22 December 2017

Mauritius: "The law now confers upon the minister the absolute discretionary power to overturn any decision of the HEC"

With the higher education bill passed in parliament this week to replace the Tertiary Education Act, Weekly speaks to former Minister of Education, Steven Obeegadoo, about its implications. He voices his concerns about the bill and shares his opinion on the possible motivations behind it. He also gives his views on Leela Devi Dookhun's version of the nine-year schooling.

You have been very critical of the higher education bill proposed by the minister of education to replace the 1988 Tertiary Education Act. What is your main contention?

What I find objectionable, even before considering the content of the bill, is the manner of proceeding. The total absence of information for the general public, the unexplainable haste (the bill was circulated a week ago and is to be debated and passed at one go on Tuesday 12 December), and the inadequate consultations with stakeholders are appalling.

There were consultations with relevant institutions, weren't there?

All in all, there was one meeting with heads of tertiary institutions some two months ago to brief them about proposed changes and that was the end of the matter. If I were the minister and I was convinced that I was doing a great job and introducing a historic piece of legislation that laid the foundation for the development of higher education in years to come, would I not wish to carry public opinion with me and make my mark? Would I not, at the very least, hold a press conference and spell out the objectives of government? Surely, good governance in a 21st century democracy suggests that enacting legislation cannot only be the concern of some 60 odd members of parliament.

Why do you think there is such haste to pass the bill?

To my mind, the behaviour of the minister of education is either an attempt to conceal some sinister motive lurking behind the bill or she demonstrates sheer incompetency in terms of political communication.

Wasn't there a need to put some order in the tertiary education sector?

Oh, very much so! For there have been far reaching changes in post-secondary education over the last 30 years and this is clear for all to see in Mauritius. First, there has been a fundamental and irreversible shift from elite to mass access to post-secondary education. There is now a wider variety of formal educational/training courses and a host of new educational providers, both public and private. The natural corollary of articulation has of course been a more complex 'articulation' whereby greater student mobility between institutions and courses (and countries, too!) imply a more elaborate system of recognition of institutions, accreditation of courses, equivalence of qualifications, credit transfer, recognition of prior learning etc. Hence, the conceptual terminological switch from the old 'tertiary education' appellation to the all-embracing 'higher education'.

In Mauritius, inappropriate policies, if not the sheer absence of policy coupled with a woefully inadequate and outdated regulatory framework, have led to numerous problems, especially concerning foreign institutions and foreign students in Mauritius. Moreover, the expansion of access to post-secondary education has, for lack of planning, predictably been associated with an appalling drop in quality and widespread mismanagement in the public sector. The petty political interference in academic matters has been of no help either.

Does the bill not address any of these issues?

To address any of these issues, one would have expected beforehand an analysis of the state of higher education in Mauritius, highlighting problems and threats to be addressed and opportunities to be seized. But analysis and policy formulation do not seem to be on the minister's agenda. So, the bill manages to sidestep some of the critical issues in post-secondary education in Mauritius today.

What specific issues are you referring to?

Issues like the world of work and employability of graduates and the need to promote science and technology. The bill does not address any of this. In other words, the contribution of higher education to the construction of knowledgeable societies and to sustainable and equitable economic growth is totally ignored.

Also, considering the ill-advised proliferation of public institutions of higher learning promoted both by the previous and present governments, the issue of better coordination and collaboration between public institutions to avoid duplication and attendant inefficiencies should have been a cornerstone of the new legislative framework. Strangely enough, returns on public spending on higher education do not appear to be of any concern to the Ministry of Education.

But wouldn't the setting up of a Higher Education Advisory Council, a Higher Education Commission and a Quality Assurance Authority help towards that?

You mean creating more institutions? I seem to recall that government had announced a reduction in the number of public bodies and the streaming of their functions. A Higher Education Advisory Council, with a 13-member board is being set up to advise government! While conceding that the government faces a dearth of intellectual resources from within and is in desperate need of advice, what of the Research Section within the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) and what of the minister's seasoned directors and miscellaneous advisers? The TEC is renamed Higher Education Commission (HEC) with more or less the same role save that its Quality Section becomes a separate body in its own right. The rationale is far from obvious and, if, indeed there ever was one, why couldn't there be a single "Quality Assurance Authority" for the whole education and skills development sector?

