“We should not encourage a culture of accepting blindly what a political party decides. This is not democracy”

Interview  Surendra Bissoondoyal

If we revisit the Constitution, we will have to go beyond a reform of the electoral system and beyond the sharing of powers between the President and the PM…

… If we do not do that, would the public not get the impression that politicians are only interested in sharing the spoils?”

“We have a very crude notion of what we call our elite and that this elite can be identified at the early age of 11”

Surendra Bissondoyal does not mind repeating it “hundreds of times if need be”, he says, that main problem at primary level in the education sector is the rat race leading to a cut-throat competition at the CPE. “There will be no improvement if our primary education continues to be geared towards that examination which is based on the ability to reproduce what is written in textbooks,” and adds that in his view, the “Enhancement Programme and the Summer School are just cosmetic measures which will not bring any improvement to the system.”

Mr Bissoondoyal has long been associated with the education sector; he headed the Mauritius Examinations Syndicate for many years and was Pro-Vice Chancellor of the University of Mauritius for almost 17 years. Hailing from a family closely associated with Mauritian society and politics, he now forms part of the MMM’s Education Commission.

Mauritius Times: Bad news for politicians… if we go by what Mohamad Vayid stated in this paper last week — the people are fed up with the political class generally, he said. Is that indeed the case, or do we love to hate them? Why?

Surendra Bissoondoyal: We been hearing about people being fed up with politicians for quite some time now. But the love-hate relationship that characterizes the political class generally is undergoing a major transformation. When three parties — the Labour Party, the IFB and the CAM — joined hands to demand independence for Mauritius, the leaders did not have their own personal interests in mind.

Before independence the people also were looking forward to a new government based on the Westminster pattern and believed that meritocracy and justice would prevail. But today it is power and money that make politicians hate one another one day and unashamedly embrace one another the next day. They join different political parties with ulterior motives and change allegiance overnight if it is in their interest to do so — forget about their claims that they are doing it “in the superior interest of the country”.

* You have worked and provided support to the earlier generation of politicians, and if you were to do a comparison exercise between that generation of politicians and today’s generation, what would you say has changed? Has it to do with changes at the societal level as well?

I have worked under Prime Ministers and Ministers from different political parties throughout my professional career. Like most professionals and administrators of that time we tried to do our job with competence and diligence irrespective of who was the Minister or Prime Minister. I was appointed Project Manager of the First World Bank Education Project (construction of 12 Junior Secondary Schools and Centralized Laboratories and workshops) by Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam in 1974 although SSR and Sookdeo Bissoondoyal were on opposite sides of the political divide. What do we see today? Meritocracy is not the determining factor in appointments at the highest levels.

Of course society is also undergoing rapid transformations, with materialistic appetites increasing and leading to corruption. The people are being used only to obtain power and are forgotten for five years before they are courted again. This has been noticed by the people. However the people have also become victims of corruption and want their ‘boutte’ irrespective of meritocracy.

But there are tsunamis, not just winds of change, engulfing the most solid autocratic “emperors” in the world. International television channels and the Internet are powerful tools that flash news instantly across the globe…

* Deborah Brautigham, in a study of the political and economic elite of Mauritius in the days prior to and after Independence, points to the fact that “meritocratic, elite secondary schools (the Royal Colleges namely) and support for liberal arts education” as well as the intrinsic depth of culture of individual leaders made the difference and helped forge a better future for Mauritius. For having seen the erstwhile political and administrative elites at close quarters, would you agree with her assessment?

Deborah Brautigham’s analysis is correct, but we must also bear in mind that access to secondary education was not a democratic right then. Nevertheless Mauritius was lucky — unlike most other colonies — to have a good number of political, educational and administrative leaders who served the country well in its initial stages of development. They were cultured people who had benefited from a British grammar school type of education not only at the Royal Colleges but also a few other secondary schools which modelled themselves on the same pattern. There was also a culture of reading which has almost disappeared today with the onslaught of all the modern communication and technological devices. However the democratization of education is an essential element for the development of a country.

* If we can work on the “meritocratic, elite education” that will become the nursery supplying Mauritius with the necessary thinkers, researchers, economists, etc, what do you do about the culture thing — the intrinsic depth of culture — that makes the difference? Isn’t that the crux of the matter?

