We have become quiescently satisfied with our tolerance for sub-standard public services and a degree of political meddling and kleptocracy that makes do with mediocrity
By Jan Arden
It was reported in the local press last week (l’express of 16th October) that our flagship tertiary education institution, the venerable 55-year-old University of Mauritius (UoM), had slipped 4 places from last year in uniRank’s ranking of 200 best African Universities, to an even more unflattering 89th place. As for the rankings of other local public universities, the less said the better! Should the authorities at the University, the parent Ministry of Higher Education, the Higher Education Commission or at government level pay heed or be concerned by this state of affairs?
The issues are admittedly slightly more complex than a first reading of this ranking suggests but the status and vision remains neither flattering nor commensurate with what could have taken place in parallel to the country’s undoubted financial and economic developments from the 1990s onwards. Indeed, thanks to a perhaps more conducive political ecosystem and the meritorious efforts of numerous UoM staff and its leadership, Prof Soodurshun Jugessur could announce at a press briefing in July 2011 with reasonable pride that
“In January, UoM was ranked 35th among top 100 African universities while on the international level, it was ranked 3,431 among top 12,000 universities but the ranking has now improved to 23rd and 3000th place respectively.”
He was being ably supported by the then UoM Vice-Chancellor, Prof Konrad Morgan, who rapidly exited (or was made to exit) when tertiary education policy shifted from its underlying quality orientation and drive philosophy to a rather crude political sales pitch around student enrolments and numbers, with each public university bending over for approval of its funding requirements.
The messaging had warped into “finish your college studies and try to enrol onto any of the available undergraduate courses on offer”: it is your passport to a university diploma or degree that will guarantee you better job, career and life prospects, immaterial if the contents and levels of teaching, research or professional consultancies at that institution were slowly or rapidly ebbing away, save for some outposts. The majority of parents may not have cared really as many probably already believed that a university was a college sort of extension with classrooms and teachers plus some more facilities like a library, a canteen and a grandstand annual ceremony with caps and gowns. Besides, the majority of first-degree holders could have equivalences and access to European Union universities should they wish and have the means to pursue such an avenue.
Academic respectability in so far as they are embodied in international rankings, in research relevance, peer citations and impact or the willingness of outside Professors willing to spend time in exchange programs at local public universities, are perhaps best summed up by the Times Higher Education (THE), whose rankings cover thirteen criteria which aim to “look at their (university) performance across all of their core objectives: teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook.” It is completed by a survey of 22,000 academics worldwide, which certainly introduces bias for traditional abodes.
While the general THE ranking, like the QS World University Rankings’ (an annual publication of university rankings by Quacquarelli Symonds), is undoubtedly heavily biased towards entrenched traditional centres of learning and research, the likes of Oxford, Harvard, Peking or Sciences Po, its extensive database of some 1600 universities across 99 countries allows THE to do many selective listings (best African, best Emerging Countries, best Asian, etc.). Mauritius does not currently have any universities in the overall THE World University Rankings and therefore in any of its subsidiary listings which are widely consulted around the world.
Several institutions have tried to come up with alternative ranking models that are more in tune with emerging, younger or less peer-research and academic orientation of the THE or QS ranking models. While there is currently no single viable and widely accepted one the uniRank one gets close, as its site proclaims, to providing “a non-academic League Table of the top 200 Universities in Africa based on valid, unbiased and non-influenceable web metrics provided by independent web intelligence sources rather than data submitted by the Universities themselves.”
It should therefore be somewhat disturbing in academic spheres and with relevant authorities, including the Higher Education Commission, that the UoM has regressed from among the best 25 African universities ten years ago to the current 89th place. Whatever the reasons and history, whatever limitations such rankings have, whatever the buck-passing that this news entails, we should recognize such a ranking for our flagship tertiary institution as simply abysmal. Far not only from the ten leading lights, nine from South Africa and one from the American University in Cairo, far from universities in northern Africa, but well behind comparable institutions in Namibia, Botswana, Tanzania, and almost everybody else in sub-Saharan Africa. We need not spell further shame on the relevant authorities by recording the Université de la Reunion’s 34th place on the uniRank of 200 best universities situated on the African continent.
But if parents are keener on the stamped certificate for their kids and many academic staff are relatively happy or feel helpless or consider cozying up to politico-administrative powers more rewarding, why should the local political and corporate world outside academia pay heed to such dismal news for our public institutions, emanating from distant ranking schemes? Why not accept that the trend towards numbers and teaching to examinations in a superior college setting have been reinforced by the illusory bliss of free tuition fees, the noisy “gratis!” that comes fully funded from everyone’s pockets. That times have changed somewhat considerably over the past 10-20 years with private sector offerings of university degrees and diplomas that are too numerous to list here: Unicity-Medine, Charles Telfair, Middlesex University, and many others? These are clearly teaching institutions as none of them would claim in these early years that they have or intend to build any engine for scientific or technological research to deserve a full-fledged traditional university label.
Why not recognise that despite (or because) of soaring income growth pre-pandemic, we have become quiescently satisfied with our tolerance for sub-standard public services and a degree of political meddling and kleptocracy that makes do with mediocrity as a natural right of party faithful, leaving quality standards and developments as a laudable private sector domain which we can applaud? Like the Caudan Waterfront, the new Victoria Terminal to be or the new Odysseo Oceanarium.
Why not accept that those professionals who have sweated it out for seven to ten years in higher academic institutions abroad, will always earn less than the diploma-holder who has developed and finely honed his skills and competencies in the civil service, rising through the ranks to that of a Permanent Secretary (PS), whose PRB salary will almost naturally exceed that of any professional surgeon, aviation specialist or university don? For mention, we must also acknowledge that many other administrative ranks outflank the PS, almost all enjoying the benefits of memberships in various lucrative Boards, adding the juicy extras that reward a life of fortitude and sacrifices at the desks of the nation. But, in all fairness, nobody tops our hard-working Ministers, whose salary scales when a variety of allowances are duly factored in, provide more than their EU or UK counterparts. We are undoubtedly a tropical paradise under the sun…
* Published in print edition on 19 October 2021
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