Most of us will recall the proposal of free tablets for Form IV students announced in budget 2012-13. The measure had the merit of sounding attractive, fit for an age at which teachers and students could make good use of the free facility, once both were properly tutored to their responsible use and its implementation was integrated into the larger picture of technologically-savvy educational development. It took twenty months for Education to prepare that integration plan, launch the tendering and get the procurement contract signed and, even if the 2013 cohort could not benefit from the tablets, at least, its implementation could be said to have been planned.
It is a matter of history that Mauritius Telecom won the first bid for 26 000 units at Rs 134m for 2014 Form IV students and that despite all the advance planning, most colleges had no internet connection, the measure was probably ineffectual pedagogically and several thousand obsolete units are left-overs that clog ministerial cupboards. To date, only a few colleges have broad-band internet connectivity although it is reported that all colleges should be connected by the end of this year according to a Rs 122m contract awarded in 2015 to Data Communications ltd (DCL) for internet broadband Wifi connection and the concomitant establishment of a national Education server linking up all colleges in Mauritius and Rodrigues, the MIE and national librairies.
Despite the college connectivity situation, by end 2014 the Central Procurement Board launched a repeat tender of tablets for the 2015 batch of Form IV students, which according to the press, was awarded in June 2015 (again) to DCL for Rs 108m with an advance payment of Rs 21m and delivery scheduled for the first week of August 2015.
By November 2015, upon questioning by MP Osman Mohamed, the Minister admitted that barely a few hundred of the 23,400 commissioned tablets had been received. In January 2016 the Ministry had no alternative than to cancel the 2015 contract. The 2015 Form IV student cohort have consequently been left tablet-less and SLO has advised the Ministry that the advance payment made by authorities should be recovered from DCL.
It is in this context that we must wonder how and wherefore the proposal to supply free tablets to early primary schoolchildren in Standards 1 & 2 cropped up in Hon Pravind Jugnauth’s 2016 budget speech. Had the usefulness and desirability of this venture been pondered upon, planned and requested by the parent Ministry, fitting into an overarching plan for technology use in early education? Was this integrated in the Nine-Year Schooling reform plan?
If, as it now transpires, the units are indeed to be of some use in day-time and will be stored overnight at primary schools, adequate safety and security measures should no doubt be in place at the 300 or more primary schools. One trusts it is not simply another whopping contract for 25 000 units, nor another delivery and quality botch-up in the offing and that the Ministry is not saddled with cargo loads of obsolete units after some time, their exact whereabouts unknown, until some future Audit Report, that is…
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Tertiary education – where to?
It was I believe in 2014 that the previous government commissioned a UK Quality Agency Report on Tertiary education quality and in early 2015 that the incoming government, having launched itself in the Nine-Year Schooling reform plan, commissioned an EU team report on tertiary education. Both reports or their executive recommendations or summaries are yet to be made public for consultation and input by interested and/or independent parties. The promised draft Higher Education Bill has not been finalised or circulated yet for informed comment and suggestions.
Nevertheless, the state of tertiary education warrants some observations as both the national and the international contexts have evolved dramatically over the past twenty years, with the coming into play of technology-based opportunities and nimble, well-endowed private players in what was traditionally a State affair, universities requiring a high degree of investment in such resources as buildings, well-equipped teaching and research laboratories, adequately funded libraries and dedicated academic and technical staff of high calibre, not to mention decent canteens and residential campuses where applicable.
The underlying vision for publicly funded universities, whether at the national or institutional levels, the quality of an empowered teaching and research environment and the resilience of management processes to meet best international practices are of prime importance if we are to avoid pitfalls that have beset similar institutions in many developing economies.
We have today a varied setup in the local publicly-funded post-secondary sector of which public universities constitute only one segment. At the infra-degree level, there are a number of post-secondary technical/vocational institutions like the MITD, the Ecole Hôtelière, the Fashion & Design Institute, the Rabindranath Tagore Institute to which must be added three proposed new polytechnics. They require attention on their own and we should shortly know of government intentions in that sphere regarding their structure and functions and the optimisation of their management structures at a time when the streamlining of public sector institutions is expressed in the latest budget.
We also have two publicly funded Institutes, the MGI and the MIE, each with a rather specific purview, both going beyond the secondary and are considered part of the tertiary sector, at least in respect of some of their activities. Where authorities need or should spare some thinking time concerns the current state and the vision concerning the future of our publicly funded tertiary institutions as such, namely the four universities that now dot the landscape. Today that higher education landscape has made room for about 40 private institutions awarding diplomas and degrees through a combination of internet-based and traditional classes. Some 40% of all students actually attend these private higher education institutions and those recruitment levels will continue, as will continue the steady numbers heading for overseas studies at various destinations.
For local institutions, we have two existing higher education regulatory authorities, the Tertiary Education Council and the Mauritius Qualification Authority, although it is said that a Skills Development Authority is being considered which may have an as yet unspecified regulatory role. But quite apart from the possible rationalisation of regulatory functions, there are several important issues that crop up regarding the planned future of our universities. The last thing we need in the current and foreseeable future is more funding for more public universities, particularly if they are to be left struggling after several years with heavy overheads and uncertain standards for diminishing student intakes.
It is rather a situation and an opportunity that calls for a fundamental rethink of what our public universities should be really about and how to optimise their funding, review the resource allocation, the staff motivation and mobility, the research and consultancy abilities and consolidate their governance while sticking to internal academic autonomy and encouraging new ambitions, particularly with regard to international benchmarks and rankings.