“We are totally independent…

Interview: Romeela Mohee, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Mauritius

… in the courses we offer, in the research we undertake, in the day to-day operation and administration of the University”

 “The UoM is a University created for a purpose and has a national and social mandate. It cannot be run purely as a ‘business’”
‘The university is proud to have trained more than 1,000 graduates and diploma-holders who have been absorbed in the industry and helped to boost the IT sector’

Professor Romeela Mohee is the first woman Vice-Chancellor of the University of Mauritius. She holds an Engineering Degree in Energy and Environment from the Grande Ecole d’Ingénieurs, Lyon, France and a PhD from the University of Mauritius. Her career spans 22 years as academic at UOM, and 20 months as National Research Chair in Solid Waste Management at the Tertiary Education Commission and Mauritius Research Council. Recipient of a number of prestigious awards and recognition at the national and international levels, she has progressed through the positions of Head of Department, Dean of Faculty, Pro-VC (Academia) and Ag. VC before being selected as VC.

In the interview that follows she gives us a comprehensive overview of the way UOM is structured to deliver its mandate, throwing light on a number of important issues that apply to universities worldwide, such as course choices, funding and the future of university learning in the context of modern media that keep innovating among other matters.

Mauritius Times: The University of Mauritius has come a long way since the days when it was set up, 50 years ago, as a “developmental university” and is today recognized as a full-fledged university. If you were to assess the progress achieved on the basis of Anglo-Saxon standards, how would you rate the UoM?

Romeela Mohee: The University of Mauritius has been following the Anglo-Saxon model since its inception in 1965. Its courses, the curriculum, the system of external examining and the quality assurance procedures are in line with that model. Even at the College of Agriculture, founded in 1914, the academic model was the Anglo-Saxon one.

Currently, on a yearly basis, there are around 30 to 40 external Professors, most of them from UK who examine our final Bachelors and Masters programmes and submit a report on their different components. Last year, more than 80% of our programmes were rated above average by these External Examiners. Furthermore, the theses of our MPhil and PhD students are assessed by External Examiners, most of them from the UK. At the University of Mauritius, even to transfer from an MPhil to a PhD, the theses are sent to two External Professors to be assessed.

In addition, the promotion of academics to Professor and Full Chair is conducted by three External Examiners that are often of Anglo-Saxon background.

Furthermore, we have undergone two cycles of quality audit, one in 2005 and the latest one in 2012. Several recommendations have been received and many areas have been rated satisfactorily, one being that the UoM is commended for its well-established procedures for the development of new programmes that go through departmental, interdisciplinary, and Faculty Boards of studies, and also advisory committees and stakeholder consultations.

In 2014, the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) UK reviewed our quality assurance activities, collaborations and MoUs with peer institutions in other countries, as well as the University’s research environment and culture including feedback from students. Furthermore, the QAA had meetings with Council Members, Senior Management, Academic staff and student representatives.

This year, the programme BSc (Hons) Chemistry received accreditation with the Royal Society of Chemistry. The Civil and Mechanical Engineering Department is working with the Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA) for professional accreditation of the 4th year Engineering degrees. This will be followed by other programmes such as Chemical Engineering, Electrical Engineering, inter alia.

From a developmental University set up 50 years ago, the University of Mauritius has grown into a full-fledged university with around 12,000 students regrouped in 6 faculties, the latest one being the Faculty of Ocean Studies. We are offering 187 programme of studies for academic year 2016-2017, with new courses such as an MBA in Innovation and Leadership with the Ducere Foundation, a BSc Top-Up programme in Nursing with Birmingham City University (UK), and a BSc in Aquaculture.

Our courses are internationally recognised and we have trained more than 50,000 alumni, many of whom occupy senior positions in Mauritius and abroad. Many of our graduates are also admitted in overseas universities for Masters and other Postgraduate programmes.

The vision of the UoM is to “to be one of the leading international tertiary education providers and a research-led university”. The University is fully engaged in research, with more than 60% of the academic staff holding a PhD. Most of them are supervising doctorate students. They are engaged in research projects with regional and international collaborators. Records show more than 1,200 publications in international peer reviewed journals over the past 5 years.