Besides, all members of the boards of these institutions will be appointed not by the minister of education but by the prime minister. The result will be institutional conflicts and paralysis and, of course, jobs for the boys.

Concerns have been expressed about additional powers to the minister of education. Wasn't that blown out of the proportion?

No! It is of even greater concern than the other points raised. The law now confers upon the minister the absolute discretionary power to overturn any decision of the HEC. There was nothing like that in the TEC Act! One wonders of what use Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) guidelines are when government still instructs the State Law Office to write such dangerous provisions into the law.

If the minister had done nothing, you would have criticised her for that, wouldn't you?

To be able to do something worthwhile, you need to have a clear vision for the future development of post-secondary education. There should follow a clear policy or strategy statement and a time-bound implementation plan. Passing a higher education bill as it is presented is tantamount to putting the cart before the horse. For instance, how will the new Higher Education Authority decide how many dental or medical schools are to go into operation without precise policy guidelines? How can a Higher Education Authority pronounce upon the degree of openness to foreign investment? How can it decide upon the strategic areas for future expansion and the necessary incentives? How can it determine the shape to be given to the regional higher education hub project?

Take another example. Whereas the bill requires official authorisation for use of the appellation 'university', no definition is provided and the Mauritius Institute of Education (MIE) and the Mahatma Gandhi Institute (MGI) are next in line to become universities. Meanwhile, an official policy is still awaited as to the number of public universities our country should have in the interests of the quality of educational services dispensed and in order to preserve its good repute beyond our borders. These are all policy matters and it would seem the minister has abdicated in favour of a purely administrative view of education and creating jobs for the boys.

You were a keen supporter of the nine-year schooling. Most professionals in education today are saying that, rather than improve the system, the reform has actually made it much worse and more stressful for the children. How do you feel about that?

I have never been a supporter of this government's so-called "Nine-Year Schooling". However, I believe the new system is a hotchpotch of ideas borrowed from mutually exclusive mechanisms proposed over the years. The preparation and planning are far from satisfactory. As a result, parents are stressed and the admissions process could be fraught with difficulties. Government has turned its back on the ambition of providing 11 years of compulsory and regionalised general basic education introduced in 2004, in line with what prevails in developed countries.

What kind of reforms do you think the minister should have brought to the system?

The priorities should be first, good quality early childhood care and education. Secondly, a redefined basic education programme resting on knowledge and competency-based learning for the 5-16 age group. Thirdly, post-basic relevant learning opportunities aiming to keep the largest number of young people in education and training for as long as possible, and fourth, the promotion of structured lifelong learning opportunities. In addressing these priorities, the focus must be on equitable access, relevant learning content and improved learning outcomes.

All this sounds very nice but what does that mean concretely for the end of primary school exam?

As is the case in most developed countries, a basic education cycle of an 11-year duration (ages 5-16) would imply the gradual doing away with a selective high stake end-of-primary examination, to be replaced by a comprehensive assessment of learning achievement. Such a standardised achievement assessment would take place at the end of Years 3, 6 and 9 to allow for remedial measures where learning difficulties are identified but also fast tracking of specially gifted children. As you may recall, the regionalisation of lower secondary education was successfully implemented in the 2004-2006 period, as was mixed schooling in all Mahatma Gandhi secondary schools.

Automatic promotion has been the elephant in the room. Everyone knows it doesn't work but everyone is keeping quiet about it because it makes everyone feel good. As minister of education, you also tactfully avoided tackling the issue, didn't you?

The problem is not and has never been automatic promotion. It is generally agreed amongst educational experts that repeating a class has never been a solution to underachievement. If a teacher or a pedagogical approach has failed a child, it stands to reason that to repeat the exact same approach all over again is unlikely to yield better results. School failure at CPE, SC and HSC has assumed cataclysmic proportions equalled only by the less visible but insidious school dropouts. I have, time and time again, demanded an in-depth investigation into the causes of declining learning outcomes so as to forge a national consensus on urgent energetic measures to shore up educational quality.

For more views and in-depth analysis of current issues, Weekly magazine (Price: Rs 25) or subscribe to Weekly for Rs110 a month. (Free delivery to your doorstep). Email us on: weekly@lexpress.mu(link sends e-mail)

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