“Democracy does not stop at elections and the winner takes all…”

Interview: Surendra Bissoondoyal

… democracy is the rule of the majority, but for all citizens. Perception is an important aspect in this respect”

“All right-minded people should condemn the way the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Mauritius was asked to vacate his post unceremoniously”

“What has been happening at the UoM since the appointment of Prof Morgan is a disgrace. No institution, let alone a University, should function in such a haphazard way”

“All right-minded people should condemn the way the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Mauritius was asked to vacate his post unceremoniously. This is not done in a country which claims it abides by the rule of law. Even a criminal has the right to be heard before a sentence is pronounced…” comments Surendra Bissoondoyal, in this week’s interview, in the wake of the UOM’s Council to terminate the services of Prof Rughooputh as Vice Chancellor.

Mr Bissoondoyal had earlier occupied the post of Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of Council of the UOM from 1988 to 2005, and he asserts that the Council was then deliberating objectively in its decision-making process without outside interference. He adds: “What has been happening at the UoM since the appointment of Prof Morgan is a disgrace. No institution, let alone a University, should function in such a haphazard way…”

Travelling back in History, he relates the circumstances which led the then Colonial government to propose the Best Loser system, and explains why this system should be replaced. Read on:

Mauritius Times: After the unexpected decision of Konrad Morgan to call it a day in January 2012, the University of Mauritius (UOM) has again fallen into an uncomfortable posture with its decision to put an immediate end to the services of Ramesh Rughooputh as Vice Chancellor – the fifth to occupy this post within the last four years. The Pro Chancellor, Prof Jugessur, has dismissed suggestions that the UOM would have taken the decision at the behest of the Minister of Tertiary Education, but it looks like a mix of factors – administrative, political, personal — would be undermining the proper functioning and image of the University. What is your own reading of what has been going on?

Surendra Bissoondoyal: First, all right-minded people should condemn the way the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Mauritius was asked to vacate his post unceremoniously. This is not done in a country which claims it abides by the rule of law. Even a criminal has the right to be heard before a sentence is pronounced. Prof Rughooputh may not be the right person to fill the post of Vice-Chancellor (VC), but who is to blame for his appointment? It was the Council of the University that took the decision (unanimously?) to appoint him a little over a year ago. This action gives a very poor image of the University. If there has been outside interference, this makes it even worse. The public is still not aware of what prompted his dismissal.

What has been happening at the UoM since the appointment of Prof Morgan is a disgrace. No institution, let alone a University, should function in such a haphazard way, giving the impression that there has been some sort of outside interference in the running of the University. Vested interests have become bolder in trying to have their own way. How can we explain that a person who was found to be the most suitable person to occupy the post of VC barely a year ago has had to vacate it in such humiliating circumstances? The Appointments Committee can argue that it did not know Prof Morgan very well as he was a foreigner. But Prof Rughooputh is a Mauritian and has been working at the UoM for a very long time.

* Erstwhile Vice-Chancellor Konrad Morgan submitted a reform plan for the University. It was initially shot down, it would seem, by some vested interests. We had thereafter another Visitor’s Report by Dev Manraj. The people appointed to manage and look after the tertiary sector, whether at the level of the University or the responsible ministry itself, are highly qualified – at least in their respective fields, but what seems lacking is not only men of vision but also men of consensus to carry soundly forward institutions like the UOM and quite a few others in the public sector. Does that sound to be a correct assessment of the overall situation?

Yes, certainly. We are tempted to think about the situation in ‘Hamlet’ when Shakespeare put the following words into the mouth of Marcellus: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”

It is a good thing that he used the word ‘something’ instead of ‘everything’. There are many institutions that are working properly, but if we look at what is happening in some institutions — both public and private — we will have the feeling that something is rotten in the state of Mauritius. We do not lack men and women of vision, but we need the wisdom and the foresight to draw up a plan to transform the vision into reality. We cannot have a Vice Chancellor wasting his time over toilet paper.

* The University of Mauritius Act proscribes any form of interference from the responsible ministry, and we can presume that non-interference from that ministry or from any other quarters would to a large extent explain the University’s steady and autonomous progress over many earlier decades. Was the previous good record attributable to a strong no-nonsense Council which was able to set the agenda clearly and see to it that the University’s interest prevailed over any other considerations?