We also have Research Centres of Excellence, the latest one being the International Centre for Sustainable Tourism and Hospitality. Other centres of excellence include the Centre for Biomedical and Biomaterials Research (CBBR) and the Centre for Slavery and Indentured (CRSI). Some of their projects/achievements are outlined as follows:

– One staff member has just been honoured with the “Emerging Scholar of Distinction Award” by the International Academy for the study of Tourism (IAST).

– One staff member has just obtained research funding amounting to Rs56 million for a project entitled: ‘Solar Energy Development in the Small Island Developping States (SIDS) in Africa’.

– Innovative products on biomaterials in the area of alternative medicine are being developed.

– A multidisciplinary team is actively involved in the scientific study of Mauritian history and dissemination of information through various means. Several regional projects on slavery and maroonage have been completed. Conferences and seminars have been organised for the commemoration of the Abolition of Slavery, amongst other activities.

* At the end of the day, however, it is the university’s ranking in the league of the world’s best universities that speaks about the quality of the education dispensed. How is the University of Mauritius doing regionally?

The ranking of a university depends on several criteria defined by international ranking agencies. The most common ones are: Shanghai Ranking Consultancy, the World University Rankings (Times Higher Education), Quacquarelli Symonds World University Rankings (QS), Ranking Web of World Universities (Cybermatrics Lab), and International Colleges and Universities (4icu).

Each of these ranking agencies has its own set of criteria with different weightage. For example, for the Shanghai Ranking Consultancy, the quality of education is indicated by ‘Alumni of an institution winning Nobel Prizes and Fields Medal’ and has a weightage of 10%.

The Times Higher Education World University Rankings have grouped the performance indicators into the following five areas.

– Teaching: the learning environment,

– Research: Citations: research influence,

– Industry income: innovation,

– International outlook.

Some Ranking Agencies are based on a number of Nobel Prize winners, number of funds generated by alumni, number of international Professors, amount of funds devoted to exchange of international students. These criteria make it difficult for UoM to compete with big players, such as privately-funded universities as they have access to significant financial resources.

However, UoM is doing well regionally in terms of research indicators. I will quote some latest 2014/2015 figures by SCimago, a reputed research ranking agency. UoM is ranked in Africa as follows:

– 58th with respect to Research output,

– 35th in Excellence in Research,

– 24th with respect to Citations Impact.

We also have some research areas of international standard with good input and citations in international peer reviewed fields e.g. Waste Management, Tourism, Health Sciences, Ecology, Computational Chemistry and others.

Also with the implementation of the new Strategic Plan 2015-2020 and the Strategic Plan Research policy, the introduction of research credits and Faculty Research Advisors, and the introduction of peer-reviewed papers in international journal databases aim at yielding additional recognition. UoM’s research visibility will be enhanced at the international level which will help improve the UoM ranking significantly.

* There has been lately what looks like deliberate leaks and planted new stories being published in the local media relating to the University of Mauritius. These seem to suggest that the present managerial team would be unable to cope with the challenges of running a 12,000-strong university. What is the reality?

When I joined the University as Vice-Chancellor (VC) in 2013, the UoM had just approved in toto the Visitor’s Report and the UoM Statutes were amended. Together with that, in 2014, the Strategic Plan 2015-2020 with new objectives, actions and key performance indicators were outlined. To accompany these and to support the implementation of the Operational Plans of all the Faculties, Centres and Units for the Strategic Plan, a number of changes were required. Policies, processes, mechanisms, procedure agreements and other frameworks had to be put in place and this necessitated change – change in the way of working, thinking, etc.

It is well known that people do not like to change their established habits that have been around for years together. However, what is sad is that although Management has always been open to listen to their concerns, some people (a minority, I would say) are repeatedly using the press to air their frustrations.

The issues being reported pertain to the same items lengthily discussed at Council and other Committees, and decisions had already been taken. Maybe these people do not realise that the University of Mauritius is operating in a very competitive environment and these repeated leakages and press articles are not doing any justice to the 12,000 students, their employability prospects and also staff welfare. However, this minority does not demotivate those who are working very hard for the University to rise and address the new challenges of Higher Education.

* One comment usually heard in university circles – without the intention of belittling anybody – is that it might not be a good thing for academics to take up management responsibilities given that university management has become a special field in itself, and academics may not necessarily be equipped or interested in taking up such functions. What’s your take on that?

The practice worldwide for all universities is that the Vice-Chancellor is the Chief Academic Officer, the Chief Executive and often the Chief Administrative Officer of the university. Be it in UK, Australia, South Africa and the USA, VCs and Presidents of universities are of academic background, not necessarily in the field of management.

