“Government cannot turn into a property developer and ministers into business tycoons.”

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Former associate professor at the University of Mauritius followed by management level experience in the private sector and overseas in manpower training, Uttam Callikan shares some of his views on the budget, the Nine-Year Schooling, overseas trips by ministers and the current spat in the government over Heritage City.

What are your impressions of the budget presented by the minister of finance last week?
A large variety of knowledgeable sources including sector specialists, reputable independent economists and situation reports of international agencies reckon there has been an alarming drift in economic development. Eric Ng, in the last issue of Mauritius Times, demonstrates with facts and figures that, on all fronts except inflation, economic performance in 2015 has degraded considerably compared to 2013 and 2014. Mr. Kee Chong, the government-appointed chairman at State Bank Holdings, expressed the widespread feeling that two years have been wasted, the consequences of which are still being felt. 

What exactly was expected of the new budget then?
There was a lot of expectancy that it would be bold, move away from the excessive reliance on property, give a boost to the spirit of entrepreneurship, innovation and creativity, improve average consumer morale and create a sense of confidence in the population, while reversing damaged macro-economic fundamentals. 

It must have achieved some of those aims surely.
Well, clearly the quietly able Gerard Sanspeur, senior adviser to the minister, understood both the urgency and the importance of matters. It is without doubt a well-wrapped exercise, providing attention to many sectors, including Rodrigues, through a rather long list of specific measures regrouped under “10 strategies”.  And in such a brainstormed list, there are bound to be some good initiatives either on the economic development or on the social fronts and some popular relief measures. They have been amply commented upon.

Will the budget then be a game-changer?
No crystal ball can predict that at this stage. Maybe the incoherence of the past two years left the new minister of finance with the unenviable challenge of redressing matters on so many fronts. But “10 strategies” may end up sounding unfortunately like no overall strategy. No clear focus, no driving philosophy stands out clearly.

Why?
Because I ask myself a few questions: First, will this political alliance continue to drag itself and the country into the damaging self-inflicted turmoil that has marred the country for the past two years? The recent fracas around Heritage City or the turn-around on the metro-leger are not reassuring. Secondly, how effectively will government be able to implement and deliver on this new set of promises? How many previous budgets have empty shells of Marshall Plan, SME one-stop-shop, silent agreement, etc? Thirdly, will government be able to effectively streamline parastatals and curb what is perceived as its profligacy when times are tough on the streets? We can only harbour hope.

As someone who has spent many years in education, what is your evaluation of the measures announced in this budget to improve the quality of education, particularly for the underprivileged. i.e. free tablets for primary schoolchildren, money for parents whose children have succeeded in the main exams etc.
The various monetary measures you mention are welcome although I understand some questions regarding the qualifiers “underprivileged”, “destitute families”, or families in absolute poverty or on the social register remain to be clarified and quantified. However, it is disappointing to see that the education sector in the budget is only a list of some specific measures and announcements made previously. The education minister herself seemed initially as surprised as almost everybody else by the unexpected proposal that government would provide free tablets to Standard 1 and 2 children of primary schools. We can't be sure where this suggestion emanated from, but no doubt the ministry will find some pedagogical use for them. A Skills Development Authority (SDA) has been announced as an “independent regulator of Technical and Vocational Education”. The proposal remains to be clarified as we already have such an independent regulator in the shape of the Mauritius Qualifications Authority (MQA). Will the SDA have a wider mandate than regulatory? Will it replace or integrate the MQA, the Human Resource Development Council (HRDC) or even possibly some of the Tertiary Education Commission’s role in technical higher education? 

There was a lot of talk, particularly in relation to the Nine-Year Schooling (NYS), which was announced with great pomp as a revolution. Do you see revolutionary measures in the nine-year schooling?
First, I note that educators, rectors, front-line heads of schools, not to mention unions, have repeatedly drawn attention to numerous conditions in the teaching-learning environment that deserved improvement. The state of amenities and classrooms, work conditions of staff, classroom sizes and quality of pedagogical material or the effectiveness of IVTB House support for dealing with rampant problems that need to be nipped in the bud like rowdiness, indiscipline, absenteeism, racketeering or the recent allegations of an alarming proliferation of illicit substance abuse by secondary school kids or, much worse, by schoolchildren. Instead, the IVTB House has had its priorities elsewhere, locking itself up in the Nine-Year Schooling project for most of last year. What was most disturbing with the NYS is the “pop out of the hat” approach, with imposed implementation targets before any public consultation. 

