Of literacy, employability and education

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee


The country needs a workforce made up of varied skills and competences, of technical, vocational and academic nature. The educational and training landscape must provide avenues and facilities to cater to all these categories


I read the following on page 13 of last week’s edition of this paper:

‘The collapse of education

At the entrance gate of a university in South Africa the following message was posted for contemplation:

“Destroying any nation does not require the use of atomic bombs or the use of long-range missiles. It only requires lowering the quality of education and allowing students to cheat in examinations.

Patients die at the hands of such doctors.

Buildings collapse at the hands of such engineers.

Money is lost at the hands of such economists and accountants.

Humanity dies at the hands of such religious scholars.

Justice is lost at the hands of such judges…

The collapse of education is the collapse of the nation”.’

This made me recall some cases that I was involved in when I was serving as DG Health Services at the Ministry of Health and Quality of Life several years ago. One was about two applicants for registration as pharmacists with the Pharmacy Board, of which I was Chairman, and the other was about a medical practitioner being refused registration with the Mauritius Medical Council.

In the case of the doctor, the applicant had pursued nursing studies locally prior and duly obtained the certificate, which is a well-recognised one that has allowed many Mauritians to gain employment in the National Health Service in the UK. However, that person had gone on to qualify as a doctor in a country which had granted him an exemption of one year, on the basis that he had done part of his basic sciences (anatomy and physiology) in his nursing course. That was not acceptable to the Medical Council, and rightly so. In the past, I have myself taught these subjects locally to nursing students and to students doing the health sanitation course, and definitely the contents at that level are totally inadequate for a medicine course.

As regards the pharmacist applicants, one had taken almost 20 years, collecting bits and pieces in the required subjects in different countries, the last stop being an East European one which had granted the final degree. The technical team of the Pharmacy Board had at once rejected the application after a thorough analysis of the dossier. That led to a protracted tussle that even involved high political, and socio-cultural interferences. Finally, the case was set aside following the advice of the member of the Board from the State Law Office: the applicant could not produce an apostilled scroll of the degree.

The other applicant was asked to produce the list of subjects studied. To the surprise of the technical team, this contained one subject that they had never been heard of before in a pharmacy course, and repeated enquiries from the institution remained unanswered. Besides, instead of the candidate, it was the father who had been submitting the dubious documents. And there was politics involved too. But the Board stood firm, and the politicians realised, rightly, that they had better keep out. Again, the application was rejected.

If we do not have committed guardians of standards of practice in the form of regulatory bodies such as statutory councils and boards, any country can collapse, and it is the people that will bear the consequences – including the defaulters and their own kith and kin, especially when it comes to crucial issues such as health where life is at stake. The cases above illustrate if need be that the higher one’s professional aspiration, correspondingly the higher are the requirements – which is but logical come to think of it.

The other lesson that emerges is that it is all very well to aspire to higher education — which is usually understood as being tertiary education, that is education received after completing secondary school – but besides fulfilling the entry requirements, one must also possess the capacity and the interest. If the aspirants above had been honest about their own capabilities, wouldn’t it have been better for them to have pursued their tertiary education in a field and at a level not as demanding and complex as studying for a degree, instead of undergoing several years of wasted study and ending up frustrated and unemployable?

This is where the World Bank’s definition of tertiary education as including universities as well as trade schools and colleges comes in handy as it has practical significance. It implies that those who do not get the opportunity to go to university need not feel in any way inferior to those who have, and that as long as they are prepared to study and work hard, they can also find their place under the sun and live a life of dignity.

There is no doubt that high level university education especially of the academic type allows one greater social mobility and access to the higher echelons of society, but whether this is an intrinsically valuable goal is a big query. All of us must know cases of highly qualified individuals who have turned out to be misfits in society.

That is why to me the debate about three credits versus five credits as requirement to access HSC boils down, fundamentally, to the individual’s interest, inclination to study, perceived capabilities and skills which develop gradually, under the supervision and guidance of parents and teachers.

However, for a start, let me share the opinion of a retired primary school teacher who has produced generations of CPE level students who passed out with flying colours. In answer to my question, he replied that five credits were doable by most students who put their minds to their study, had a supportive family environment, and teachers who acted with dedication. So it’s not just one element – all must come together in harmony: student, teacher, parent. He felt that many parents had abdicated responsibility, and that there were also teachers who were not as dedicated.

Bottom-line is that the country needs a workforce made up of varied skills and competences, of technical, vocational and academic nature. The educational and training landscape must provide avenues and facilities to cater to all these categories, and be able to accommodate those with fewer credits (who are satisfied with attaining a minimum of literacy) as well and prepare them for employability. Those who are keen on university will no doubt find a way and the means to fulfil their dream, and eventually find their place in society too.


* Published in print edition on 7 February 2020

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