Authorities in place have a rare opportunity to address the issues plaguing the post-secondary education sector and frame a coherent strategy for the future, a road-map for development that holds promise of untapped potential at the higher ends of value creation. It is no secret that major trends and changes worldwide, globalisation, the internet and communication revolution, exploding demand for higher and better education by fast-growing numbers of willing payers, have transformed the scene beyond what legislators and governments could imagine fifteen years ago. Many countries have been caught flat-footed by a surging wave they could not foresee and against which they have struggled to find foot.
Resource-hungry universities and technology centres were traditionally funded by the State, while private sector confined itself to finance marginal operations of uncertain quality, or professional qualifications in “soft domains” (management and accounting are typical examples): this is a model that is rapidly being turned on its head. In developed countries harbouring centuries-old universities, technical institutions and guiding frameworks, the possibility that LSE, Sorbonne, Dauphine, Oxbridge or University of Manchester could be challenged was always remote and remains so.
But in many cash-strapped developing countries around Asia, Africa and Latin America, where hosts of tertiary education centres were struggling to pay staff adequately, fund good libraries, support active research, maintain decent buildings, equipment, laboratories, staff and student quarters, meet increasing demand and provide, at best, a somewhat decent academic outcome, the private sector has effectively had a tremendous impact. The revolution in tertiary education under way since early in this millennium, owes much to the dynamism of entrepreneurial spirit in India, Malaysia, China or Brazil.
Against a backdrop of unwieldy, red-taped and sloth public framework, mired in dismal governance and often unable to reach outlying towns and villages, agile and astute business pioneers, exploiting the latent potential of the IT revolution, were quick to tap into their exploding local market, some surely in the process cutting corners with academic levels or standards. But out of the dozens of entrepreneurs, quite a few have built up the financial clout and an enduring interest in the sector to transform their early ventures into respectable outfits and boldly advance onto the international stage.
Strings of Colleges, at times a franchised shed with an IT facility and some local tutors, latching onto distance education modes, have in many instances grown up and given way to private tertiary institutes and universities, many with equipped laboratories, digital libraries and onsite campuses, aspiring to play in the big league.
Public universities in India or elsewhere in the Third World and in the emerging Asian powerhouses may still hold the edge on quality and resilience of academia, Indian Institutes of Technology and Management (IITs and IIMs), protected from political gerrymandering, may have been vastly instrumental in the country’s depth and breadth of highly qualified professionals, but private universities are becoming reliable, reputable, smart, more adaptable in creating new courses, they are more IT-intensive and are certainly less encumbered with red-tape or political interference.
The Amity University Group today handles a million students over 20 sites and 5 universities with international campuses in London, Singapore and the USA. The Manipal Academy Group, from operating a Sikkim-based university, now runs medical faculties or traditional universities in Malaysia, Nepal, Jaipur, Dubai and Antigua. Birla Institute of Technology, opened with MIT collaboration, now has engineering and management campuses in Rajasthan, Goa and Hyderabad and an international campus in Dubai.
They, like a few others, have yet to entrench themselves on international university rankings but that, unfortunately, is a phenomenon that affects all Indian institutions, as the country, contrarily to Singapore or even China, for a mix of reasons, has always shied away from openly setting objectives that would pit it against the world best. Nevertheless, despite that overall aura of academic unambitiousness or contentment with operation in a comfort zone, despite the “permit-raj” that still weighs heavily on India, some private ventures are undisputedly on the way to higher destinations.
In a way, the recent developments have raised some intriguing questions that have shaken the staid world of academia in developed countries. Rarely before, the question, for instance, of what precisely is a university, had to be answered. Should it be mandated as in UK by quasi-royal charter and on what criteria? Should it necessarily be multi-disciplinary with several faculties, an older across the board philosophy, or can new universities focus on streams of specialisation (economics and finance, for example, or medical and allied sciences)?
How does the public, the regulatory bodies or legislators effectively handle the proliferation of appellations, between Academies, Institutes, Polytechnics, Advanced Colleges or more, and their respective diploma-awarding capacities? Between Tutorial Centres, which are barely more than a money-spinning franchise with limited local input, offering a diverse panoply of IT-reliant distance-education courses, and more solid structures, with clear areas of specialty? Questions are being raised that have reached even developed countries.
Against the wave that reached our shores early this millennium, we may well ask how did we fare, where does that leave us today and what are our ambitions for tomorrow?
The questions can be viewed in a historical perspective from, say 2000, when the focus was clearly elsewhere in the education sector while exploding demand for tertiary education opportunities were already pressing in the pipeline. They have to be viewed also from separate angles. The public sector, unfortunately across the board, has quite specific issues, not least of which, good governance, political interference, accountability for public funds and lack of strategic planning.
Awkward or hard questions have to be faced: do we, indeed, did we ever need more than three public university poles, the sedate multi-disciplinary UoM, a more focused and coordinated Technological University pole and, most probably, an Open University? Unfortunately, in the absence of strategic planning, even with the setting up of a specific ministry, matters have continuously drifted away from the noble intents of older days.
Lowering of standards for university access and diplomas, the saga of Vice-Chancellor nominations and resignations, the numbers-only race (“one graduate per family”), ministerial interventions and micro-management, simmering internal blockages left to fester at the TEC, epitomized the unhealthy and unchecked drift, against a background where the outgoing Minister was perceived as having conflict of interest status. It is not too late to review and sanitize the situation while providing a more coherent strategic plan for the fifteen year horizon.
The private sector has today varied levels of offerings, from modest IT and distance-education driven Tutorial Centres to more structured offerings of the MCCI or Telfair Institute type. The need for intelligent regulation is to ensure that fee-paying students are not being fleeced and getting value for money in terms of standards.
The TEC Act, internal processes and procedures need a fundamental review. Most of the acquired experience for the legislative and institutional framework changes is already available. The UK Quality Assurance agency, coming from a country where universities and tertiary institutions do not really have quality control issues and little experience with regulatory structures and needs, basing itself on a survey of stakeholders, may not be as helpful as the government believes, even if an outside look is always welcome.
After four months of standstill, the sector needs to be shaken up.
It is not just a matter of prime interest to students and parents, nor to better governance and accountability in public institutions, nor to the reputation of our institutions and the country, important though these remain in their own right. Mauritius is a valuable cross-road of cultures, languages and regions, straddling Southern and Eastern Africa and South Asia, straddling Francophone and Anglophile worlds, a test-bed for ocean resources and sustainable development, a desirable place where regional and international students can be coaxed for higher studies of repute.
At a simple estimate of Rs 20,000 monthly expenses for board, lodging and fees, a target of ten thousand foreign students represents a local influx of several billions annually. The investment opportunities are enormous, virtually untapped and can be an exciting pillar of future growth for the country. The time and the circumstances could not be more appropriate for removing constraints and help shape up the sector towards ambitious heights.
* Published in print edition on 19 March 2015