The Chief of the University is often a Professor with years of experience in the academic world. One should not forget that the core mandate of a university is to create and disseminate knowledge through its activities. Teaching and Learning, and Research, you would agree, constitute the core areas of both traditional and modern universities in whatever form they may be structured. The Chief Executive of a University has to drive these areas with a number of stakeholders and all its complexities.

The idea behind the process of academic climbing up the hierarchical ladder by assuming positions of Head of Department, Dean of Faculty, Pro-Vice-Chancellor before becoming a Vice-Chancellor is that the latter understands the academic intricacies, the latest academic trends and challenges as universities operate in a global environment and can then add value to the governance process.

Also, the model of administration in all universities is as follows: the VC – the Chief Administrative Officer – is supported by a team of professionals/specialists such as the Registrar, the Finance Director, the Director of Legal Affairs, the Director of Human Resources, who are the “non academic” support required for the VC to lead the University.

Also, at the end of the day, despite what people might say, the UoM is a University created for a purpose and has a national and social mandate. Therefore, the institution cannot be run purely as a “business”. Universities need visionary people who understand both worlds.

* Besides internal management issues, another major question which comes up quite recurrently in press reports relates to the financing of the University. Government grant has increased over the years with the rise in student enrolment. Would you say that the determination of State grant, as presently done, serves the UOM well? Should it be allocated as a block grant or per student head/relevant programme?

The annual budget of UoM is around one billion rupees and the Government grant amounts to around half of it. It is to be noted that the direct staff salaries and other contractual obligations highly exceed the yearly government grant.

The number of students at the UoM has increased considerably over the years and although the government grant has increased, factors like PRB 2013, the need to upgrade our infrastructure and facilities, and the creation of new Faculty and Centres have brought about a difficult financial situation for the UoM.

It might have been better to have grants based on the number of student per programme but it also has the disadvantage of not allowing sufficient grants for research – which is after all the heart of a fully-fledged university and leads to the creation of knowledge that the university is transferring to the students, the community and industry as a whole. The UoM also has a research active profile and research also needs to be funded.

Furthermore, there is a lot of debate on grant per student head – should it be per student intake, or per student graduating. The problem is how to cater for the change in student numbers enrolling each year and also for doctorate students, which is a crucial input in research that has to be encouraged.

The South African funding model caters for grants per student with higher differentiated levels for students in sciences, engineering, at Masters and PhD levels and, at the same time, caters for professors to develop their labs, etc.

It is a complex issue and there is no right answer. At the end of the day, the quality of the university systems should not suffer because of insufficient grants or funds.

Actually, in our context, it might be better to have a variable grant which would consist of a block grant based on the direct fixed contractual costs such as wages adjusted for increase in cost emanating from inflation and also other increases such as PRB and its related increments and allowances.

* It is said however that “when universities depend on taxpayers, their independence and standards suffer.” In other words when the price and quantity of courses are state-controlled, such intervention does not produce the best outcomes. How is it like with the UoM?

UoM is a public funded national university. More than 75% of our students do not pay tuition fees. Currently 9,600 out of 12,000 students pay only a minimal fee, called general fees. 50% of our funding comes from Government grants while we generate the other 50% through the running of professional programmes, postgraduate programmes, research and consultancy projects and other services that we offer to the community.

This model of public universities is a common model across the world, for example in France and in Nordic countries where there are public institutions fully funded by the State. The main objective is to guarantee access to all those who have the required standards and competencies to be admitted.

However, more and more, new innovative products are needed, students need multiple skills, and dual degrees are required in the labour market. There are new emerging sectors of the economy. The University, as has been its mandate up till now, continues to respond to the needs of the country by offering new courses, new opportunities to students to engage in research. So there is a constant need for more resources, especially of a financial kind to invest in new laboratories, to recruit staff and develop the appropriate infrastructure to cope with such a dynamic ecosystem.

In terms of independence, we are totally independent in the courses we offer, in the research we undertake, in the day to-day operation and administration of the University as well as the strategic directions we are following. However, we align ourselves with the country’s vision to enhance employability options for our students.

We have a statutory full-fledged Council, composed of internal and external members from both the public and private sectors. The Council has general control over the conduct of the affairs of the University.

