University of Mauritius: shining jewel or uncut stone?

No ‘Knowledge Hub’ without modern structure at UoM

By TP Saran

Some time back there was a short report in the media about a proposed new structure at the University of Mauritius, including the views of the Vice-Chancellor Prof Konrad Morgan. It was hinted that there was some opposition to any reform at the UOM, but no definitive indication as who constituted the anti-reformist(s). Following that article, nothing more was heard again, in particular there was no reaction that we know of from the competent authorities or the government.

This makes us wonder whether there is any interest at all at the highest levels of the country in the fate of the UOM, the brainchild of the Father of the nation Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam. His legatees do not seem to be imbued with the equivalent sagacity or vision, paying only lip service as the UOM is left to struggle and fend for itself willy-nilly. There is no rethinking of its role in the life of the nation, nor any covert or overt support to any such process underway if any. The visibility of the UOM is through the self-serving bombasts of some selected faculty members from time to time.

That, surely, should not be the predicament of our first National University, the largest single educational institution in the country on behalf of which it is supposed to play a leading and pivotal role in taking it forward. We do not expect a university to be merely an extension of a secondary school, with its time and energies devoted essentially to teaching. The primary function of a university is to pursue research, to add to or refine existing knowledge, and to explore and demonstrate the ways in which this knowledge can be put to use for the betterment of the life of man.

For that it needs to attract the best and the most talented, and it must be able to source funding from anywhere and everywhere, over and above what the public authorities may be contributing as core funds. And whatever funds it generates must remain in its ownership and custody: for that to happen it must be legally empowered to have the necessary degree of autonomy to conduct its own affairs, so that it can freely reinvest its proceeds to support further research. And thus to generate more knowledge: haven’t we have been clamouring over the rooftops that we want Mauritius to be a ‘Knowledge Hub’? How does a country transform into such a hub if it does not place research at the forefront of its agenda, and if it denies its largest university the wherewithal to do so? Anyone of our decision makers heard about the Biopolis project in Singapore?

Is the UOM an ‘International Research University’? The answer is in the negative, even though its staff have published in reputed journals – but not enough, and with no known impact yet at national level, or figuring in citation indices. How can we then expect it to rise towards international standards?

We have to ask ourselves whether the nearly half a century-old structure is adequate for modern times, and the obvious answer is no. It may have been suitable for the initial hundreds that frequented it, but it is hopelessly inadequate for today’s thousands of students and the correspondingly increased number of staff. It follows that a new model, in other words an entirely revamped organizational structure has to be elaborated – and fast, so that this country can have a true ‘International Research University’ worth its name and that will attract researchers from all over. Its funding and manner of raising funds – which must be protected – must be brought in line with what obtains in the best international universities, to whose structure it must align itself if it wants to be found in the higher echelons of the league table of universities.

Revamping UOM means the alignment of form to function, the clear definition and assignment of roles and responsibilities by shedding the add-on duties that have accumulated to various posts in an unplanned manner over the years, and the separation of image-building of the university and attraction of benefactors to it from the nitty-gritty of actually running the various faculties and departments. The latter function should be left to the deans and heads of departments in a structure that allows them greater autonomy but within defined, transparent parameters and with accountability to the Council of the university.

We had thought that this – the reorganization of the structure of the UOM – would have been a priority for the new Ministry of Tertiary Education and Research. But so far it has only been making a lot of noises without, as far as we have been able to ascertain, really any strategic support and guidance given to the UOM for breaking out of its archaic mould and forge a new route ahead. That’s one more unnecessary ministry we have created, and we certainly could do, if we were to insist on having it, with mature enlightened headship.

The lead and the fillip to overhaul UOM must definitely come from the authorities which have a large role to play in engaging the university towards new fields of activity, by forcing if need be on the UOM a new structure more adapted to the modern needs of the country, and predominantly research-oriented.

Unless this process is driven by the central government, we are afraid that the UOM will continue to chug along huffing and puffing, and fail to deliver for the citizens of the country, besides having poor visibility and rating on the international scene. We are certain that this was not the kind of future that SSR imagined for the UOM, and if the present incumbent at Government House feigns ignorance or indifference to the UOM, then we will never be able to catch up the lag in so many aspects, and remain saddled with a third class university in a third rate country.

University of Mauritius: shining jewel or uncut stone?

* Published in print edition on 1 September 2011

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