In-the-box thinking by Education specialists with their nose to the grindstone, as the proverbial saying goes, has only brought ineffectual answers, some outright damaging, over the past thirty years. It is time for paradigm shifts and new approaches
By Dr S. Callikan
Many valuable views and suggestions have been expressed in the columns of this paper and elsewhere on various specific aspects of our education system, from curriculum adaptation to holistic education, from infrastructure upgrading to teacher working conditions, from exam-orientation to exacerbated competitive pressures. As many of these hail from experienced front-liners, educators, administrators, satellite education bodies, advisors and corporate unions deeply embedded in the system and attuned to all its intricacies, they are indeed worthy of consideration. We will add grist to the mill around two questions of topical relevance.
Tertiary education gratuity
The recent unexpected announcement regarding “free” tertiary and post-secondary technical education in public institutions, has stoked some controversy, until the relevant Ministry scrambled to clarify matters, effectively limiting the scope and ambit of the pronunciamento from higher quarters, issued in a pre-electoral period.
It was a bold and symbolic headline-grabber which should concern, on an annual intake basis, some seven to eight thousand students at certificate, diploma and first-degree levels at all of our publicly-funded tertiary institutions (PFIs), Mauritius Institute of Training and Development (MITD) and polytechnics included. After clarifications from the Ministry, its ambit excludes the almost equivalent number of students enrolled at private tertiary institutions and those going for overseas studies. Institutions will continue to apply administrative and processing fees which will however be capped and they will also continue charging fees for post-graduate and overseas students.
For all those parents and students struggling with fees and expenses for tertiary and further education, it is most certainly a boon to be welcomed, although, in the absence of reliable data, they may not exceed a third of enrolled university students. The bulk of public sector freshers at full-time university courses enrol at the University of Mauritius where fees were already negligible anyway, but in a cash-strapped environment, they were complemented by administrative fees that could reach 40-50,000 Rs.
Conversely, other universities created in this millennium (the University of Technology Mauritius, the Université des Mascareignes, the Open University and even the UoM Trust) were, it seems, driven and expected by successive governments to find as much autonomous funding as possible through course fees, a policy that stood for almost twenty years, with the concomitant discrepancies in public subsidies between institutions, and one that had never been seriously reviewed since. Those anomalies will now forcibly be corrected and the PFIs, whose capital and recurrent expenditures were already funded to a varying but large degree from public funds, will now be almost entirely dependent on milking a cow that is always under pressure for multiple other social, environmental, infrastructure and public health priorities.
As nothing is “free”, the measure transfers those fees, irrespective of means, onto the government recurrent expenditure funds, to be implemented and channelled, one assumes, through the Human Resource Development Council and the Tertiary Education Commission. I find it entirely justified that students at the MITD and Polytechnics be no longer required to pay course fees. But I also have no doubt that most reports from independent economists or even the IMF/World Bank would quail at the prospect of further pressuring the public purse for universities and institutions that have or should have the ability to extract some degree of self-financing through various means.
In current times, when fiscal prudence, current account deficits and public debt are ballooning out of control, the latter standing at far more than the nominal 64% of GDP when all liabilities are taken into account, that should have been a matter for some enlightened consideration.
We need only note that the last Visitor at the University of Mauritius (Dev Manraj) and his recent 2013 Report goes to considerable lengths to advise how the UoM could and should enhance its ability to exploit its considerable talent, resources and expertise to extract more self-financing. He is now believed to be the principal economic advisor to the Minister of Finance and Economic Development. It would be a fair guess that successive Ministers of Finance since 2000 have trod the same general lines, inducing universities to stretch for that further mile, through fees, alumni, private sector networking, quality research and consultancies.
On a related plane, Dr Rama Sithanen, for one, was quick to point out that the estimated budgetary costs of Rs 600m or more annually for this measure have already witnessed the forfeiture by government and STC of an almost similar amount from the latest fuel international price decreases NOT being passed on to all ordinary consumers, transportation, commerce and industries.
