Is there a best education system?

We make or break our destiny, with a bit of help from all, including our educational system…

This question came to my mind as I was passing by the Royal College Curepipe, my old alma mater, a few days ago. It was about eleven in the morning and there was a football match going on, obviously an important one because the players in the two teams had worn different stockings and at one end of the ground (near the fence) there was a table on which I saw two trophy cups wrapped in red ribbon.

The thought that came to me was: here are all these lads – the players and the spectator students –, a mixed crowd coming from all backgrounds in the country, now enjoying themselves. By the by they will all leave the college and go their own way and, laureate or not, trace out and follow their separate and individual paths in life, in all manner of occupations, but at the end of the day they each will have found a career and led their own lives, some fulfilled, some not, others partially so. In other words just like the rest of all their fellow citizens.

The same would be true of the thousands of students in all the other colleges – whether they are ‘star’ or not – as well as in all the public and private tertiary institutions operating in the country. Of course, a good number too would go abroad to pursue their studies. Of all of them wherever they have studied, many will find themselves settling abroad, and a majority – perhaps — will opt to remain in or come back to the country.

The ‘perhaps’ refers to the increasing tendency for some years now of our students who go overseas to look for opportunities there and, if they are successful in doing so, are choosing to avail of them – for their own sake and so as to prepare for their children’s future, so we are told. I base myself on what I, like many others too, have been hearing as I do not have actual figures. I only hope that that category constitutes a minority rather a majority, for we do need all of our citizens to come back and help to take the country further forward with fresh ideas and along roads not taken before, don’t we, especially in this time of demographic change.

The Ivy League

This brings me to share some thoughts on the issue of ‘best’ education system. I had at first written ‘ideal’ instead of best, then I told myself that just as we say in my own field (health) that there is no ideal health system, so too I think it is for education. There is no ideal education system either, and every country has to devise whatever is most appropriate for itself based on its historical and developmental context and the resources that it can command.

But within any country’s system of education, comprising both public and private institutions, there will be variations. This leads several countries, especially the most developed ones, to make tables of rankings according to a number of criteria, both academic and non-academic (such as lodging and meal facilities, social amenities, sports and so on). In the United States, for example, they have what they call the Ivy League institutions, which are the top of the top, and which ambitious students aspire to join. Likewise, all countries have similar institutions which are the preferred choices for the local citizenry – as, at secondary level, our ‘star’ colleges are locally.

But there are other aspects when it comes to rankings, and that the tables may not reflect. For example, a young lad who is back home on holiday and currently in his third year at an Ivy League university in the US, told me that a very well-known university there has chosen not to seek Ivy League status in order to avail of funding that would otherwise be denied. On the other hand, it is also a known fact that not all universities excel in all the disciplines. Some will have departments reputed for, say, research into the origins of life, others in specific branches of engineering, yet others in fields such as nanotechnology or nanomedicine, or business, finance and so forth.

On the other hand, I have come across many an article concerning education in different countries. What struck me is that analysts in places such as the US, the UK, Australia and France, which we have traditionally looked upon as harbouring the best educational institutions in the world, lament that the education system in these countries is failing their students and the country. That their system is broke, and that unless there an overhaul, and in particular regarding their funding, which requires strong political will, things are likely to get worse and worse.

Cost is an important factor, and the funding of public universities especially is a matter of major concern everywhere. Many universities in the UK and Australia come over to market themselves and attract potential students. In fact one of the worries expressed by those opposing Brexit in the UK is that it could result in reducing significantly the income of universities because of restrictions on entry of foreign students.

Regularly there are stories about the mismatch of the ‘products’ of academic institutions and the requirements of the workplace, and about the changing nature of work which requires educational institutions to somehow ‘reinvent’ themselves to provide for these new challenges.

Dramatic changes

All these arguments make sense in some way or the other, and when it comes to our own local scene we too have things to say, many of which are enough to make us despair. Nevertheless, although I concede that there have been dramatic changes taking place, yet the fact that everyone who comes out of the education system does eventually, like water, find his or her own level must surely mean that, whether one is a laureate or not, from a star college or not, after all we may not be doing too badly.

Like the observers in the countries mentioned above, we too have our grouses and criticisms – which we must continue with so as to provoke thinking and hopefully improvements on a continuous basis, even if these are incremental and not earth-shaking or immediately game-changing. But on reflection we will realise that, while we can certainly do better, we should take a more balanced view in light of our own experiences.

I have had the opportunity to attend some college annual functions or anniversaries, and also known personally or have come across former students of many of our local institutions, and I can say that they are in no way any worse off than their peers who may have had the opportunity to study in more high profile institutions here or abroad. And it’s not only about academic performance or success in career but overall in the life course in terms of family, friends and social activities as well.

Self-effort and self-learning

Of the many people I met, I will cite the examples of two who are attended non-star colleges in the late 1960s/70s. One went on to obtain a doctorate in virology from the UK, spent many years as a scientist at the Centre for Diseases Control in the USA, and a few years ago retired as a WHO consultant based in South Asia. The other one studied the social sciences and became a professor at a university in Canada, and when I met him a few months ago he had come over to visit the family. His wife was also in academia and he had two daughters who were working there.

But I must also salute those who for whatever reason were left out of the educational system, and yet did very well for themselves through humongous self-effort and self-learning, to the extent of earning degrees too.

I am sure all of us have similar stories that we can tell. I remember the words of late Ranjit Foogooa, who had studied English in Kolkata and was my senior there when I reached in 1965. He spent his career at the Bhujoharry College, ending up as rector of the Boys Department. He once told me about a lad who had failed his HSC because of bad company he had fallen into, and how he ‘salvaged’ him by pleading with other colleagues to give him special attention. That boy found his way to NASA, so Ranjit told me.

And he also told me once, some time before he passed, and very seriously, in his characteristic style: ‘C’est pas college ki star, c’est zeleve ki star!’ (‘It’s not the college that is the star, it’s the student who is the star!’). He was both a product of and a producer of that same education system that formed the three persons I have alluded to. They sure did well by themselves, and proudly for the country. We make or break our destiny, with a bit of help from all, including our educational system…


* Published in print edition on 11 May 2018

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