Public education sector in Mauritius in jeopardy

Education Reform

Strict regionalisation at PSAC and the National Form III examinations have introduced a double level of competitive pressures, inflamed the private tuition industry and reduced access opportunities from rural localities

By S. Callikan

Ten years ago, there used to be talk of a GDP catch-up race between India and China. Alas, even then and more so now, such comment was deeply unrealistic. The gaping differences between the two Asian economic giants can only grow for one simple often overlooked factor: their education systems, which provide the underlying longer-term thrust and sustainability of their respective economies.

China, as Japan previously in the post-war years, had to overcome a huge image problem as copy-cat or reverse-engineering provider of cheap versions of various international hardware appliances. “In the early years of the 21st century, India and China were comparable in terms of the number of top-ranked universities and gross enrolment ratio. Since then, China has left India trailing behind far in the distance. It has spent more on research, hired better teachers and improved access to education for most of its young people,” comments an informed group of Indian analysts. They are far better placed than us in their judgement that, from primary to tertiary “India’s education system is so broken that it needs fundamental changes, not cosmetic reforms.” The tragic suicides of scores of students not getting satisfying exam result grades, epitomises the need for fundamental reforms across regions and levels, that the Modi-2 government has just launched as a top priority.

It is worth noting that the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf-led government of Pakistan has similarly launched a major review of its terribly underperforming education system, where some 25 million children do not attend schools and where nearly 50% of ten- to twelve-year olds who do so, cannot read or understand a line in any local language, let alone English or Urdu. Such brute numbers matter, but they are not the whole story.

India may have a third more students than China or four times more schools, yet it is cramped by minimal quality public schools and a cramming private-tuition industry leading to the highly competitive exams, where a minute fraction will get access to India’s prized academies, the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs).

Numbers matter, but the social dimensions, those of inequity of means, the challenges of poor environments, materials and resources, the learning that actually takes place in classrooms, the quest for higher quality matter equally. A World Bank study (2007) shows compelling evidence that education quality, rather than simply years of schooling, is a driver of economic growth and increased equity. In 2009, 15-year-olds from a couple of Indian states participated in the international PISA test that evaluates reading, math and science abilities. Against 73 participating countries, they took the penultimate position, such a shock that India stopped all future participation in PISA tests. In 2019 nearly half of BRICS list of top twenty universities from emerging economies are Chinese, only the Bengaluru IIT outfit qualifies. Numbers and indicators like these should have been worrisome for India Inc. decades ago, the gap has been yawning inexorably since.

There is no denying that whatever the scale, dimensions, complexities and specificities inherent to every country, education is the most fundamental building block for their future. We should expect that new generations, at the very least, from their earliest years, have various values instilled or nurtured in them; that in their adolescent years the system should offer opportunities for all to discover what routes most suit their particular conditions and interests; that all children are assets whose talents and skills should not be hemmed in by obsession with traditional structures, pathways, methods and examinations; that education as they migrate in years and grades, should focus on quality of deliverables, of teaching or training, of classrooms, of equipment and facilities, of extra or co-curricular activities, and so on.

There is probably little doubt that these and a host of other factors too long to mention here, are considerations that underpin the thinking and rethinking of our Education establishment as major education reforms were undertaken over the past decades. We have four Universities for an island of 1.2m inhabitants and yet even the best-placed to aim for international ranking and recognition, the University of Mauritius, cannot yet rank regularly among, let us be reasonably ambitious, Africa’s best fifty. Despite the current Vice-Chancellor’s efforts, this is still a distant target and may offer little incentive to governing political patrons, keener on what appeals towards the next electoral horizon.

As for the primary to secondary nexus, the latest avatar of reform with the Nine-Year Continuous Basic Education (NYS for short), there are grounds to believe that the reform being pushed through, despite containing some undoubtedly useful initiatives, falls short of high expectations in official quarters raised at its birthing. In some ways, it may have even aggravated matters for many parents and those observers who, having neither an axe to grind, a security of tenure to consider or a cozy partisan relationship to further, have expressed themselves more freely on the shortcomings of NYS.

Pushing back competitive pressures to a later age, introducing assessment spread over two years (PSAC) rather than the CPE examination, initiating measures for a broader, more holistic education, making more use of IT technology in teaching and text materials, were all laudable in intent. Yet, strict regionalisation at PSAC and the National Form III (or Grade 9) examinations have introduced a double level of competitive pressures, have inflamed the private tuition industry and reduced access opportunities from rural localities.

The conversion of twelve public previous « star colleges » into upper secondary establishments called Academies has profoundly elitist groundings, leaving observers wondering what will be special (funding, staffing, equipment, labs,…) as opposed to the ordinary public regional colleges. We have noted with disquiet that neither private nor confessional authorities will encourage their best students to compete the National Form III exam for migration to these establishments. This effectively morphs our education system into a triple stream (public, confessional and fee-paying private) where, ultimately financial means and urban residence will be entrenched and favoured.

The public education sector, once a proud contributor to decent and meritocratic education opportunities, to social and economic upliftment in the remotest parts of the country, is in jeopardy. I am confident that not everybody in the Education establishment agrees with the new tenets, but the reform has been forced through and is in the pre-final stages of implementation. Next year will see the first edition of the National Form III examination governing access in January 2021 to those elite Academies, destined to welcome the « cream » of secondary school students, some 1200 in all, as the Minister pointed out publicly. That will surely depend on securing success at the urns.

* Published in print edition on 26 July 2019

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