Towards quality education at the University of Mauritius

The challenges facing the UOM are many but if we want to strive towards excellence, it is at the teaching and learning levels that urgent basic reforms should take place or else any major reform will prove fruitless

By Sada Reddi

 The decision to abolish tuition fees in public tertiary institutions is to be welcomed whether it is a populist measure or not. For the University of Mauritius (UOM) where undergraduates were already not being charged any tuition fees, the government will have to compensate the university financially for the higher administrative and laboratory fees which are much above the Rs10,000 prescribed limit as at present. However, the status quo regarding tuition fees is not what the University of Mauritius has been desiring over the years; instead it has always sought the freedom to introduce tuition fees in order to enhance the quality of both teaching and research.

As far back as February1993, the president of the Council of the University, Mr S. Bissoondoyal presented a persuasive case for the Council to ask government to take a decision on the introduction of tuition fees. The members of the Council were informed that

‘the University of Mauritius has a duty to put facts and figures before the government for a decision, and even to propose that the university should not depend exclusively on government grants. We have already found anyway that these are not adequate.’

Since that time, no government has supported the introduction of tuition fees for both political and social reasons, resulting over time in a deterioration in the quality of higher education.

In the 1990s, there were about 1500 students at the University and most of the courses were at certificate and diploma levels. The University was planning to offer more degree courses as from 1993. Students paid about Rs1000 as administrative fees and Rs 1250 for undergraduate education while the cost to the university for a certificate course was Rs 30,000, diploma Rs 45,000,and undergraduate Rs 60,000. It is fair to say that the university has always been run on a shoestring budget and efforts made to cut costs have generally have been detrimental to the quality of its services. After all, it is well known that that good education anywhere comes at a price.

The problems resulting from inadequate financing of higher education are not unique to Mauritius; it has been the concern of universities in most developing countries as well as developed ones. A decade ago, two professors – one from the Center of International Higher Education at Boston College, and the other from the Tata School of Social Sciences, Mumbai – made a number of suggestions for the creation of world-class universities in India.

The Hindu, October 2008, reported that they deplored that none of the 348 universities existing in India at that time was ranked among the top 100 universities. Their suggestions for improvement included, among others, freeing Indian universities from a sclerotic bureaucracy, proposing a new salary structure to attract the best academics, developing a culture of research, providing incentives to reward productivity instead of longevity among academics and enhancing academic culture and governance.

In the case of Mauritus and other developing countries, there has been no dearth of workshops, seminars and reports on how to enhance higher education. The University of Mauritius has commissioned a number of reports on higher education and many of the suggestions have been implemented. Improving higher education has been on the agenda of various Vice-Chancellors as an ongoing process, but one has to admit that finance has remained the major obstacle to improvement. This explains why the underlying rationale behind many reforms has been cost-cutting and ironically this has often been counterproductive to the pursuit of excellence. Lowering entry requirements, increasing intake and class size have been detrimental to quality education.

Practical, actionable decisions

While the university will continue to wrestle with the problem of finance, a few important issues, apparently trivial, require important and urgent decisions from the university. They are practicable and implementable

First, we have to decentralize decision-making on a number of academic matters at the level of the faculty, department and subject areas though overall coordination at the senate level remains important. For example, right from its very beginning, the course structure of many subject areas, at both diploma and, later, degree levels, have been blindly copied from the Science and technology course structure. In the 1990s, when university courses were modularized, again it was the programme structure of engineering degrees faxed by a professor from Birmingham University to Professor Roland Dubois which was applied unthinkingly to the Humanities and Social Sciences Programme. A laboratory module of 9 hours for engineering became a 45-hour module for social sciences and even some half modules with low weightage ended as full modules in science degrees.

Consequently students of social science and humanities, and even in the other sciences, have been burdened with six 45-hour modules in one semester. It has been impossible for a student to cope with 6 modules in the 12 teaching weeks, excluding the 3 weeks for revision and examination. Not only was it impossible for academics to teach a module in some depth during a semester, the situation worsened with 3 hour-long block teaching. Although nobody lectures for three hours, students are pinned down for 3 hours, which means 18 hours of formal classroom teaching with little time and energy to spend time in the library and for self-study. Many lecturers have had to find other ways to make learning meaningful.

