“We are educating for the labour market of today and tomorrow”

Qs & As – Yamal Matabudul, CEO Polytechnics Mauritius

The student population of Polytechnics Mauritius has grown from zero to over a thousand in two years. An impressive growth within such a short time indeed. Does it have to do with the 5-credit eligibility for access to HSC classes, which has compelled students who do not meet that requirement to seek an alternative training stream? No, says Yamal Matabudul, CEO, the Polytechnics’ mission is to provide ‘high quality job-ready graduates to spearhead the development of the country into a knowledge-based and skills driven economy’. Parents, students and employers are paying attention to this new form of high-quality technical education. They understand that the Polytechnics methodology is more centred on job readiness as well as specialist and future-focused programmes, he adds. Read on:

* Polytechnics Mauritius Ltd seems to have made a space for itself and assumed an important role in the tertiary education sector this year. How do you explain that?

It is true that the student population has grown from zero to over a thousand in two years. This growth is due to both extrinsic and intrinsic factors. For a long time now, there has been a constant outcry from industry for skilled manpower – graduates who are not only knowledgeable but job ready. This is not a purely national narrative. Across the world, labour markets are confronted with the same issue.

On the other hand, the massification of higher education has made it easier for the youth to gain access to tertiary education. With higher order qualifications come higher expectations on choice and nature of jobs, shifting the critical mass towards predominantly white collar jobs. This leads both to a surplus of graduates waiting on fewer available jobs and the issue of “academic inflation” whereby employers may select from higher order qualifications such as Bachelor to place candidates into jobs that traditionally required diploma qualifications. Not least is the fact that a student confronted with a labour market that is increasingly tough, may decide to pursue further qualifications i.e. “stay in school” with an expectation that hopefully upon next graduation, entering the labour market would be easier.

At Polytechnics Mauritius, Diplomas are offered in niche and specialist areas for students to train as high-quality senior level technicians or technologists with an option and pathway to complete bachelor degrees with local or international institutions. Although classified as a tertiary education provider, Polytechnics Mauritius focuses on high Technical Vocational Education and Training (TVET) where students need to spend a considerable amount of time in industry settings, on projects, in simulation environment on campus to practise their skills and hone their craft. Be it Nursing, Cybersecurity, Digital Media, Beauty and Spa, Pharmacy, Medical laboratory, hospitality, golf operations, among others, these are areas where students need to become “doers”. Starting as technicians or in operational jobs allows our graduates to develop a wholesome and comprehensive view of their work and sector and build their way up the career ladder.

I believe parents, students and employers are paying attention to this new form of high-quality technical education. They understand that the Polytechnics methodology is more centred on job readiness as well as specialist and future-focused programmes. For example Polytechnics does not offer a generic Diploma in IT, we offer a Diploma in Big Data, Internet of Things, Cybersecurity, Interactive and Digital Media and Game Development.

These programmes are also relevant to working professionals who opt to study in part-time mode for upskilling purposes. In short, I think the population at large understands that we aim to develop problem solvers for the future not yesterday, and more entrepreneurs who are less reliant on what exist and more focused on what to create.

The school, work, retire model is increasingly defunct and the future will see work and learning blend into one. Education should not become a tick box exercise that does nothing but allow you to advance to the next stage of your career. As emphasis shifts towards skills and competencies gained rather than knowledge sought, different models of education have to adapt. In our case, the ideal destination is the labour market.

* Have the mission and focus of Polytechnics Mauritius changed from what it had set for itself at the time of its conceptualisation and inception in light of the Ministry of Education’s decision to set the 5-credit eligibility for access to HSC classes?

No, the mission and focus have not changed.

Whatever model of economic transformation we believe to be accurate, it is underpinned by a number of assumptions about the Future of Work and Industry 4.0, which pre-supposes the view that productivity gains and innovation cannot be achieved on the basis of low skilled work. Within Government’s Vision 2030 of making Mauritius a high-income economy, Polytechnics Mauritius has been created to pave the way for high-skills applied education in a number of specialist areas and is a compelling choice of its own, as an alternative to university.

In many countries such as Singapore, Germany, South Korea, Switzerland, nearly 40-50% of students are channelled towards TVET courses following completion of the secondary education cycle (prior to high school). For example, many Institutes of Technical Education (ITEs) and Polytechnics in Singapore recruit students having completed an O-level into specialist diploma programmes.