There is a dangerous misconception that “meritocratic, elite education” has no place for culture in its broadest sense. In our highly selective examination system starting from the primary school level children are encouraged, even forced, to study only examinable subjects. The ‘culture’ element is absent in the curriculum. There is a similar debate going on in Britain about the government’s proposal to restrict the education of children from deprived environments to the “core subjects” only. Prof Mick Waters, curriculum expert, asks: “Why should children not paint, sing, move and dance? Surely we want them to live their lives joyfully?” Other cultural leaders have joined the battle against the government’s focus on “traditional subjects”. It is this in fact which is the crux of the matter. Education should be holistic.

* Gaetan Duval decided in 1982 that he would not be comfortable in the company of the newly elected Honourable Members of Parliament and he chose to quit. You have chosen to join that team. Does this mean you do not feel any discomfort?

It is not for me to question Gaetan Duval’s decision, although even a one-man Opposition is preferable to abdicating one’s role in Parliament. Gaetan Duval, anyway is not anybody. He could have been a formidable one-man Opposition, as Sookdeo Bissoondoyal was in his days. We are aware how one 74-year-old man, Anna Hazare, has compelled the Indian government to introduce an Anti-Corruption Bill in Parliament. In another country, Greece, a lady MP, Ms Kalafidou has forced her reluctant colleagues to renounce their hefty perks following cuts in the salaries and pensions of the people in the wake of the economic crisis threatening the Greek economy with collapse. She argued that MPs cannot make drastic cuts in the salaries of the people and keep their perks at the same time.

We should not encourage a culture of accepting blindly what a political party decides. This is not democracy. It is a question of whether you shut up when a decision is taken by the top brass of a Party without discussion or debate, as is the case with most political parties in Mauritius, or you express your views and suggestions freely. I have been writing on many issues and I have never had to take the permission of anybody to do so. To answer your question, yes I feel comfortable with where I am.

* Proposals and suggestions are being aired about reforms to revisit the Constitution with a view to amending the electoral system and the powers vested in the President of the Republic and the Prime Minister. We do not know if the intended reforms will be tailor-cut to suit the political conveniences of two men. You would expect the general good would prevail over the ambitions of a few men, wouldn’t you?

‘Koz Koze’ seems to have become a new mantra these days. It can be interpreted as a civilized way of having a dialogue in a democracy. But is it being a fruitful dialogue or another ‘dialogue de sourds’? If we revisit the Constitution, as we should, we will have to go beyond a reform of the electoral system and beyond the sharing of powers between the President and the Prime Minister. If we do not do that, would the public not get the impression that politicians are only interested in sharing the spoils?

In a real democracy there should be checks and balances, not just shifting some powers from one person to another. It is vital for democracy to be seen working properly. In this connection independent panels should be set up to appoint such officers as the Director of ICAC, members of the Public Service Commission, Director of the MBC, etc. Such panels could be constituted from among past Presidents and Prime Ministers and retired Chief Justices.

The MMM-PSM government of 1982 made it mandatory to have general elections every five years. It should have done so concerning municipal elections as well. But one bad decision that the government took then was to amend the Constitution to make it possible to terminate appointments made by or on the advice of the Prime Minister or a Minister. This bad decision has made Permanent Secretaries and other top Civil Servants vulnerable to pressure from their political masters.

* Most political parties have down the years been kept hostage by the will of one man. If the general good has to prevail, should not reforms be initiated at the level of the political parties themselves?

I agree this is not a healthy situation in a democracy. But I would not like to hazard myself in such troubled waters. It is up to the members of the political parties to address the issue themselves.

* To come back to elitism in education, there is a government decision to increase the number of laureates at HSC level, a good number of whom to be chosen on the basis of merit as well as their social circumstances. Some voices have been heard contesting the social criteria and arguing that only merit should be taken into consideration. If merit should be the sole criterion in education — at whatever level — one may ask: what’s wrong with a system (the CPE) that channels the bright and deserving students to the best schools?

We have a very crude notion of what we call our elite and that this elite can be identified at the early age of 11. A study carried out recently at University College, London, shows that I.Q. is not fixed, particularly during the period of adolescence. It can change, on an average, by as much as 21 points one way or the other, which means that a child can be described as bright at the age of 11 and becomes “average’ at the age of 16. Furthermore can brightness or merit be based on a narrow set of written papers? And what about our elite in such fields as sports, music, art and other disciplines?

Our whole education system is based on a cut-throat competition at the primary school level. The sooner we get rid of these misconceptions about what education really is the better it will be for all children and for Mauritius. We can then identify our top students for higher studies much later, at which point the laureate scheme needs to be revisited.