In contrast to science and technology programmes where classes, experiments and problem solving occupy most of the study hours, social science students are expected to spend most of their time in the library, doing independent study, researching and writing assignments. Are

The decision to abolish tuition fees in public tertiary institutions is to be welcomed whether it is a populist measure or not. For the University of Mauritius (UOM) where undergraduates were already not being charged any tuition fees, the government will have to compensate the university financially for the higher administrative and laboratory fees which are much above the Rs10,000 prescribed limit as at present. However, the status quo regarding tuition fees is not what the University of Mauritius has been desiring over the years; instead it has always sought the freedom to introduce tuition fees in order to enhance the quality of both teaching and research.

As far back as February1993, the president of the Council of the University, Mr S. Bissoondoyal presented a persuasive case for the Council to ask government to take a decision on the introduction of tuition fees. The members of the Council were informed that

‘the University of Mauritius has a duty to put facts and figures before the government for a decision, and even to propose that the university should not depend exclusively on government grants. We have already found anyway that these are not adequate.’

Since that time, no government has supported the introduction of tuition fees for both political and social reasons, resulting over time in a deterioration in the quality of higher education.

In the 1990s, there were about 1500 students at the University and most of the courses were at certificate and diploma levels. The University was planning to offer more degree courses as from 1993. Students paid about Rs1000 as administrative fees and Rs 1250 for undergraduate education while the cost to the university for a certificate course was Rs 30,000, diploma Rs 45,000,and undergraduate Rs 60,000. It is fair to say that the university has always been run on a shoestring budget and efforts made to cut costs have generally have been detrimental to the quality of its services. After all, it is well known that that good education anywhere comes at a price.

The problems resulting from inadequate financing of higher education are not unique to Mauritius; it has been the concern of universities in most developing countries as well as developed ones. A decade ago, two professors – one from the Center of International Higher Education at Boston College, and the other from the Tata School of Social Sciences, Mumbai – made a number of suggestions for the creation of world-class universities in India.

The Hindu, October 2008, reported that they deplored that none of the 348 universities existing in India at that time was ranked among the top 100 universities. Their suggestions for improvement included, among others, freeing Indian universities from a sclerotic bureaucracy, proposing a new salary structure to attract the best academics, developing a culture of research, providing incentives to reward productivity instead of longevity among academics and enhancing academic culture and governance.

In the case of Mauritus and other developing countries, there has been no dearth of workshops, seminars and reports on how to enhance higher education. The University of Mauritius has commissioned a number of reports on higher education and many of the suggestions have been implemented. Improving higher education has been on the agenda of various Vice-Chancellors as an ongoing process, but one has to admit that finance has remained the major obstacle to improvement. This explains why the underlying rationale behind many reforms has been cost-cutting and ironically this has often been counterproductive to the pursuit of excellence. Lowering entry requirements, increasing intake and class size have been detrimental to quality education.

Practical, actionable decisions

While the university will continue to wrestle with the problem of finance, a few important issues, apparently trivial, require important and urgent decisions from the university. They are practicable and implementable

First, we have to decentralize decision-making on a number of academic matters at the level of the faculty, department and subject areas though overall coordination at the senate level remains important. For example, right from its very beginning, the course structure of many subject areas, at both diploma and, later, degree levels, have been blindly copied from the Science and technology course structure. In the 1990s, when university courses were modularized, again it was the programme structure of engineering degrees faxed by a professor from Birmingham University to Professor Roland Dubois which was applied unthinkingly to the Humanities and Social Sciences Programme. A laboratory module of 9 hours for engineering became a 45-hour module for social sciences and even some half modules with low weightage ended as full modules in science degrees.