Similarly, Polytechnics Mauritius is collaborating with industry to identify areas where skills gaps or mismatch take place and then selecting the appropriate international academic partners to provide specialised certificates and diplomas. We align to the same entrance criteria as the international academic partners. If at source, a Diploma in Cybersecurity in Malaysia requires 3 credits (with Maths), or a Diploma in Big Data, or a Diploma in Internet of Things requires 2 A-levels (with Maths), then we maintain the same requirements.

For Tourism, we can onboard students on a Foundation programme if they have passed the SC; for some other technical fields such as health sciences and engineering, the entrance requirements are more stringent and with good reason. The knowledge-to-practice quotient differs across sectors and jobs and this is why we can use a slider of different entrance criteria for different programmes.

Our priority is not only to enrol students but ensure that they are well-informed and keen to pursue a career in these fields. Beyond academic rigour, we need that students have the right mindset and attitude.

* As regards the issue of 5 credits, one could reasonably ask: if 3 credits are good enough for access to diploma courses to be run by Polytechnics Mauritius in the fields of Interactive & Digital Media and IT, shouldn’t that be good enough for HSC courses as well?

We should not confound two issues. As I mentioned already, Polytechnics Mauritius has been created to provide an alternative to university, although there are pathways for articulation onto top-up programmes. We are currently running a Bachelor of Nursing with La Trobe University for nurses to upskill with an intention to enhance evidence-based practice and tender higher quality patient care. But above all, we are educating for the labour market of today and tomorrow.

The academic and technical education tracks serve different purposes, different entry points in the labour market and often cater to different areas – a culinary or beauty and spa, pharmacy, nursing, interactive media, medical laboratory are some examples where technical education trains well because of its emphasis on ‘context’ and fitness-for-purpose.

As mentioned already, some international universities or high TVET institutions enrol students with 3 credits in Malaysia and Singapore and we, by extension, do the same. We also have about 10 -15% of incoming students who have 5 credits or more, even distinctions, hence overqualified but are nevertheless opting to come to us instead of HSC for our courses like cybersecurity, pharmacy, game development, nursing because they like the 4Ps methodology – practice-based immersion, portfolio, peer-to-peer learning and project-based learning. They feel that, in their field of predilection, they will be better prepared for the exigencies of the labour market, obtain a job quicker and also acquire a broader set of core, non-core and transversal skills that will enable them to gravitate the echelon faster in their career.

We aim to create the solution-developers of tomorrow and this means that many of them should also aspire to launch their own entrepreneurial ventures. We have a student from a traditional star school who has opted to join us instead of pursuing the HSC although he has obtained an aggregate of 11 at SC.

* Over the years the Lycée Polytechnique Sir Guy Forget, Flacq, has become the benchmark-institution in the field of technical education in Mauritius. What happens to Polytechnics Mauritius’ students in terms of employability and access to the world of work after they would have left your institution?

Employability is key at Polytechnics Mauritius.

The process of what courses and programmes will be launched starts with industry. We conduct stakeholder meetings, one-on-one brainstorming sessions, discuss with the industry associations throughout the year to understand the nooks and nuances of jobs, vacancies, trends, future work and prefer to build win-win partnerships. Even the governance structure takes this into consideration, with a parity of public and private sector representation.

For example, we sign agreements with employers so that we can send them our students on internships but also upskill their staff at our campus. One month into the start of a semester, we organize speed-interviews for every student to get early and individual feedback on aptitude and attitude from HR managers. Industry practitioners are invited to co-mark assignments and presentations of students and also intervene as guest speakers on specific topics of interest.

Our students spend on average 4-6 months per year in internships and are accompanied by a mentor and a supervisor. This is not touch-and-go but gives enough time for ‘real’ projects and to acclimatize with the world of work. During their next semester on campus, we invite all employers on “Showcase Day” and all students in groups need to make a presentation on their projects carrying a weightage in their final marks. So far, we have a perfect score of students on placements.

* It is said that a balanced education must also provide for character formation so that the student comes out of school or college with a rounded personality, prepared to face both the world of work and the world at large. Do you think that is also important even from an employability point of view?

Of course. This is vital.

I already mentioned core, non-core and transversal skills. For character building, we have pioneered two mandatory instruments – PolyCORE and PolyCAS to forge the PolyIdentity.

PolyCORE is a series of soft skills that bridge gaps – run differently for IT students than Tourism students to leverage on strengths but also fill in gaps. PolyCAS, essentially student-led, brings back the Creativity, Action and Service of the International Baccalaureate for holistic development.

Both these instruments are spread across the timetable and are run as core modules. Sessions emphasise group work and role play and adopt a highly practice-intensive schedule. We believe that it is not so much a communication module that enhances students’ communication skills as repetitive practice with regular feedback.

* Published in print edition on 21 February 2020

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