Issues concerning the quality of teaching and research at the University should be debated at all levels so that in the end, an enabling environment can be created in the interest of students, staff and the University itself
The appointment of a new Vice-Chancellor at the University of Mauritius raises high hopes among many who would like to see the university move towards the next level of its development –to become a full-fledged research institution.
For several decades, the University has been a teaching institution, with most of its staff teaching certificate and diploma courses with one or two undergraduate programmes. Over the years, a staff development programme has raised staff qualification, and coupled with the recruitment of an increasing number of PhD holders, the University was able to teach beyond the diploma and undergraduate levels. In addition to teaching, the staff was also carrying out some research and a few were able to publish in journals with a high impact factor.
At present there is the ardent wish among university staff to achieve excellence in research, and the Vice Chancellor, who has himself been in the forefront of research in his Faculty, is expected to make a significant contribution towards enhancing the research potential of the university.
It would be presumptuous to believe, even with the best of intentions, that a research culture at the University can be established overnight. The hurdles impeding the emergence of high quality research are too numerous to list: they range from confused priorities of the University, proliferation of programmes, lack of equipment, poor support for academic and administrative staff and inadequate time for academics to pursue their research interests.
Admittedly, some research needs very little funding and intrinsic factors have motivated many to be research productive despite being confronted with a number of obstacles. At present, neither a master plan for university research nor even a Higher Education Act will have the necessary impact at the institutional level. Seeking to address all the problems at the same time will end up achieving nothing substantial as is evident in the aftermath of the last Visitor’s Report.
There are, however, a few practical steps which may be envisaged to create an enabling environment for academics to focus on research. It is impossible for a lecturer to undertake research if s/he are teaching more than three yearly modules in one year or six half modules especially if s/he has classes of 50 to 60 students, is supervising about 10 to 15 dissertations besides being dumped with a load of administrative work which could have easily been done by a well-trained clerical officer.
Can a lecturer teach such overcrowded classes alone, monitor the progress of students, mark course work and examinations, attend numerous unproductive committees and expect to do quality research? It is not surprising that that the quality of teaching and learning has undergone a steep decline, resulting in great frustration amongst academics as well as students.
It is high time that the University thinks about curtailing the number of programmes it offers, the more so given that for some programmes it has only one or two permanent qualified academics to teach. It has consequently relied on a number of part-timers who may have neither the professional nor the work experience. The minimum number of academics to teach an undergraduate programme in one particular discipline should be around four or five, and at university level, one expects each academic to be a specialist in at least one or two areas.
A group of lecturers can share one or two general modules in the first year, which is an introductory year where students are exposed to the broad outlines of a particular discipline. In the second or third years or at Master’s level, only specialized modules should be taught. It is only in such conditions that the lecturer can specialize in a particular area of knowledge. If he is called to teach any module within his discipline but outside his field of specialisation, as is often the case, he ends up disseminating arid knowledge to his students whereas he is expected to integrate his own research in his teaching. Disseminating new knowledge cannot be done without specialisation.
Once the University cuts down on programmes and on the number of part-timers, one would also be able to set a limit on class sizes and reduce the intake. It appears that the number of programmes has expanded simply to compete with other universities and increase revenue. Management has regularly invoked all kinds of excuses to justify their decisions, oblivious of its consequences, but if one were to ask for evidence-based decisions, there is none except bean counting. The negative consequences flowing from this policy have undermined the reputation of the University.
Low morale among students and academics
The UOM cannot cope with an unplanned increase in student population. Students are enlisted on programmes they find too demanding. Lecturers find it necessary to dilute their programmes and ‘teach’ examination questions to get them through to avoid high rates of failures. Poor teaching and learning have led to low morale among students and academics and research has been the main casualty. In fact the nuts and bolts of higher education should be left to other universities whereas the University of Mauritius has all the necessary strengths to shine in the higher education landscape. It has to take a few practical steps to fulfil the objective of creating an enabling environment for both academics and administrative staff.
All academics usually do some administrative work, coordinating programs, monitoring classes and attending committees. At the moment the overload of administrative work is such that staff are stressed and many prefer not to attend so many committees. Such tasks would have been easily managed if the cohorts of students were not too large and the number of committees had been reduced.
On the other hand, there is sometimes an inbuilt inertia in the administrative set-up which paralyses initiative and action. Lecturers find it impossible to add a new emerging theme to their modules and have to wait for three years to bring about change. While academics attend workshop and training programmes, administrators rarely undergo training and the administration remains archaic. Even the university calendar needs to be reviewed to facilitate research. In universities all over the world, examinations and results are completed by the end of June and academics have at least three months from July to September to attend conferences and do their research. All these issues may look simplistic but unless they are promptly resolved, they will continue to impede the research mission of the University.
Issues concerning the quality of teaching and research at the University should be debated at all levels so that in the end, an enabling environment can be created in the interest of students, staff and the University itself. UOM has many strengths and the new Vice Chancellor with the collaboration of all his staff can enhance the place the University occupies in the island.