The UoM was set up on the model of a British University. There is no mention of any minister in the Act of the University. The Prime Minister appoints the Chancellor, and the latter appoints the Pro-Chancellor (who is de facto Chairman of Council) on the advice of the Prime Minister. This shows that it has to be an autonomous body without interference from any quarters. But this autonomy puts a high level of responsibility on the two decision-making bodies of the University — the Council regarding management and the Senate for academic matters. If the University is not working properly, a Visitor is appointed to carry out an enquiry and to make recommendations.

I was Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of Council for 17 years (1988-2005) and the Council was deliberating objectively in its decision-making process without outside interference. From the very start the Vice-Chancellors were capable academics who also had management skills, and they were doing their job well. But of course a University like the UoM, which started as a developmental University, needs to co-ordinate with both the public and private sectors to produce the required human resources without losing sight of the importance of research.

* After so many years of having the University in Mauritius, don’t you think we should be having sufficient numbers of capable academicians in the faculties who could give the University the leadership it requires to become a high-ranking world-class establishment of higher learning, with academic and research results to prove its good international standing? If the resources are here, why have we been stumbling along so often?

There is a good number of capable academics at the UoM who have also made their mark at the international level. There is no reason why the University cannot hold its own in the world of academics. It already has some important connections with top class Universities in the world. What is lacking are the resources to make these links stronger.

Unfortunately the authorities are not providing the required funds to cater for more students and to promote research particularly. They are more interested in quantity (increasing student intake every year) than quality (lowering entry qualifications). However, the UoM Trust, if allowed to function autonomously, can become an important arm of the UoM.

* In the meantime, parents who do not have the means to afford European centres of learning are looking at places like Monash in Australia and other universities in Malaysia, South Africa, India, etc., for their wards. We do not seem to be giving ourselves the necessary means and academic excellence to come up as the education hub we wanted to be, isn’t it? What exactly should we be doing to meet this target?

Mauritius has many assets, not least its human resources of a high level in many fields, and it could easily have become a hub for higher education. But as we do in general, except in some areas like road infrastructure and the airport, we rest content with slogans. Mauritius as a hub for this or that activity without the required infrastructure and resources? It is only in tourism, which is in the hands of the private sector, that we can see developments. “C’est un plaisir”, we tell tourists, although this can have a double meaning.

There are many highly qualified Mauritians who are forced to work in other countries because there is no place for them in their own country. Instead of allowing all sorts of obscure ‘universities’ to come and exploit credulous Mauritians as well as foreigners we should have invited top class Universities (as Singapore and Malaysia are doing) to set up campuses here. The model of the “Universite des Mascareignes” is a good one, but we should build the required state-of-the-art infrastructure to attract them. Will we? Judging by the state in which UTM has remained for more than 13 years I doubt if we have the will.

With all the adverse publicity we are getting with what has been happening at the UoM and the treatment meted out to foreign students by some crooks, are we surprised that the ‘visibility’ ranking of the University of Mauritius is in free fall?

* Unlike the laureate system, which is based purely on HSC rankings, 24 additional scholarships (based on a mix of merit and social criteria) were awarded two weeks back to students who took part in the HSC examinations of October/November 2012. The additional scholarships can be considered as a further step towards providing a fair access to education by introducing an element of equitableness in the system. But doubts have been raised in some quarters regarding the transparency of the selection process. Is that really what it is or will the new system refine itself further, given time?

It is a laudable initiative to provide opportunities for higher education to students who perform very well at school in spite of difficult conditions and poor environments. But the social criteria used are not very transparent in the Mauritian context. There are many self-employed people who earn much more than those who are better off on paper, and they can claim that their household budget is within the earmarked amount in the social criteria.

These criteria need to be definitely reviewed. Another possibility would be to provide bursaries to study locally to all those who have obtained a certain grade aggregate, and to give priority of consideration for studies in technical skills development. We are putting too much emphasis on performance in academic subjects only.

* An issue which may not rally consensus is the teaching of the History of Mauritius (pre- and post-Independence periods) at secondary level. A ‘Comité des Sages’ will be set up to thrash out the issue. What does past experience inform us about this matter and what’s the way forward?

