The Mauritius Students’ Unit

Mauritius Times – 60 Years

By Peter Ibbotson

Large numbers of full-time students, from overseas now attend technical colleges in the UK and these numbers are increasing every year; the same applies to overseas students at universities in the UK and in the Republic of Ireland. The Ministry of Education recently urged local education authorities to give special attention to safeguarding the welfare of such students in order to ensure that students coming to the UK for higher education are helped to take full advantage of the facilities offered.

Many countries maintain a students’ office in London; Mauritius is one of them. The supervisor of this office has to act as a guide, philosopher and friend to all his country’s students in the UK; in the discharge of his duties, he has to undertake a wide variety of tasks. These begin in almost all cases — and certainly in the case of Mr Ortmans, the Supervisor of the Mauritius Students’ Unit — with helping to get the student admitted to a place of higher education.

If a Mauritian wants to come to the UK to undertake higher education as a full-time student at a university or technical college, he should make sure of his place there before leaving Mauritius. He should present all the documents necessary to support his application for admission to the Education Department who will forward its recommendation to the Students’ Unit which in its turn will act to get the student accepted at a place of higher education. If the student expresses a preference for study at a particular university or college, the Unit will try and get that preference met; on the other hand, if the student says “I want to go to a UK university but I don’t mind which one it is – I leave the choice to the Students’ Supervisor”, that makes Mr Ortmans’ task much easier. The conditions of university or technical college entry in the UK are such that carte blanche as to particular establishment enables entrance to be secured more readily than insistence on going to a particular university. And after all, there is not much difference between university and university; it is the degree that counts, not the place at which that degree was obtained.

Mauritian students evidently think so, too, for there are 143 university students in the British Islands, and they are scattered among the universities of England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Of the 143, only 13 are at London University; while London has a particular and magnetic attraction for many visitors and students from overseas, it is better from the student’s point of view to be at a provincial university and probably living in a university hall of residence, than at London University and almost certainly having to live in some squalid room in Earl’s Court or Paddington.

Of course, part-time study is easier for the London resident than for the provincial; and there are certain branches of study, e.g., law, where London is virtually compulsory. And as far as technical college study is concerned, London’s polytechnics are another magnet for the overseas student. So, we find most of the 62 part-time students from Mauritius attending colleges in London; and thanks to the many law students and students at polytechnics, London has altogether 178 full-time students from Mauritius (only 13 being at the university) as against a total of 180 (130 being at universities) full-time students in the provinces.

All these students — 420 in October 1957 — are the care of the Students’ Supervisor and the Welfare Officer, Mr Ortmans and Miss Rittner. Their progress, their general behaviour, their welfare generally — all these are the responsibility of the Students’ Unit. In recent months Mr Ortmans has invited technical colleges and polytechnics in London, Brighton, Aberdeen, Newcastle, Glasgow and Sunderland, as well as colleges of the universities of London, Exeter, Southampton, Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Glasgow, St Andrews, Aberdeen and Newcastle. Miss Rittner has visited universities and colleges at Bristol, Birmingham, Nottingham, Leicester, Leeds, Sheffield, Hull, Manchester, Cardiff and Swansea, as well as hospitals in London and five provincial towns. In March, too, Miss Rittner went to Ireland, to Dublin and Galway in the republic and Belfast in the north; and in April, after Easter, Mr Ortmans’ journeys included a visit to France, (Paris, Montpelier and Bordeaux), where there are Mauritian students at the universities. His duties include keeping a fatherly eye on Mauritians in French, as well as in English, establishments of higher education.

The Unit helps the student to get admission to a course of higher education in the UK when it has been satisfied as to the qualifications of the student to enter the course and the ability of the student to pay for the course and maintain himself for its duration. It keeps eye on his general welfare while he is in the UK.; and the Students’ Unit (at present on the ground floor of an office block at 5 Victoria Street, London S.W. I — opposite Conservative Party HQ and round the corner from the Colonial Office) itself is always there for his use. There is a room which can be used by students to meet one another, to sit and read, to write to study. It is used in vacations more than in term-time, of course; unfortunately, it is not available during the evenings. The weekly and daily papers from Mauritius are available; so are interesting news items from the English press. Mauritius annual reports and Government notices are there too; the students can keep informed about events at home very easily. At present the papers are received by sea-mail only; but Mr Ortmans hopes that next year’s estimates will enable airmail subscriptions to the daily paper to be taken out. The Information Office’s News from Mauritius is received and copies are distributed to colleges and universities where groups of students can keep in touch with happenings at home. The issue of March 15, for example, contained news of the opening of the new Legislative Council session, the enforced stay of the Queen Mother, new schools being opened, electricity being supplied to the north of the island, the second Working Party, the English Scholarship results, a new bi-weekly the Guardian, the basketball matches against Madagascar and the Hong-Kong acrobats.

One advantage of Mauritians coming to the UK to study is that racial differences disappear. At a British university, Mauritian students are all lumped together as “Mauritians” — they are not regarded by their student-colleagues as Indo-Mauritians, Coloured Mauritians, Franco-Mauritians, and so on. They mix as equals and lose all race consciousness. This is all to the good; and helps to promote interracial understanding. They see that racial labels mean nothing in the UK and this helps to overcome the racial label back home.

One thing the Student’s Unit cannot do — it cannot give help at the last minute. It cannot, in other words, work miracles. And it cannot deal with criticism unless that criticism is couched in specific terms.  It is no use a complainant saying “The unit was slack in dealing with my case”; what, in such a case, the Unit wants is for the complainant to say “I wrote to the Unit on such-and-such a date and hadn’t heard anything by so-and-so what about it?”

And what does the Unit wish to do? “One wants,” Mr Ortmans told me, “to feel that the joint efforts of the Advisor in Mauritius and the Unit in London directed to helping the students get the course of education that they want.”

5th Year – No 193
Friday 18th April, 1958


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