Surendra Bissoondoyal

Education in a changing global environment

— Surendra Bissoondoyal

For centuries the concept and the purpose of education remained static, with some variations from place to place. In Mauritius the goal of education has for a long time been to obtain a secure job in the public sector — mainly as clerks and primary school teachers initially. It was then found that a University degree would open up better prospects and ensure higher salaries as secondary school teachers and administrators. Medicine and law were also privileged.

Although the aims and objectives of education have, apart from personal development, to respond to the needs of a fast changing economic environment our educational system has not evolved to address these new challenges. It has remained examination driven at all levels with scant attention paid to skills development. The highly selective end-of-primary CPE exam taken by 11-year olds after 6 years of rote learning  still remains the biggest hurdle to leapfrog for  children who are forced to wear blinkers, which remain with them at the secondary level. Only lip service is paid to the all round development of the student.

Our mindset remains locked in the past and refuses to look around and learn from what other countries are doing to tackle their economic and social problems. Even ministers appear on television to congratulate themselves when the CPE pass rate increases by one per cent. They would have every reason to jubilate if the pass rate were 98% as in Singapore!

When Tony Blair became Prime Minister of the UK in the 1990s, he was asked what his three priorities were. He replied: education, education, education. If he were asked the same question today he would certainly have put the emphasis on skills development. 2500 years ago Confucius, the Chinese sage, said that if you give a man a fish, you will feed him for one day. But if you teach him how to fish, you will feed him all his life. Was he not talking about skills development without using today’s jargon?

Julia Gillard, the Australian Prime Minister, launched a few months ago an ambitious A$ 9 billion plan to provide skills development opportunities to all Australians of working age. Singapore, on its part, channels its students along three main routes depending on their aptitudes and the needs of the country. About a quarter of them follow courses of the Institute of Technical Education to become electricians, car mechanics, carpenters, plumbers, etc. More than 40% are channeled, after completing their GCE’ O’ levels, to Polytechnics to follow 3-year Diploma courses in the middle level technological and management areas. 25% are then channeled to Universities after their ‘A’ level.

The Singapore government has a vision and a plan for all its students. What is ours? One graduate per family? Universities at every street corner?  We rely on foreign workers in a wide range of areas. Can’t we base ourselves on such facts to plan to replace them in due course? When Mozambique expects to have a GDP growth of 8.2% this year we seem to be happy with 3.2%.

So much about developing our human resources. We are confronted with very serious social and health problems. Do we educate our children about such problems as early as possible? Poor children. They have no time to play and enjoy music and art. How will they find time to worry about the environment, about values and about what is in store for them in the future? Junk food, drinking and drug addiction will continue to cause havoc in our society. We will continue to make children wear blinkers, telling them that the CPE is the be-all and end-all of education, after which everything will be plain sailing.

We move at a snail’s pace in harnessing modern technologies in the field of education and elsewhere. Our media splash the good news about the great stride made in the field of ICT when a connection of 1 MB becomes available. The Minister responsible for ICT should make those responsible for developing and democratizing this new technology wake up from their lethargy and slumber. Eric Schmidt, Executive President of Google, has said that the British economy will flourish if computing becomes like child play. The Open University is still struggling to become proactive seven years after the OUM Act was passed by Parliament.

I have deliberately been harsh because we should not rest on our laurels. Complacency is the enemy of development and progress. Countries which were behind us in economic development are fast catching up with us. As the poet John Donne wrote some 400 years ago: “no man is an island …. do not ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee”. In today’s global village we are all interconnected, but nobody owes us a living.

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