Furthermore, last year, the University of Mauritius was proud to have signed the Magna Charta Universitatum whose principles account for institutional autonomy and academic freedom as its core pillars. We now form part of the group of 800 Universities across the world having adhered to the Magna Charta Observatory.

* A number of Asian universities are moving away from government-centralized governance to self-governance with a view to paving the way to more efficient and better-ranked world-class universities. Furthermore, they are progressively exploring innovative teaching pedagogies, talent management strategies, sustainable revenue models, and university-industry partnership initiatives to uplift their university teaching & research. The UoM’s Strategic Plan 2015-2020 contains much of the same things for the future. How is it progressing?

In this ever-changing society, innovation is a must and although research has always been on the agenda of all academic staff members of the University, it has become predominant in the UoM Strategic Plan 2015-2020, which reflects our commitment to our role as a creator and diffuser of knowledge.

In 2014, we have elaborated the Strategic Plan 2015-2020 together with the staff members. This Strategic Plan was launched on 30 January 2015 by the Minister of Education, Human Resources, Tertiary Education and Scientific Research.

Widespread consultations between both internal and external stakeholders were undertaken and working groups led by champions were set up across the University. An external scan of higher education landscape as well as internal scan (SWOT) of the University were conducted. This analysis provided a clear picture of where we were in 2014 and where we wanted to be in 2020 to identify the change agenda.

The vision and mission were then developped and 6 overarching strategic directions were identified with clear objectives, key actions and key performance indicators (KPIs). The six strategic directions are :

– Excellence in Teaching and Learning,

– Excellence in Research and Innovation,

– Strategic Partnership for Internationalisation,

– Enriching Student Experience,

– Sustainable Community Engagement,

– Long Lasting Financial Sustainability.

The elements of the Strategic Plan were then cascaded down to all Faculties/Departments/Units by regular communication and discussions in early 2015. Each Faculty/Department/Unit prepared their respective Operational Plan along with the related budget. Moreover, to drive the implementation process, 6 policy committees have been set up, one for each strategic direction, to come up with policies/measures, to be put in place to achieve the vision of 2020 in line with the overarching KPIs.

Some of the key objectives of the Strategic Plan are to increase the employability of graduates through regular consultations with stakeholders within the industry, to engage in research areas which address industrial and societal needs, to provide excellent service and support on campus to students, to set up an Asia-Africa Knowledge Platform, to foster engagement with our communities of interest and to undertake entrepreneurial activities, and to develop cost-effective short course programmes.

Furthermore, the innovative teaching pedagogies are very much encouraged and we have merged two Centres in 2014 to set up the Centre for Innovative and Lifelong Learning (CILL). CILL is responsible for providing and developing the concept of learning, online education and e-learning at the University of Mauritius. The centre develops academic modules for the University and pedagogical prototype projects in line with the national ongoing effort for the promotion of ICT, continuous education and lifelong flexible learning.

To create visibility for research, we have also recently set up a Knowledge Transfer Office (KTO) which aims to be a strong link between the University, Government, Industry and the broader community.

Research can in fact be used by Industry to add value to their products and develop their commercial aspect; and by policy makers to come up with evidence-based policy. The KTO will also act as a one-stop shop for the protection, exchange and commercialisation of knowledge created at the University of Mauritius, which includes technology, know-how, skill and expertise, for both commercial and non-commercial application.

It will facilitate the showcasing of University expertise, experience and capacities, foster and strengthen University-Industry-Community collaboration for the public’s benefit and for socioeconomic development.

* Shouldn’t the legal and regulatory framework – the University of Mauritius Act – be revisited? Or would you say it is as good today as when it was enacted at the time of inception of the UOM?

The Act provides for the Constitution of the University of Mauritius whilst the Statutes are made by special resolution of the Council after consultation with the Senate. The UoM Act which was enacted in 1971 and was subsequently amended in 1992 and 2012 and the UoM Statutes were amended in 2013 following the Visitor’s Report which has recommended a more decentralized system, the creation of new posts for advancement, marketing, Director of Legal Affairs, Council Secretary, student involvement in decision making at Faculty Board, Senate and Council.

Statutes have been amended, for instance, to incorporate more transparency and openness of Statutory Committees. Reporting lines of statutory positions have also changed to achieve a leaner structure. It is important to revisit the legal and regulatory framework in order to keep up with the dynamic environment of the Higher Education landscape and the challenges that would be required for the UoM to stay competitive.