By no means should ability to pay place inordinate restrictions on the dreams and efforts of our future generations. But by the same token, and it is unfortunate that far more has not been accomplished to that end over the past twenty years, a comprehensive, well-endowed and effective program of Assistantships, Scholarships, Bursaries and Fellowships should have been in place for all those who might have been struggling or even excluded from tertiary studies because of financial obstacles.
That is a more traditional and effective approach of means and merit-based assistance at university levels, avoiding the pitfalls of over reliance on a generally stretched public purse and the dangers of considering a university as something akin to a college or institute of higher education, with little regard to the freedom, quality and international repute of its academic environment and output.
Institutions and future administrations will have to make the best of this risky and weakly effective announcement that, hopefully, will not stifle universities’ quest for higher standards, more relevant research and consultancies and far better international visibility or ranking.
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The pyramid of exclusion
Many observers have commented on the undoubted successes of an education system that suited our post-independence priorities and, in particular, the need for both high-fliers and middle-level technical and administrative personnel to replace all those who had migrated overseas leaving the “overcrowded barracoon” to plunge to its fate.
Meritocracy and democratisation in education received a massive injection of adrenaline when secondary education was made free towards the mid-70s, liberating thousands to go for their best achievements and, in due time, render service to the community while parental pressures for perceived good or star schools, in the private or in the public sector, increased substantially.
But many observers, including myself, have expressed often strongly-held views that the current education system, inordinately focused on traditional pathways, processes and methods which certainly suited those older times, is nowadays ill-suited to our context, fails to offer meaningful avenues for alternate intelligences and development paces, fails to provide basic literacy and numeracy to 50% of kids at age 10-11, fails at developing skills and competencies in a structured way, in short, utterly fails to deliver for the vast majority of our children at primary and secondary levels.
We will not here belabour the point beyond schematising the outputs of a system all successive Education establishments and advisors know and have struggled to contend with or to alter in a meaningful way: a pyramid of exclusion. For this purpose, we will illustrate the flow of a cohort of pupils entering the pyramid at primary levels in January 2018, using Education’s own reasonably established parameters for success and drop-out rates at various stages and some best guesses for Extended stream and Academies.
Of the 14,000 pupils entering primary school in 2018, only about a third will emerge through the National Form III exams to reach Grade 10 (ex- Form IV), only about 1,750 will pass through their H.S.C and some 850 at best, will start tertiary education at the end of the wringing process seven years down the road.
The “system”, consuming some 18 billion rupees and 3.4% of GDP consistently, will have bruised, battered and ejected, at various stages along that uncompromisingly hurdled road, more than 10,000 of the original cohort of 14,000 children, half of them probably without basic literacy and numeracy after nine years of schooling, the other half dropping out further on.
There is nothing new here except perhaps to highlight the stark nature of that pyramid and imagine its socio-economic correlates. It should be equally obvious from that Table that the latest attempt to drive a reform of the system, through the Nine Year Schooling proposal, with a new competitive hurdle at Grade 9, the automatic roll-over from primary to secondary and the extended stream, do little to address the real issues, intensifies competition and may in fact make matters worse for the unfortunate “system ejects”.
As an important aside, observers have witnessed the “laureates” emerging from a variety of regional colleges that were ushered in since 2005, attesting to their growing vitality and the success of combined efforts from administration, rectors, teachers, parents and students in that quest. It can only be a tragic step backwards if their best students are driven perforce in the future to hop onto the “Academies” bandwagon of elitism leaving regional colleges deprived of their most valuable assets.
It cannot be sufficient for Education establishment to obsess over further competitive hurdles at Form III then at Form V (for adequate credits) and leave the rest to fend by and for themselves, ejected from the system at various ages without basic skills, without competencies and, more often than not, without a sense of values, responsibility and citizenship.
In-the-box thinking by Education specialists with their nose to the grindstone, as the proverbial saying goes, has only brought ineffectual answers, some outright damaging, over the past thirty years. It is time for paradigm shifts and new approaches. The task and priorities, the guiding parameters of a future Education Reform Commission are thus clear at this stage.
* Published in print edition on 15 February 2019