All students should be aware of the history of their country, but in a wider global context. We have seen how ignorant some candidates for election to important bodies in the developed world can be about other cultures — talking about Islam as a country and about Jews praying to Jesus Christ — to be very sceptical about what a ‘comité des sages’ can come up with, particularly if people with other motives start poking their nose in their work.

We should also guard against overburdening the curriculum. We cannot include any ‘subject’ or activity without paying attention to the whole curriculum at every stage of the school cursus.

* There is another issue which is eluding consensus: electoral reform. Notwithstanding the position taken by the UN Human Rights Committee’s that we should correct our community-based electoral system, do you think electoral reform constitutes an urgent national priority in our present circumstances? Don’t we need to go through a referendum to ensure that whatever is proposed has the necessary popular support?

Electoral reform may not be a priority in the same way we consider economic reforms and social challenges. But it is very important if we want everybody to feel that the system will do justice to the aspirations of all Mauritians. In this sense a fairer representation of all shades of opinion is very important, particularly in a democratic country. But democracy does not stop at elections and the winner takes all. Democracy is the rule of the majority, but for all citizens. Perception is an important aspect in this respect.

Many countries have had and are having to cope with ethnic and religious disturbances if some people think they are second class or third class citizens. We cannot have an electoral system, which denies a large number of voters the right to be represented in Parliament. I am thinking of the 60-0 verdict that the system inflicted twice on the country in its relatively short existence since 1967. This is very unfair particularly to political parties which obtain more than 30% of the votes, and will be seen as unfair even to parties which obtain a much less percentage of votes.

A referendum — as in Switzerland for example — is one way to go about considering electoral reform. But where do we stop if we want to introduce reforms in other areas? There are other ways in our Constitution, such as a majority of three quarters, which would be acceptable. We should not forget that in Switzerland every major reform has to be validated through a referendum. If the voters opt for a direct proportional representation this might lead to voting along ‘communal’ lines and to a chaotic and ungovernable country, as is happening elsewhere.

But we must also at the same time look at good governance. Ministers should have no business to have to approve the appointment of staff of parastatal bodies. The Board of each institution should be in a position to approve the appointment of its staff without any ministerial sanction, which gives the impression that ministers interfere in the appointment of selected staff.

* The Best Loser system (and distinct vote banks) are tagged as being the main culprits for the want of consensus regarding the reform of our electoral system. But we tend to overlook the fact that the major parties and their leaders would, indistinguishably, want their parties’ and personal interests to prevail over the national interests in this regard, isn’t it?

The Best Loser system was one way to reassure minorities that they would be adequately represented in an independent Mauritius. No Muslim was elected in the first general elections based on an almost universal suffrage in 1948, and this prompted the setting up of the CAM by Sir Abdool Razack Mohamed.

At the Constitutional Conference in London in 1965 the CAM wanted to have separate electoral rolls for Muslims. This was opposed by the Labour Party and the IFB. Sookdeo Bissoondoyal pointed to the presence of Abdool Wahab Foondun among the delegates as an elected IFB candidate in the predominantly Hindu-majority constituency of Bon Acceuil, arguing that the people would vote for capable candidates who will share their concerns, irrespective of their religious belongings. Separate electoral rolls for one ‘community’ would trigger similar demands from other ‘communities’, which would lead to further subdivision.

The Best Loser system was then proposed by the British government, which was accepted by all the parties attending the conference.

It is however now time to have a new look at the BLS, and to replace it by a dose of Proportional Representation. For the first general election that would follow it might be desirable to keep the BLS, after the PR exercise, in case the exercise fails to come up with an adequate pre-determined number for each ‘community’, this number being the same minimum as at present. But the BLS has to go eventually as it is based on an outdated 1972 census.

It is also true that political parties have their own agendas, and the leaders their own likes and dislikes. But we have to leave with these possibilities. Crossing the floor should not be allowed in future except, as in India, one third of the members of a party decide to do so.

Nothing is perfect in the world, but if we believe that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, we should restrict the mandate of a Prime Minister and of a President to two terms, as is the case in the USA and some other countries. We have seen how in some countries those who have been used to power want to retain it for life, even resorting to all sorts of corruption. We cannot foresee what can happen in future.

* Published in print edition on 16 August  2013

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