally.

* We do not have the same ambition as them?

The potential to excel is there but when you are exploiting it we start thinking like in the colonial days. We are thinking that there they are better and that we would be inferior. Not true.

In every sector we have a lack of trust in ourselves and in the Mauritians’ capacity to perform and scale unexplored heights. We prefer to do business with somebody else. There is a discrepancy in the world order which has remained the same for too long. With the exception of the emerging economies, which are coming at the top by focussing on their inherent talents. The Chinese did not think of anybody else but about themselves. And they are doing everything from inside.

* Countries like Finland or Singapore are held up as success stories in view of the results and efficiencies that their educational systems produce. Finland is said to be “consistently one of the highest performing developed countries on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), an important tool for measuring education systems worldwide”. Can Mauritius achieve the same results merely by replicating the Finland model, or does it require more than a copy-and paste exercise?

In undertaking educational reform, it is very damaging to copy-and paste, but you can learn from each other. We have to know why Finland excels. 15 years ago, Finland was learning from Sweden but Finland became so good because they realised that education was one of the key factors to make them a competitive society. They gave a lot of priority to this most important pillar, fostering good quality education and employing excellent teachers to implement it. Finland pays teachers better than anywhere else in the world. Finland has a very tough recruitment and selection process for teachers, which is so different from the rest of the world.

In the rest of the world you become a teacher as a second choice. In Finland there is competition, you have what we call the localisation of the school affairs. The school determines and the teacher leads. The teacher chooses the curriculum and the textbooks and there is nothing that is centralised. Another very important element in Finland is that it is a very homogenous society and all around the world, no one speaks Finnish. So the Finnish realised that for survival, they have to be very good and on top. All these factors have come together and made Finland what it is. The same goes for Singapore. It is small and it has to survive the big powers surrounding it. The Singaporeans are good but there is a difference between the Singaporean and Finnish students in that the Finnish students have a so-called different way of studying, learning and assessing and in critical thinking. In Singaporean, by contrast, students are very good in mathematics and science but that’s all. And that is the limitation that they are confronted with compared to the Finns.

And we Mauritians we are very close to the Singaporean model. Good and excellent in rote learning but not as good in critical thinking which the other system has. But do not forget that Finland is not the only one; China also is becoming the leading place for a good education system. Shanghai is going up in PISA rating; so Finland risks losing the front rank it has occupied so far.

* I understand that you as well as Surendra Bissoondoyal have been talking about 9-year schooling since at least the 1980s. What we have in place today is a system that is based on 14 years of schooling as from primary level. Why do we need to go for 9 years of schooling?

I would say that researchers working in the educational system in Mauritius have already signalled that long time ago. For example we have seen that 9-year schooling was a necessity in the Mauritian context because the school has become, through the CPE and other associated systems, an agent of inequality. Through the rat race that we have had, students are too young to go into the race. They have a lot of scope to improve but they are already doomed to failure at such an early stage. Yet, we know that through all the sciences and philosophies of education, you need time to have more maturity to excel. The child who did not succeed at Standard 6 can excel in Form 3. So they need maturity, time and feedback along with a system of continuous assessments. So we should not go exams-crazy.

But we are talking of the children of the 21st century and they need to know so many skills and competencies whereas our system is still stalling. We are talking about the Knowledge Society; the 9-year schooling can only be successful if the intention is to have greater equity. It implies that once you complete the nine-year schooling you will have access to post and upper secondary education in this country or nearly the same quality of access at higher levels. So it is a universalisation of secondary education that comes as an effective remedy.

Secondly, we need to have a system of remedial action for the kids right from the beginning up to the very end. Thirdly, education is not a matter for the state only. Parents should commit themselves more and more to the education of their children as a very strong partner. They should not allow private tuition to be the solution to be the failure of the system. They should themselves be more active as in Finland and in Shanghai which stress upon the important role played by parents. We are not simply a caretaker. With the advance of technology, the parents appear to be totally losing control. We have to bear in mind that in a society like Finland, learning also takes place outside the classroom. Children must be accompanied and cannot be left alone.

* Published in print edition on 11 December 2015

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