Needed: More and effective social science research at UOM

The mission of the University of Mauritius in the 21st Century is to disseminate and to create knowledge and to engage with society. An increase in the number of social scientists is crucial for social science research to enlighten us about our own society

For the last few decades, everybody knows that our society has been undergoing profound changes. If at one time, in the early years of industrialisation, the changes did not erupt to the surface, but soon afterwards we became acutely conscious that things are no longer the same.

Occasional reports, surveys and very often research monographs directed our attention to the transformation taking place and solutions to grapple with these complex issues were put forward and implemented. Yet these elementary efforts were never sustained and new crises arise in new contexts. Hence our plea for continuous social science research at the University of Mauritius in order to make sense of what is happening to our society so that new insights can inform social policies.

Unless we are aware of the deep processes which convulse our society, solutions can at best be partial and in worst case inappropriate. The list of ills which plague our society is endless. The most well known are alcoholism, domestic violence, drug addiction, consumerism, materialism, illiteracy and unemployment and one can continue on and on. Even increase in religiosity has been accompanied by a decline in morality.

The consequences are catastrophic for society and these ‘evils’ become embedded in the social structure and reproduce and perpetuate themselves in the families, neighbourhood, the community and society. Unless we develop strategies to break the vicious circle of poverty, inequality, illiteracy, the resilience of every individual or family will be eroded and we will not be able to develop coping strategies to withstand crises.

Since the 1970s, increasing number of parents have spent very little time with their children because both parents have been at work. We have created a frustrated generation of children deprived of parental care and today these very children in turn are reproducing the same pattern of family life with the same dire consequences for the present and the future. Should we not all step back and find out where we went wrong and seek to set things right for the present and the future?

Are we surprised that heroin made its entry in Mauritius in the 1980s and the drug offenders committed to prison was 4 in 1985, climbing up to 440 in 1986 before going down 74 in 1989 and that usually this figure must be multiplied by 10 to get an idea of the number of heroin addicts in society? We may hypothesise about the many causes of this development – improved economic conditions, lack of pastime, new products, marketing strategies and so on – but such causes which explain everything explain nothing actually. We still remain in the dark and this is equally valid for many of the problems which confront society.

We all realise today that the only constant thing about society is change. In fact, the only constant is change. We spend an intense period of time, if ever we do spend that time, with our children for a very short period in our life as we live longer. And during that short period of time, if we do not prepare them to face life, we have to take responsibility for this failure. How often we have heard parents telling us that they do not know what the children do at school, who are their friends, what are their pastimes and whether they discuss their views or their plans. But, on the other hand, do we know how to prepare them, how to talk to them and do we get the right help to engage with them on day-to-day issues which concern them. Very often we think we know and, most often, we don’t really know, and we cannot get or implement the right advice or even the right approach. It is so easy to blame parents and teachers but it is so difficult to find out which door to knock for bringing up results.

While raising such issues, it would be grossly unfair to say that the various authorities and social organisations have done nothing over the years to address these issues. In fact great efforts have been made by many at all levels to cope with many challenges, ranging from life-long education to tackling drug addiction. On every issue there have been efforts made but unfortunately they were inadequate in terms of geographical coverage or could not be sustained for lack of resources. There has been a study of our social fabric in the past but there was no follow-up thereafter. A Poverty Observatory was set up but it did not last long. In many cases, the studies were not detailed enough, the wrong questions were asked and often the findings were so vague or the proposed solutions inappropriate to local conditions because we often relied too much on concepts developed in different environments elsewhere.

For solutions to be appropriate we need to take into consideration local conditions, socio-cultural realities and socio-economic conditions. Only social research grounded in Mauritian society can prove useful and relevant and above all they must be on-going and not done on an ad hoc basis. We need both short-term and long-term research on priority areas. There are many research doors to open for which we do not have the keys. At the moment, such research can only be carried out at the University of Mauritius where there is at least a Faculty of Social Studies. We therefore need to expand the social research agenda at the University of Mauritius, recruit young and dynamic social scientists and make research their priority and give them the time and means to do their work.

However we have to admit that at present good social science research is very few and far apart and that, for most academics, this is an almost impossible task. In the Social Studies department there are about three historians, three or four sociologists and one anthropologist. It is too small a team for interdisciplinary research and we have too many issues which cry for priority. The conditions for the academics are made worse when they are made to teach about four modules with about 50-60 students in a class, something which does not happen in any good university.

It is true that in the UK, which remains our model for quality education, a lecturer or a group of lecturers often lectures to 150 students or more at a time for a core module but all these students have to compulsorily attend tutorials in very small groups run by a number of lecturers and not one. When one takes into consideration that an academic – if he wants to keep a high standard of teaching – has to give a minimum of two assignments of at least 3000 words, mark them in time for proper feedback, and mark an equal number of scripts for examinations apart from dissertations and other administrative duties, we can understand why the quality of teaching suffers. It would be downright foolish to think that on-line courses without face-to-face tutorials will solve the problem. The experience of Open University will be helpful on this issue

Research equally suffers. Not only does the academic have practically no time for research but the University academic calendar poses as a major obstacle. In any research university, by the end of May or June, examinations, the Board of examination and the publication of results are over. Between July and beginning of October (which should be the resumption of studies as was the practice in the past), the academic has three months every academic year to carry out his research. This is no longer possible. Academics have to deal with examinations, mark scripts, attend boards of examination up to July and deal with admissions before University starts in August. If we do not want to pay lip service to good teaching and research, we should create the conditions and the right environment for all academics. Often the term productivity is invoked to justify many of these bad practices, but we cannot make musicians more productive by making them play faster.

The mission of the University in the 21st Century is to disseminate and to create knowledge and to engage with society. An increase in the number of social scientists is crucial for social science research to enlighten us about our own society.

It is ironic that when social scientists from other countries come to study our society in order to shape their futures and in many countries are being employed by companies to learn about employees, organisational processes and to find solutions in industrial relations and marketing of products, we should give little consideration to social scientists and choose to remain ignorant about our own society and lament that we are the passive victims of forces beyond our control.

The way forward is to strengthen the social science research at the University and it will be money well spent.

*  Published in print edition on 5 June 2015

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