Higher education matters
By S. Chidambaram
In the early years of the 20th century, only a few students among the working and lower middle classes in Mauritius could complete their higher education overseas. They were not necessarily the most intelligent students of their lot; they were simply the lucky few and mostly the ‘least disadvantaged among the most disadvantaged classes’.
Today our views about what constitutes intelligence have radically changed and it is generally acknowledged that most, if not all of our students, can – if they are willing to – complete tertiary education at some time in their lives. After all education is today about life-long learning.
No parent who has had the opportunity of completing a diploma or a degree programme in a higher education institution would today discourage his or her children to go for higher studies.
We have presently only 60,000 graduates in a population of 1.2 million. In many families all their members have benefited from higher education, and getting a higher education should today become the aspiration of every family. In a country which is being transformed and modernised at such a rapid pace and which relies on its human resources for its further development and for improving the standard of living of the people, we need to increase the number of students going for higher education to sustain our future.
The demand for higher education is in line with our current stage of development. In the 1940s, the colonial government, with its own objectives in mind, implemented the Ward Report for elementary education. Succeeding governments in the 1950s and 1960s sustained the enrolment in primary education, resorting to even the double shift system in order not to refuse any child admission to a primary school.
All our children have benefited from primary education, but it was especially the girls who benefited the most from such education without which the take-off of our industrial development in the 1970s would not have been possible. As we continue to add a new pillar to the economy, there has been a parallel development of education at the secondary and tertiary levels.
A crying demand for professionals
The expansion of tertiary education is essentially a response to the twin demands of the new economy and the aspirations of the individual. There is a crying demand for professionals in every sector of the economy. Today every product and every service is becoming more and more sophisticated and requires very high levels of skills and competence. These can only be available in tertiary institutions.
Forty years ago, in a UK university with 15,000 students, I was surprised to discover the variety of disciplines which were taught at that time. They ranged from colour chemistry, metallurgy to food and sport science. Today the same university has 40,500 students and offers 700 graduate and postgraduate programmes.
The courses which are offered in most universities are varied because everybody needs to be a professional in his respective field. As society becomes more and more complex, more and more specialisation is required.
For example, let’s consider the nursing profession as it was practised in Britain in the 19th century: Brian Abel-Smith’s in his ‘A History of the Nursing Profession’ recalls how nursing was done by those ‘who were too old, too weak, too drunken… or too bad to do anything else.’ It was only in 1848 that St John House started training nurses. As from 1856 most nurses were trained at King’s College, London.
In 1860 the Nightingale Training School was launched, and by 1930 nurses had to undergo three years of training. Later to become a registered nurse one had to succeed in an examination run by the General Council of Nursing of England and Wales. Today nursing has become even more specialised in terms of diseases and treatment and courses are run at both undergraduate and master’s levels.
The same type of evolution which has marked the nursing profession is now branching out to all professions. One has to take a look at the variety of tertiary education programmes to realise the types of skills and competence which are required in the modern world. For too long it has been wrongly assumed that tertiary education is limited to traditional academic disciplines.
Universities and institutions of higher learning all over the world are presently undergoing major transformations to respond to the needs of society which are constantly changing. Consequently there is no longer any permanent job for anyone and everybody is compelled to continuously unlearn and relearn at any age as new skills emerge and old skills become obsolescent.
Stone Age resistance
For all these reasons tertiary education is called to play a critical role in sustaining the development of our society and in modernising our human resources. The challenge is very daunting and Stone Age resistance is to be expected. This is not new. Resistance is bound to come from those who have always taken the view that higher education is for the ‘supposed elite’.
Others may worry about what in the 1970s was termed the ‘diploma disease’ or the ‘massification’ of higher education. Many will in good faith also worry about quality but will lose sight of the fact that quality is an ongoing process. Moreover we cannot build a Jawaharlal Nehru University or Nanyang Technological University overnight.
Our past provides numerous examples of people who were opposed to primary education, secondary education, education for girls and the construction of a university. All these people have been proved wrong because they could never grasp that education matters, whether at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels. It matters to the individual, the community and the nation.
However, there have also been many who have always had an abiding faith in education. This reminds me of a milkman who started a flourishing college in Port Louis, educated his son at the Royal College, who missed the laureateship in the 1940s and became a graduate. The milkman also had a grandson who also became a graduate. The grandson in turn had a daughter who would today aspire to get admitted in the best university in the world.
This is a lesson which many should learn. It is an example of achievement in a milkman’s family, which can be replicated by every other family of Mauritius.
* Published in print edition on 20 April 2012