* You think that the laureate scheme should be revisited then? If we go by the number of laureates who do not come back despite their bonds, one can rightly say it’s State-financed brain drain…

Yes, the laureate scheme needs to be revisited. We had such a scheme at a time when there was no University in Mauritius. Although it is desirable to spend some time in another country we need to give due consideration to the laureates doing at least part of their undergraduate studies locally, particularly as we keep being told that Mauritius will become a Knowledge Hub soon. Such a scheme was initiated at the University of Mauritius some time ago. The UoM had agreements with two UK universities to enable students to do a BSc in medical sciences here and then proceed to the UK universities to complete their course. Something similar was worked out with a French university. In other disciplines there are scholarships for postgraduate studies, which could form part of a laureate scheme.

A laureate scheme should however continue to be awarded solely on merit. This does not prevent us from having a parallel bursary scheme to help meritorious students facing financial difficulties.

So far as persuading the students to return to Mauritius after their studies a first step has already been taken to offer them a 2-year contract appointment in the Public Service. However service in the private sector should also be considered.

* Reforms in the education sector do not appear to have been able so far to address the case of those children who cannot write their names after six years of schooling. There is a problem here — despite the billions that go into the schools, infrastructure, salaries, ZEP schools (too early to comment on the Enhancement Programme and the Summer School, perhaps). What do you think?

Many countries are having problems coping with the education of children. The root causes of these problems differ from country to country, but in general they affect more children living in disadvantaged environments and those whose families have broken up. Some teachers also do not give the required attention to slow learners. We are not addressing these problems. We are like doctors who prescribe Paracetamol for all diseases.

The main problem, I do not mind repeating it hundreds of times if need be, is the rat race leading to a cut-throat competition at the CPE. There will be no improvement if our primary education continues to be geared towards that examination which is based on the ability to reproduce what is written in textbooks. Children are not encouraged to leave the beaten track and find pleasure in what they are doing using a more student friendly approach.

The British government is now encouraging the opening of “free schools” not just in terms of funding, but also regarding the curriculum to promote a more lively education environment.

Those children whom the system has failed grow up frustrated and bear a grudge against society. We are not looking at our future human resources as we should, leaving many children to grow up into anti-social elements.

* It is often argued that reform is more about people than it is about policies, institutions and processes. And most people — not only educators — tend to change slowly when it comes to attitudes, beliefs, and ways of doing things. Meaning that reforms, especially in the education sector, will necessarily be slow to make their impact felt. Is that so?

Yes, reform is more about people than policies. But the will to reform has to be there in the first instance. Where is the will? And we have to start somewhere. Kadress Pillay did not get the support of his colleagues in 1998 when he proposed to open 60 Forms I-III schools and get rid of the CPE. The Roman Catholic Education Authority was also against, arguing that secondary education is continuous. But the will of Steven Obeegadoo, with the support of the MMM-MSM government and the building of some 50 new secondary schools paved the way for a reform of the system. It took time, and could have been improved but conservative forces killed the initiative and we are back to Square One. The Enhancement Programme and the Summer School are just cosmetic measures, which will not bring any improvement to the system.

* What do you think will be the impact of the introduction of Kreol and Bhojpuri in the school curriculum on the performance of students? Will they serve any purpose?

First of all we have to consider whether the introduction of a new policy or a new subject is in the interest of the students. It is a matter of common sense that a student, particularly a young student, should be taught in a language that s/he understands. In that context Kreol and Bhojpuri will definitely be able to respond to that basic concern. But will they be introduced as subjects in the school curriculum, even if they were to be optional subjects? As you rightly asked, what purpose will they serve?

Is what we are doing in the long-term interest of the children? They can certainly be used to facilitate understanding of basic concepts. Sketches in Kreol and Bhojpuri constitute a lively way of making children understand some concepts as well as enjoy school. But Mauritius cannot at the same time shut its eyes to what is happening in Mauritius itself and in the world at large.

We have a thriving BPO sector in Mauritius particularly because of our knowledge of English and French. Mauritius is a small country and many Mauritians have in the past gone to other countries to study and also to work. This is continuing today, and if there are problems of unemployment here we will witness an increase in emigration.

However useful the introduction of Kreol and Bhojpuri will be at the initial stages of the education journey of our children we have to bear in mind that it will be a disservice to those very children we want to help if we do not switch from Kreol and Bhojpuri to a world language at the appropriate time. And there are quite a few languages starting to make their impact on the world scene. This is our challenge today.

* Published in print edition on 2 December 2011

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