* Overstretching any tertiary education institution to accommodate an increasing number of students in more fields of study than earlier is likely to pose more challenges. Would you say that enough attention has been devoted to capacity-building, both administrative and academic, in terms of further training and talent search at the UoM to deal with the new challenges?

UoM, with its 50 years of experience and 101 years of the College of Agriculture, has the foundation and capacity to accommodate more students.

Based on demand, it is true that the University of Mauritius, as the flagship University of the country, has accommodated an increasing number of students in view of increasing access and giving more opportunities to our citizens to have access to tertiary education.

The number of students in 2006 was around 7,500. In 2010, the student population increased to almost 10,000. In 2006, we tripled the intake for computer science students and, in this sector, the university is proud to have trained more than 1,000 graduates and diploma-holders who have been absorbed in the industry and helped to boost the IT sector.

But I would also agree that to accommodate more students, we need extra laboratories, more lecturers, space, facilities to develop evening classes, weekend classes and issues such as security, transport, food services and others have to be looked into. We adapt by developing innovative tools like eLearning, by encouraging Visiting Professors and also by getting trained to be more and more efficient in our operations. We have for instance, engaged in a project with the Commonwealth of Learning (COL) Canada, to train a team of internal staff members including academic and non-academic staff on internal quality audit and on self-auditing practices as per the COL guidelines.

Also infrastructural facilities require additional funding. So, another challenge is to find the appropriate funding model to invest in research and other facilities, development of new programmes, etc.

* In fact, there was also the ambition in a recent past to have one graduate in every family – the idea being to get the greatest number of young people in and out of our universities. We are in fact having more and more of degree holders joining the job market, but that does not necessarily match the skills required by industry and trade. Isn’t there a case for shorter courses made available to students willing to pay and that would meet the demands of the market?

We have to ask ourselves one question. What is the primary objective of a university? There is an ongoing debate worldwide about the pressures and challenges on universities in the future. Last year, Prof G Boulton, Vice-Principal of Edinburgh University spoke about the modern challenges of universities. You will always see cropping up the issue of mismatch, how the future student would be, whether graduates would cope and adapt to the ever-changing dynamic industrial landscape, and what the future university would look like.

I have even heard that in future there would be no place for universities but a multitude of MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) Centres. Are we prepared for that? Are we ready with the pedagogy, the mode of assessment and other aspects of online learning? How do we maintain the interest of the Mauritian learner to fulfill requirements for a BSc or BEng or Medical or Law degree through MOOCs ?

There is always the potential for universities to develop shorter paid courses, continuous professional development and online learning, transition courses to meet industry needs but any university should not digress from its role of creating and transferring knowledge, and ensuring that the programmes offered cover the basic requirements of learning, that is the foundation and the skills of thinking.

After all, the University is there to facilitate the student to “THINK” as, with this basic and fundamental skill, students can adapt to any situation and face the challenges in the world.

* Besides skills mismatch, there is an increasing number of both state-funded and private tertiary institutions operating in the higher education sector locally, and more are in the pipeline. Competition may be a good thing in this sector as well, but are we doing what is required to ensure how well they are doing what they advertise?

It is the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) that ensures the coordination of post-secondary education in Mauritius. It implements an overarching regulatory framework to achieve international quality. The UoM is committed to providing all its students with teaching and supervision of the highest quality, and to ensuring excellence in student learning experiences and outcomes.

We have always supported and will continue to support collaboration with public and private universities on the island to develop the tertiary education sector. There are some areas that have to be developed, such as bunkering, marine and petroleum engineering, pilot studies, etc., which require extensive funding to be put in place and could be done through new actors in the higher education arena.

* What is the situation regarding medical degrees awarded by UoM? Can the experience of UoM be of any help in the resolution of issues pertaining to medical courses run by other private medical colleges locally?

The University of Mauritius has a full-fledged Department of Medicine since 1993 and runs medical degrees with Universities like Bordeaux and Manchester. Our graduates are internationally recognized. The SSR Medical School is also affiliated to UoM and welcomes both local and international students.

The UoM has always helped whenever there is any issue with other private medical college. Two years ago, UoM helped students of the Louis Pasteur and these students graduated with their medical degrees in early 2015. The UoM is willing to help should the need arise.

 

*  Published in print edition on 11 March 2016

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