Consequently students of social science and humanities, and even in the other sciences, have been burdened with six 45-hour modules in one semester. It has been impossible for a student to cope with 6 modules in the 12 teaching weeks, excluding the 3 weeks for revision and examination. Not only was it impossible for academics to teach a module in some depth during a semester, the situation worsened with 3 hour-long block teaching. Although nobody lectures for three hours, students are pinned down for 3 hours, which means 18 hours of formal classroom teaching with little time and energy to spend time in the library and for self-study. Many lecturers have had to find other ways to make learning meaningful.

In contrast to science and technology programmes where classes, experiments and problem solving occupy most of the study hours, social science students are expected to spend most of their time in the library, doing independent study, researching and writing assignments. Are we then surprised that external examiners find that our students are very good at regurgitating lecturers’ notes and deploring an absence of critical thinking, writing and communication skills?

Some progress has been registered in some courses with the number of modules reduced to 5 and many semester modules extended into yearly modules because some subjects require students do develop maturity over time. The present Vice Chancellor, who is deeply committed to enhancing quality, should reduce to four the number of modules per semester in the social sciences. This is the right number of modules that has been thoroughly thought out and has become the standard norm in British universities – whether it’s for an economics degree at LSE, an English degree at king’s college or a social science degree from any other university.

A British report, published in 2009, found that students spend on average 30 hours a week in classes and private study. Another report found that undergraduate students worked about 26 hours a week in private study. Four hours of lecturing for 4 modules and 5 hours for tutorial or seminars per week should be the maximum for Mauritian students; these will allow students the time to study on their own and reflect on the knowledge they acquire.

An overloaded programme is detrimental to both students and academics. The latter finding that students cannot cope with their studies has led to the watering down of courses since little meaningful learning takes place in an overloaded programme which is also detrimental to academics. It is reported in some quarters that students never read any journal article despite a vast amount of money spent on online journals. A survey of the number of hits for online journals by students per year will be depressing and disappointing. Lecturers’ major headache is that many students do not read and cannot be made to read and write. One reason advanced is that the lowering of entry requirements and students with poor grades has made it find difficult for them to cope with and eventually benefit from higher education.

World class universities

The reforms already taken by the UOM to reduce the number of programmes goes in the right direction. It should also raise entry requirements not with a view to penalizing applicants as some are inclined to believe but in order to enable adequately qualified students to benefit from university education. Such measures will contribute significantly towards enhancing quality. World class universities admit the best students and hire the best professors. It may not be possible at the moment to hire the best professors or lecturers but there is at present a core of qualified and dedicated lecturers in every field to bring up teaching and research to the level of excellence. They need support, mentoring as well as incentives.

In the past, the Departments of Law, Management, Economics, English as well as other departments did hire a few professors from overseas institutions who contributed significantly to mentoring our academics and enhancing undergraduate and post graduate programmes. This practice should be maintained. It is also time for the university to revert back to the old academic calendar of courses starting in October; academics should be granted vacations extending from June to September to allow them to carry out any research.

Perhaps the university should also recruit lecturers not on the basis of their generic discipline but according to the specialization which the departments require. Business economics, for example, should not be taught by a lecturer who specializes in welfare economics just for the sake of convenience; it is better to recruit a lecturer who has an interest and done research in that particular field. It may prove difficult in a small country like ours to recruit such specialists, but this is the way forward for the UOM – even going to the extent of recruiting internationally in the future.

It is also important that a university should not embark on courses if it does not have the appropriate human resources. Unless a minimum of four or five lecturers are available for a particular discipline, it would be unethical to start a degree programme in that subject. On the other hand, we find in many departments an adequate number of academics per programme but they are very often specialists in the same areas. This makes it difficult to provide a balanced degree programme, which must be a judicious combination of breath and depth.

Finally, the UOM needs an exchange programme for both academics and students with other universities, particularly for our students to study for a few weeks or semesters abroad but also to seek work placements in companies and industries in other countries. This is one way for our students to come out of our insular mould. The challenges facing the UOM are many but if we want to strive towards excellence, it is at the teaching and learning levels that urgent basic reforms should take place or else any major reform will prove fruitless.


* Published in print edition on 1 February 2019

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