New Year Gift or Good Politics…?

Forty years ago SSR decided to offer every child free education up to HSC level; and look at the social changes and economic fall-outs that we have reaped from that one policy measure. Now imagine what free tertiary education is likely to yield in the next 40 years to come

By Ramesh Beeharry

 The foundation of every state is the education of its youth.
Diogenes

I don’t know how long primary education has been provided free in Mauritius, but I do know that the baby-boomers of my generation benefited from it under British rule. The seven-year course — Below to Sixth Standard — was rewarded with the Primary School Leaving Certificate (PSLC) after successful completion. Yes, there really was a Below-lalo year! In lieu of the modern pre-primary class, I guess!

As secondary education had to be paid for and long distance study unheard of at the time, the PSLC was the highest qualification most children could ever aspire to. Mind you, lest today’s better educated sneer at the PSLC, I am reminded of Mr Permaloo, my Below teacher who was thought to be a PSLC pass. He may not have held university degrees and PGCEs, but he was as kindly as he was competent. It could not have been easy guiding a class of 40, shy Bhojpuri-speaking village kids through to learning Creole and onto some basic French and English — thus readying us to tackle the First standard “Anglais-Francais” books the following year.

SSR’s free education scheme

I was not in the country when in 1977, Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam apparently made a surprise announcement on the eve of the general elections that henceforth secondary education would be provided free to all Mauritian children — thus making education free from Standard 1 up to HSC level. Many people still believe that this was an electoral ploy conceived on the eve of those elections. However others refuse to think that a man of vision like SSR would have come up with such an important policy measure on an impulse. It is more likely that the great man had been planning it for some time, only to announce the good news to the electorate on the eve of the elections and hopefully sway the results in favour of the Labour Party. Good politics!

Sacrifice. To those of us who had struggled to pay for our secondary education, that was sweet music — nay a glorious symphony — to our ears. Every successful pupil, every student coming out of a graduation ceremony today speaks of the great sacrifices they made to merit their award. And no one begrudges them their 15 seconds of fame. Glib words pouring out parrot fashion because that is what the media expect!

But, would it be that they knew the true meaning of sacrifice. All these years later it is hard, maybe impossible to imagine the kind of sacrifice mums, dads and even the kids had to make to get that secondary education which would take them out of the darkness of their post sugar estate camp life; and enjoy a better standard of living than their predecessors. Thus a success at the SC was celebrated by the family and the local socio-cultural organization alike because, with a SC, one could aspire to becoming, among other things, a teacher, a civil servant, a nurse or a clerk in the private sector.

Nelson Mandela is on record stating that: “It is not beyond our power to create a world in which all children have access to good education. Those who do not believe this have small imaginations.” Unfortunately in pre-1968 colonial days we had little choice. Most families could not afford to pay for their children’s education. Money being short, even those who could pay thought it a better investment to educate their sons. Thus most girls remained illiterate whilst some managed to study up to the PSLC and yet fewer went on to secondary school. A ratio of 20:100 was quite the norm in most classes. To enable them to pay the monthly fees, most mothers kept cows whose milk brought in some extra income, whilst many dads did two or more jobs. Some schoolboys did little menial week-end jobs to pay for school material.

Changes

Since Independence there has been an ocean of changes in Mauritius. Things that would have been unimaginable 50 years ago are now taken for granted. Solid concrete houses, running water, electricity, telephone landlines, a network of good roads, a comprehensive transport system, radio-television in every home, international travel, the Cybercity with its modern office blocks and how can one forget all the ICT available to us, some of which I am still trying to grapple with. My nephew takes an hour to explain Cloud and what-not to me: it takes me no longer than a nano-second to forget what it’s all about! Seriously the country has undergone a massive transformation since 1968.

But for me, the greatest change has been free education. Since secondary education became free, there has always been a hundred percent uptake by successful primary pupils. So instead of just a few boys, now we have all the boys and all the girls continuing their education at least to SC/HSC level. This has resulted in socio-economic changes unimaginable 40 years ago. We have boys and girls from modest backgrounds who are today teachers, university lecturers, lawyers, doctors, engineers, company directors, Ministers of State, computer experts, and so on.

Girls. In particular, the girls may have been relatively the larger beneficiaries of this measure. This is because whereas in the past they would have stayed at home to help mum, they also began attending school and university, gaining knowledge and learning skills which would have been mostly the preserve of the boys in the past. The previous government used to talk of one graduate per household. In fact even without government’s intervention, there are more than one graduate in many a working class family and it is at least 50/50 between the boys and the girls. Many future wives and mothers who are the educated girls of today will go on to contribute a larger share to the household budget, being better educated!

And as always, they are the driving force behind the kids’ education and upliftment of the family. Almost all of us have had a mother like these Jhansi ki Ranis, haven’t we? Many, like my mother, were themselves illiterate but understood the value of education as an emancipating, liberating and enabling force. And boy, did they push to get us there! No sacrifice was too much for these fighters.

Free tertiary education

As luck would have it again, I was not in Mauritius over the New Year. Consequently I missed the PM’s announcement that tertiary education would become free for all children. However as soon as I entered my waiting taxi at Plaisance upon return, Dan the driver told me about it and asked what I thought. Wonderful! I said simply.

As it happens Pravind Jugnauth will be remembered for a number of policy measures that have the potential to change Mauritian society for a long time. Among these are the Citizen Support Unit (CSU), National Minimum Wage, Negative Income Tax, enhanced Old Age Pension, the Metro Express. And now free tertiary education!

Forty years ago SSR decided to offer every child free education up to HSC level; and look at the social changes and economic fall-outs that we have reaped from that one policy measure. Now imagine what free tertiary education is likely to yield in the next 40 years to come. Just as the naysayers in 1976 saw only a waste of taxpayers’ money and electoral bribery in it, the same crowd cannot see anything right with the current government’s “New Year gift” to the population. However when History comes to be written by fair-minded pens, those people whom Mandela says “have small imaginations” will be judged accordingly.

As a colonial citizen who has had the good fortune of receiving free tertiary education in the UK, I for one applaud this farsighted policy measure that will change Mauritian society and take it to the next level intellectually, socially and economically.


* Published in print edition on 15 February 2019

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