University of Mauritius – teething years

More than ever in the internationalised arena, in a digitalised context, in an economy moving out of some spheres to embrace others, with new horizons of development beckoning, a vibrant and performing, quality-driven tertiary sector has a critical role to play

The University of Mauritius (UoM) celebrated its fiftieth anniversary late last year. A time for reminiscences and reflections on the road travelled. The College d’Agriculture provided the foundations, and, as with many of his creditable and far-sighted achievements, SSR provided the impetus and the guiding philosophy. Funds at national or University level were scarce, yet every article of the University’s constitution and operations breathed the best of UK academia: Senators and Councillors, Chancellors, Vice-Chancellors, Pro-Chancellors, Court, pageantry with cap and gowns bundled. Although there would be a reasonable debate in the early years about how “developmental” the UoM should be, there was no compromise on seeking the highest references and traditions for the functionings of the institution.

Having set the scene, politicians and, most notably, the parent Ministry, were for the most part, respectful of the University concordat and kept safely away from meddling into management, staff and student matters or academic policies. Key Ministries could only have their say through their representatives on the governing Council, where budgets, finances, general staff policies, student fee policies, structural and development plans could be thrashed out and resolved.

Levels and varieties of courses, lecturing and research, affiliations with external Universities of repute, the conduct of exams and certifications were all matters that fortunately were the province of Senate. The bicameral structure may have conveyed some unwieldiness in decision-making but it undoubtedly avoided other far more damaging risks associated with academia in other impoverished emerging post-colonial third-world states.

Work conditions in the late sixties or seventies were particularly unimpressive and, I seem to recollect that lecturer base salaries started at some 6,000 rupees monthly. There were neither car loan schemes nor duty-free cars and facilities for overseas travel or exchanges were minimal. Laboratories had a spartan air and simplest equipment or tools had to be ordered a year or so ahead. I remember being called in to justify an urgent purchase of two hair-driers for the chemistry lab and having to explain the basics of chromatography to cost-cutters!

Research-minded staff had to stretch their time or ingenuity to cope with such minimalist conditions and the common library had only limited resources designed primarily for students. There was neither internet nor even PCs in those days. For years the only digital horse-power, kept in a saferoom and accessible by those who mastered its intricacies and quirkiness was a stand-alone Apple II! In some areas, like accountancy or engineering, there were clearly difficulties in attracting or retaining those who could easily earn four or five times more in private sector or overseas and answers had to be evolved.

And yet, somehow, there was dedication and professionalism, perhaps born out of a feeling of common purpose, a sense of urgency or of participating in a grander venture for the country. The massive exodus of cadres in the wake of Independence had made matters critical in most ministries. The country could still expect that, at the top-level, many key staffers would emerge and grow up from the remaining second ranks of the civil service while the streaky inflow from returning laureates and bursaries would help fill the gaps.

Departing accumulated experience would be substituted by incoming energies and enthusiasm. While this forced evolution could work for the top-level requirements, the abrupt departure of thousands of low to middle-level administrative and technical staff in all spheres from health to education, from agriculture to civil engineering, from telecoms to port and airport, from economists to civil servants, threatened to bring public services to severe dysfunction, confusion or even a grinding halt. No doubt the feeling of national urgency gave the University of Mauritius its early impetus, its roadmap and the undoubted dedication of its early work-fellows.

I am loathe to bandy names lest those unmentioned feel overlooked. Yet quite a few have become familiar figures in higher administrative or political functions and their sojourn at the UoM conferred upon it that air of erstwhile pertinence to national affairs. Among the early administrative grandees that I happily recollect, having learned a lot from their substance and styles: R. Burrenchobay, Prof Lim Fat, Donald Ah-Chuen, Hakim Hossenmamode, Prof Jugdish Manrakhan. Many others were to make their mark elsewhere: Prof Swaley Kasenally, Prof Juggessur, Kailash Ruhee, Vidula Nababsing, Roland Dubois. And then there were those departed sadly far too early in their lives and career, the likes of J. Baguant or Gaetan Raynal. And quite a few students and alumni would of course have a remarkable career beyond the Reduit surrounds.

The teething period saw its share of controversies, some of which seem to have been adequately dealt with, others still of relevance. Academic staff having a political role and activity while still working at Reduit was a question which raised temperatures for quite a few years, more so as most of those so inclined were felt to be from Opposition folds. The very success of the institution in tackling the early vacuum of diplomate and graduate cadres became a problem when the national economy failed to absorb graduate output at the pace the University kept churning them out.

Even in Singapore, the latest strategy document recognises the imperative need to balance University output numbers with the country’s short- to medium-term absorption capacity, including overseas job opportunities. The late seventies mismatch became heated and reared its head again in the wake of the puerile and unsophisticated sloganeering of “one graduate per family”! But that’s another story or another episode.

Looking in the rearview mirror helps us review not only the undoubted successes of the UoM. It may provide insight about where authorities or the institution may have done better and where we may have missed the boat. More importantly, at a higher level, in today’s vastly different context, with the expanding budget of tertiary education and research, with the variety of national institutions in play, questions of judicious use of public funds, optimisation, efficiency and effectiveness, relevance and higher quality output, better coordination and planning are unavoidable. More than ever in the internationalised arena, in a digitalised context, in an economy moving out of some spheres to embrace others, with new horizons of development beckoning, a vibrant and performing, quality-driven tertiary sector has a critical role to play.

U.C.

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