Liquidating a section of the intelligentsia

Unless educational reforms are based on fair play, equity and justice, they are not going to be acceptable in 21st century Mauritius

At a time when a number of questions have been raised on the changes being proposed for our system of education, it appears to many that these changes will infringe the principles of fairness and equity which should inform any educational system in a democratic society. To disregard these basic principles will be self-defeating in the long run. The arguments we raised in 2001 in the wake of the education reform proposals envisaged by the then Minister of Education remain largely valid in the context of new changes proposed by the present government.

The reforms proposed by the then Minister of Education had a number of positive elements on which there was consensus, such as the construction of new colleges, the phasing out of the CPE ranking and regionalisation. On the surface, the principles appeared acceptable, but a deeper analysis revealed that its implementation was not only retrograde but smacked, whether wittingly or not, of ethnic discrimination towards a particular section of the intelligentsia which has taken more than a century of struggle to constitute itself. In short, we said it would lead to the liquidation of the intelligentsia from these communities.

We have consistently maintained that any democratic government which believes that every child not only has a right to education but is capable of being educated, should see to it that that child be provided with a basic education to at least the age of eighteen. This is why we have always pleaded that there should be a secondary school for every primary school. Those who believe otherwise implicitly subscribe in one way or another to exclusionary practices in the fields of education.

When the Action Plan of Kadress Pillay was published, we gave our wholehearted support to the plan to build 60 secondary schools and we greatly deplored the action of an ex-deputy prime minister who sabotaged the project. Today we still support the plan to build as many secondary schools as possible so that the State can discharge that basic responsibility towards its citizens.

Building more schools with the same infrastructural facilities in various parts of the island will not only regionalise education facilities, but will also result in the phasing out of the ranking process which determines admission in government schools. By the same stroke, the inclusion of oriental languages for ranking or grading purposes will no longer be controversial.

Additionally, the elimination of all star colleges is welcomed because it would ease the admission of pupils to secondary schools without having to go through the process of ranking at so early an age. From a purely class angle, it would have liquidated the entire intelligentsia and prevented their reproduction in the star colleges. The levelling process could have been justified as being democratic and the sacrifice of the intelligentsia might have been necessary to solve an extremely difficult problem.

But this is not what the then Minister of Education was proposing. By abolishing only State star colleges and leaving the status of the Catholic star schools unchanged, the minister is embarking on a blatant policy of discrimination, reminiscent of the Afrikaner policy of apartheid South Africa in the 1980s rather than proposing a democratic measure for 21st century Mauritius. The same arguments hold true for whatever is being proposed by the current government.

The basic question remains: why should a section of the intelligentsia be allowed to reproduce its elite in the Catholic colleges and not the intelligentsia of say, Asian and Afro-Creole origins? Why should only one section of the intelligentsia be liquidated to favour another section?

This is racial discrimination which reverses 200 years of struggle for a liberal system of education inaugurated by the British in 1829, a system which enabled a Seewoodary Buguth, a Maurice Curé and a Frank Richard to join the Royal College, and more recently a Kailesh or Babet from working class backgrounds to join the intelligentsia through the Royal College.

The abolition of State star colleges will bring about the liquidation of the bigger segment of the intelligentsia for at least ten years. Although, inevitably, the intelligentsia will reproduce itself, but they will have to wait for the Form VI colleges to become well established, that is an institution where students can study in a well-integrated community and develop their potential to the maximum.

The experience at Ebène in its early days shows clearly that the Form VI college in Mauritius was a failure. It had the best infrastructure, the best staff and a most experienced rector, and yet over seven years students were never integrated into the school. A school community never emerged: absenteeism was rife and students had to take private tuition to succeed at a time when private tuition was relatively rare for Form VI pupils.

Even at present the Form VI colleges in England are not well regarded and the few which have succeeded are in the countryside where the community is middle class and homogeneous.

In Mauritius, establishing the Form VI colleges and making them work will take at least a decade, but meanwhile about 5000 students every year will be destabilised in their studies because they are made to pay the price of reform which eventually will not work.

Many educationists know that Form VI colleges will not work and have voiced their apprehensions. If they were so convinced that it was a good measure, why did they not extend such a ‘good measure’ to the Catholic colleges and why did not the Catholic authorities agree to the abolition of the Form VI star colleges?

After all, it is usually assumed that the Catholic schools are run as a close-knit community on well-established sets of values. Form VI Catholic colleges would have blazed the trail of a new system of Form VI colleges worthy of imitation by State colleges.

If this has not happened and will not happen, it is because all these discourses are hollow. What the government is actually doing is surrendering the conditions and facilities which create star colleges to the Catholic schools and giving them the monopoly to do so.

The following issues were also raised by us in 2001, and they are still valid:

‘As for the other proposed reforms, they are fundamentally flawed and discriminatory. Why are oriental languages not given the same status of equality as other languages when there is so much talk about cultural centres? Why are environmental science, history and geography, neutral subjects not given equal consideration for certification when the fashionable discourse is to broaden education in the primary?

‘As to grading replacing ranking there is no change since grading is more arbitrary and subjective if we are going to use it to maintain selection for admission to secondary schools. The regional map is so incoherent that it looks like gerrymandering to surrender to certain vested interests. In the end, the State will use public money to give some parents wider choices and deprive others of the same right. A new pass law will limit pupils to their respective districts and others can shop around to look for better colleges.

‘Whether the government intended to liquidate the intelligentsia of certain groups to favour others is not important to know for these are the consequences of its policy. In such a situation, there is little likelihood that reforms rooted in discrimination will be implemented apart from the building of new schools.

‘It is worth remembering that it was the Bantu Education Act and the Soweto riots which led to the demise of the apartheid regime. Yet there are simple solutions if the government has good intentions and genuinely wish to do justice. Accept oriental languages on the basis of equality. Have at least two new colleges per region which will teach Form I to Form VI and they should not be the present State star schools including Royal Colleges and QEC. Make a more coherent regional map based on transparency and include as many optional subjects in the selection process apart from English and Mathematics.’

Unless educational reforms are based on fair play, equity and justice, they are not going to be acceptable in 21st century Mauritius except to a group of reactionaries.

S. CHIDAMBARAM

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