The Tertiary Education Nexus

If Vice-Chancellors and University Directors are resigning every few months, the underlying issue should be addressed

The current tertiary education imbroglio is not of negligible concern, neither may it be of the sinister variety some opposition and press pundits would have us believe.

However it is right that any anomalous matters in a complex setup involving the Health and Tertiary Education nexus, with several institutional players, be reviewed by an independent Fact-Finding Committee rather than media trials with their inherent hype risks. Demonstrable failures should be sanctioned but, more importantly, recommendations should be made for the authorities to review the setup and legislation governing the sector.

Last week’s MT editorial reminded us all succinctly how the University of Mauritius (UoM) was created by SSR to usher in, very much against the rabid criticism of the usual know-alls, the skeptics, the biased and the short-viewed, a new era in higher education and a lasting institution. Despite limited resources, a developmental philosophy (accent on courses, research, schools and faculties in line with national context), and a massively pressing need to fill the gaps of thousands of departing junior and middle-level cadres around Independence years, there was an over-riding concern to establish and entrench international standing and repute.

Founding fathers and legislators were no doubt acutely aware of an ever-haunting risk of being “simply” a “glorified post-secondary technical training school” and sensed, even in the sixties, that our first and probably only shot at Academia would have to get it right. Budgetary provisions, ministerial or policy guidelines, staffing and institutional development, would be channeled and debated through legitimate presence on the University’s governing Council while all academic matters (teaching, research, international seminars, peer-review publications and consultancies) rested with a Senate.

This managerial structure (Vice-Chancellor, Registrar, Council, Academic Senate and School/Faculty Boards), was therefore duly inspired by the Anglo-Saxon university model and, however seemingly unwieldy, was in retrospect crucial to give the UoM the necessary autonomy, credibility and international repute. And it was fortunate in its early years to have distinguished Vice-Chancellors of the like of Octave Wiehe, R. Burrenchobay and J. Manrakhan to uphold that vision and translate it into reality.

Every School/Faculty developed intimate tie-ups with UK or international universities of repute in its domain, the likes of Reading, Aberdeen, Wye or Imperial College, London. Every course, from design to conduct, exams and grading, every graduation were appropriately monitored: stringent for several years until mutual confidence had been established for general annual vetting by the external partners. Many able men and women thrived there, some later leaving for distinguished careers elsewhere: Prof Edouard Lim Fat, Swaley Kasenally, Kailash Ruhee, Mrs V. Nababsing, Prof Roland Dubois, Raj Virahsawmy, Dharam Gokhool, Prof J. Baguant, to name but a few.

Matters were to evolve from the mid-eighties onwards with the rapid pace of development in the country. Two phases can be identified. The first called for coordination of development and capital and operational funding between publicly funded tertiary institutions, at first the UOM, the MGI, the MIE and the MCA for distance learning. (The IVTB, under independent steam and financing, catered for the variety of post-secondary technical and vocational training.)

The first phase brought in the initial TEC legislation to coordinate and vet those development and budgetary plans but the TEC had obviously neither mandate nor competencies to assess long-standing internal academic processes (design and operation of courses, exams and graduations). To answer a legitimate concern for accountability and efficiency in the allocation of resources, a door had however also been opened for possible ministerial or administrative intervention in Academic or University matters, bypassing the ministry’s normal representations through the University’s governing Council.

The second phase from the year 2000 onwards saw the setting up of the UTM and the burgeoning of several private institutions dispensing a variety of post-secondary education and training opportunities in management, medicine, finance and accounting, hostelry, amongst others, often without accreditation or proper vetting. Authorisations to open and operate new tertiary institutions rested with the Ministry of Education, a quite unsatisfactory ad-hoc situation, which was only rectified in 2005 when the initial legislation was modified to confer onto TEC the sole vetting authority to operate tertiary education establishments in Mauritius, quite in addition to its other responsibilities.

For instance, the medical school Louis Pasteur, partnering with Lille University and the Mauras School of Dentistry, affiliated with Bhavnagar University (India), had both been authorised in 2002 by then Minister of Education Obeegadoo to start operations; they were among the high-profile cases to flounder in or about 2013, causing heavy public media hype and somewhat unfairly laying responsibility on TEC.

On the other hand, one can note that the University of Mauritius, with its long track record of international credibility and standing, is satisfactorily operating a full Medical MD program with the University of Geneva and the Ministry of Health. The UTM, created in 2000, has perhaps exercised far less caution in accepting to grant and confer medical degrees, without at least ensuring a close international and independent scrutiny in the reported DY Patil case.

Massive private investments and universities or schools have developed and tapped the huge Indian market and some have legitimate aspirations to further investments in Mauritius or Africa for regional students. We should not shirk off investments, but it is our responsibility to ensure that such investments and developments take place in a reliable legal, administrative and supervisory environment.

The medical, dental, pharmaceutical, nursing and para-medical sector is a special kettle of fish. Should the TEC continue to handle this particular baby, it requires far greater coordination with the Ministry of Health, the Hospital Directorates which should clearly and unambiguously identify which hospitals can serve as undergrad or postgrad teaching units (CHU, Centre Hospitaliers Universitaires in the French jargon) and in which domains, the Medical Council and the private or public institution concerned.

The blame game is easy. With a fast-changing global environment we have to continuously evolve our structures and every new sector may have a learning curve and teething problems. The risks associated with ministerial interventionism through TEC should be minimized: if Vice-Chancellors and University Directors are resigning every few months, the underlying issue should be addressed. It is perhaps time to evolve the ministry-driven Commission into an independent Authority with a proper governing panel, some of whom should have international academic experience.

 


* Published in print edition on 7 March 2014

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