Wherefrom and Whither our Universities?

Whatever happened to the Report from the EU consulting team? Are we to deduce that vested interests may have had a say in its discrete burial? — By S. Callikan

Sometime on 13th December 2017, the Higher Education Bill (No XX of 2017) was duly voted by the National Assembly after a certain number of MP’s’ interventions, although we are not aware if it has been promulgated or acted upon as yet. This piece of legislation, seemingly prepared by an unidentified overseas consultant, purports to replace the Tertiary Education Commission by two agencies, a Higher Education Commission and a Quality Assurance Authority while creating a high-level Higher Education Advisory Council…

We must recognise that the sound management of our universities and tertiary institutions, the efficiency and efficacy of public funds usage to the tune of some Rs 1 billion annually, the monitoring of standards and quality deliverables, the strategies for future development and more ambitious objectives are not the sort of topics that enthral the wider public. Accordingly, we will be brief!

Most of us acknowledge the farsighted vision of Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam that led to the creation of the first stepping stone along a long journey, when the University of Mauritius was launched in 1965. In a country largely dependent on the agriculture pillar and condemned as an ‘overcrowded barracoon or as a basket-case by renowned UK economists, the seed input of the College d’Agriculture to which were added the Schools of Engineering and Administration, gave birth to Mauritius’ first varsity, the UoM for short. With the limited resources, funding and staff context of those days, it was deemed and, some might say, destined to be a “developmental” university; in other words, its teaching and research priorities were to be driven by the scope, variety and magnitude of challenges facing the Mauritian economy and society.

Against the national backdrop of a severe “brain drain”, against the many doubters and critics, amongst whom, those in the press or in the private sector who scoffed at the very idea that SSR or plebeian Mauritians of varied lineages could ever run so typically British or colonial an institution as a varsity, the UoM went about its major task: that of rapidly preparing generations of administrative, technical and scientific personnel to compensate, at least on the low to middle-level rungs, the massive outflow of cadres affecting all departments and sectors.

That the UoM belied the doubters, while maintaining UK-practices, partnerships, standards and degree recognitions, may have prompted, or at least offered some comfort to the authorities, as several sister institutions were successively birthed to broaden the country’s much-needed palette, namely the MGI in 1970 to handle and promote Indian and Oriental arts, culture and studies; the Mauritius College of the Air in 1971 whose radio and TV college-education programmes were to become household fixtures and early standard-bearers of distance education; the Ecole Hoteliere Sir Gaetan Duval in 1971 for providing human resource training in the nascent tourism and hospitality sectors; the Mauritius Institute of Education in 1973, an arm of its parent Ministry for all matters related to constantly upgrading teacher training and curriculum development.

They too had their doubters and faced similar resource limitations; they too faced the stutterings and difficulties of teething and management, but, on the whole, one might consider that they fulfilled their part in the tertiary sector set-up of the 60s and 70s that would be so critical to ready the country, its administrative echelons and the population at large for the next phase of development.

To that institutional palette, one can note that the industrial first wave would only add the Industrial and Vocational Training Board for sub-tertiary technical training towards the tail-end of textile implantation, in 1989, while a handful of private technical colleges began their pioneering certificate-level training operations. At the 50th celebrations of our independence, it might behove historians to gauge the acumen, foresight and dedication of our politico-administrative echelons of the 60s and 70s in creating the vital public tertiary infrastructures that would substantiate future development.

The dramatic changes to the tertiary sector have taken place during this millennium, paralleling evolution on the international front with private sector conglomerates bursting to capture the explosion in demand for higher education. We have today a vastly more complex local set-up with four public universities, some half a dozen other public tertiary institutions (PFIs collectively) and somewhere around 50 private tertiary education providers, with varied teaching modalities and franchised degree-awarding bodies. Up to the enactment of the December 2017 bill last year, the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) had the double role of channelling and monitoring fund allocation to public universities and of controlling the activities, registration and quality deliverables of all private tertiary education providers.

According to latest figures released by the TEC, global tertiary enrolment of Mauritian students has stabilised for the past four years at around 37,000 to which must be added an estimated 10,000 on overseas studies. This may be attributable to a mix of factors: a maturing of our tertiary enrolment rate in the context of our economy and its perspectives or again the limited scope of social ladder-climbing, career or promotion prospects when the national growth rates have been churning a regular sub-4% rate for the past few years.

If we consider public stream students, new intakes of freshers in our local PFIs have declined from their high of 2013 (almost 11,000 students) to about 7,300. In addition, from a 2:1 ratio of student enrolment between public and private tertiary providers in the early 2000s, the public sector’s share has dwindled almost to a 1:1 ratio.

These are not necessarily worrisome figures and trends per se, but they do require taking a closer look at the structures, roles and perspectives of the publicly funded tertiary sector in a more complex, internationalised environment of public and private players. Perhaps a strategic development guide and framework focusing both on optimised resource usage and greater realistic ambitions on the quality and international standards front. Which is why the announcement early in 2015 of a mission of EU academics and consultants headed by Dr Rogier Van t’Rood was welcomed in this paper, their strategic orientations and recommendations probably awaited with some anticipation by all stakeholders. It was both a timely exercise that seemed to have the hallmarks of credibility and a very necessary review of our PFIs and their future avenues of development.

After due consultations, the team held a half-day workshop with all stakeholders at La Cannelle on 13 July 2015, under the enthusiastic auspices of the Minister, to present and discuss their submissions. We quote from Government Information sources: “The consultants have developed a draft form of the Action Plan which was discussed during the half-day workshop. The main features include: the costed Action Plan and implementation schedule; the monitoring and evaluation plan; a training needs assessment and a training plan; a resource mobilisation strategy for its financing; and the suggested amendment to relevant existing piece of legislation.”

That sounded pretty comprehensive and what could have been expected from a team of experienced academics and tertiary sector consultants, even if not all their recommendations were accepted or immediately implementable. Somehow however, considering the rather inept piece of legislation that has ended up before MPs last December, we have to wonder what happened to the Report, the costed Action Plan and the proposed legislative changes from the EU consulting team, presented as far back as July 2015. If their recommendations have been found wanting or unacceptable to Government, are we to deduce that vested interests, lobbies, political nominees or pressure groups may have had a say in the discrete burial of the EU Consultant Report?…

 

* Published in print edition on 2 March 2018

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