The University of Mauritius: A Flashback

We all know the proverb that Rome was not built in a day. There is no better saying to encapsulate the long and protracted process which led to the establishment of universities. Almost all of them started as small centres of learning and later developed into bigger institutions with the loftier aims of creating and disseminating knowledge. At the beginning, those centres developed out of a need to provide training for specific needs of society whether in religion, trade or industry. A study of the British system of universities confirms this pattern of development, and the same trajectory was to shape the development of the University of Mauritius.

In England the setting up of a university at Oxford and later at Cambridge was to train literate people for the Church. Oxford developed from a small centre of learning into a number of colleges, which together formed the University of Oxford. Victoria University, which later developed into Manchester University, was started as Owens College in 1851. Victoria University was created in 1880 and its affiliated colleges in Leeds and Liverpool later obtained the status of universities. Mason College was founded in 1880 and became Birmingham University in 1900.

University College, Bristol existed from 1876 to 1909 and was the precursor to Bristol University. Firth College, founded in1879, became the University of Sheffield in1905. In the wake of the Robbins Report (the report of the Committee on Higher Education, chaired by Lord Robbins, and commissioned by the British government) many of the Colleges of Technology were turned into universities — in Roy Jenkins’ phrase ‘from pumpkins into coaches by a touch of the Secretary of State’s wand’.

One remarkable feature of all these universities was that they were all set up to serve very limited functions in the society of the times, before they embraced the humanistic tradition

In Mauritius a similar pattern can be seen in the setting up of the University of Mauritius. It was initially the College of Agriculture, which provided the nucleus for the future University. Although the idea of a university in Mauritius has its roots in the 19th century when Adrien d’Epinay and Remy Ollier pleaded for Mauritius to have a university, we have to wait for the 20th century for the idea take concrete shape.

First, there was the creation of a School of Agriculture in the Department of Agriculture. Frank Stockdale had been appointed Director of Agriculture, and he wanted some research work and training to be done in the Department, which previously had been undertaken at the Station Agronomique. The latter was absorbed in the Department and a School of Agriculture was operational in 1914. Training was reorganized and a diploma in agriculture was started.

Harold Tempany, the successor of Stockdale, wanted to give a boost to research: the School of Agriculture was transformed into the College of Agriculture and a stone building was erected in 1925. The Economic Commission of 1947-48, which looked into the restructuring of the economy during the post-War period, recognized the good work done by the College in training technicians for work in the ‘field and factory’ in the sugar industry, but it found that it did not train a sufficient number to meet the demand. It recommended the reorganization of the College into two schools, a school of agriculture and a school of engineering ‘to satisfy the needs of industry in the in field, laboratory and factory’.

In 1962 the commission of inquiry on the sugar industry chaired by Thomas Balogh expressed disagreement with the report of Professor Lockwood’s recommendation regarding the setting up of a university. (The Balogh Commission of Inquiry was set up by the colonial government in response to an editorial which was published a few months earlier in the Mauritius Times – ‘The Fraud Continues’ — regarding a number of malpractices then prevalent in the sugar industry.) Lockwood felt that that the time was inopportune to embark on such a project. He had in mind a university on the European pattern, in brief, a traditional university.

On the contrary, Balogh wrote and recommended that the College of Agriculture might well serve as the nucleus for a university college as part of the University of East Africa. He added that ‘it is specialization in agriculture and certain aspects of technical training in close collaboration with other East African institutions of higher education that is required at this moment and not slavish imitation of systems more appropriate to Western Europe’. He recommended exploratory talks with the University of East Africa.

In 1964 we were lucky to have Colin Leys to draw up the report on the reorganization of the College of Agriculture. He was a a leftist and a leading scholar in African politics and development theory, and at that time Professor and Head of School in Political Science at Makarere University, Uganda, and the Institute of Development Studies, Sussex. In his report on the College of Agriculture, he went beyond his terms of reference and proposed the creation of a university for Mauritius.

Leys’ idea of a developmental university was innovative, practical and feasible and was in line with the wishes of the government after Professor Lockwood had advised against embarking on such a project. In Leys’ view, a developmental university should serve the economic needs and future manpower needs of the country. His main argument for investing scarce resources was that research in the field of development was one of the most important functions of public universities.

It was Colin Leys’ blueprint which won the support of the government. On 8 May 1964 when Dr Ramgoolam moved the Appropriation Bill, he announced that the House would be discussing the Colin Leys Report. There was an all-party government and the PMSD through its spokesman Cyril Leckning made it clear that his party was for the creation of a university. The only Member who spoke against was Robert Rey, an independent Member.

The then Minister of Education, Veerasamy Ringadoo, persuasively refuted the arguments, emphasizing the fact that it was not going to be a traditional university like what Lockwood had in mind. Later when the Bill came for Second Reading, the PMSD was in the opposition and most of its members expressed reservations, except for Cyril Leckning who maintained that the university was a necessity for the island. In his concluding remarks, Ringadoo agreed it was a big risk but a risk worth taking for the advancement of the country and its people.

By the 1990s, the University had come of age and was considered a successful venture. Its place in Mauritian history was well established and it was closely linked with the development of post-independent Mauritius.

With hindsight the University Ordinance of 1965 was an important piece of legislation linked with both development and democracy. When one views its success, one may overlook and underestimate the difficulties and problems of turning the dream of a university into reality. Between the passing of the University Ordinance on 10 December 1965 and the passing of the University Act in 1971, there was an uphill struggle during these six long years and various measures had be taken along the way to overcome numerous obstacles.

The setting up of the Provisional Council, three Schools, and a Library, the appointment of Vice Chancellors, staffing problems, and development of courses in the face of limited financial and human resources posed a number of problems. A construction grant from the British government was delayed because the latter government wanted assurances that the local government would meet the recurrent expenses. Rescue plans had to be crafted.

Criticisms of the University project ranged from L’Express wondering whether Mauritians could only aspire to the level of senior lecturer while Congress criticized the overseas visits of the Vice Chancellor. Week-End saw the university as ‘an affair of prestige ever to remain Ramgoolam’s white elephant.’

At times morale was low, there were setbacks and even the Vice Chancellor submitted his resignation. In the end the University has proved a success. At a time when the University is celebrating its 50th anniversary, a flashback is necessary. We should remember that right from its inception, the university had to sail through very rough seas and it is to the credit of many that the ship reached the shore safely.

Nowadays the seas are even more rough, and the challenges many. It is important that we draw some lessons from the past and come up with innovative ideas to shape the future of the University. For if it fails to rise to the challenges of the time, it is the whole nation which is at risk.

  • Published in print edition on 13 November 2015

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