Former associate professor at the University of Mauritius followed by management level experience in the private sector and overseas in manpower training, Uttam Callikan shares some of his views on the budget, the Nine-Year Schooling, overseas trips by ministers and the current spat in the government over Heritage City.

Leaving the lack of consultation aside, what do you think of the concept itself? 
I tend to believe that the NYS, although comprising some good aspects, is both ill-conceived and ill-planned. There are self-evident flaws in the conceptual design of the NYS, embodying far-reaching implications for social equity and numerous grey areas which have generated confusion in the public. Continuous corrections and amendments, leading to more confusion, are mobilising considerable committee time while massive energy and resources are being consumed in curriculum and pedagogical support materials for the project at the expense of other education priorities.

Are you satisfied that the NYS will reduce the rat race and is therefore a progress?
No. It will in fact likely end up increasing highly competitive selection examinations, student stress and pressure and restrict access to coveted academies to the privileged parents who can afford to impose further private tuition on their unfortunate kids.  This can hardly be considered a progress. 

If the NYS were to go ahead, at the very least, a detailed implementation plan should be finalised. None of this has been done! At some stage, welcome determination can look like obstinacy and good intentions pave the way to unwise destinations.

What exactly is the problem?
The sheer amateurism surrounding it. The latest example is the NYS committee-work in the conduct of the CPE (or PSAC) examination for entry to the restricted places of the lower secondary schools on 1 January 2018. In March 2016 of this year, the Mauritius Examination Syndicate (MES), after ministerial and subsequent cabinet approval one assumes, published the formal PSAC Examination Regulations 2017, which was largely commented upon in the press. Those have vanished this week, retracted from the MES website and presumably new regulations are being reworked!

The biggest drama in education these days is the high level of graduate unemployment. What are the reasons for that, according to you? A university unable to keep up with the demands of the workplace, an economy unable to absorb the graduates or a lack of will to invest in job-generating projects?
“Skills mismatch”, as catchwords go, seem to come up every year although it seems to me that, at some stage, the HRDC gave the impression that it was with public-private thinking abilities active on that front. I can't say if the results have been insufficient or it has become progressively less pro-active, still less if the funds and resources are being put to best use.

Since the departures of Suresh Munbodh and Roland Dubois, technical and vocational education and training (TVET) seems to have dwindled into a policy, structural and operational morass. The MITD with its 13 or so technical centres should have, by now, carved for itself a healthy reputation and an organic presence in the local education-training palette. Sadly, one has to recognise that this is far from being the case. Polytechnics have been announced to use the space left by the Montagne Blanche and Pamplemousses campuses, while good former polytechnics have been transformed by ministerial “fiat” into struggling universities. 

I understand a lot of background planning at ministry level is going on to plan the future of national TVET education and training, confer it an effective operational and management structure that provides real value for money and a coherent national policy towards resolving the skill mismatch conundrum. Let us hope a policy document is first offered for public consultation, commentary and suggestions, before plans are firmed up in legislation and organisation structures.

What about public universities and institutes?
There is certainly a need for some high-level structure, preferably beyond direct ministerial purview which, while respecting internal institutional autonomy, ensures their coordinated development, helping them to implement sounder governance principles, encouraging higher ambitions and international profiling while advising the ministry on the optimised use of public funds in the tertiary sector and other key issues.

As far as employment is concerned, there was a lot of criticism of the government’s policy of recruiting only those who are close to power or are in the constituencies of the ministers recruiting. Is this a fair criticism in your opinion?
I am afraid that I have no facts or reliable indicators but I overheard some ministerial comment that his recruitments, or maybe his recommendations for recruitment, primarily from his own constituency, were corrective of past recruitments. I am not sure if this attitude or any recruitments that bypass normal procedures, whatever the government of the day, contribute to greater transparency or meritocracy.  

Ministers in this government have excelled in overseas trips and contributing to the prosperity of Air Mauritius. Any justifiable reason for that?
The scale and frequencies of overseas trips for all our political superstructure, from ministers to the president of the republic through the speaker of the national assembly, including officials and uncontrolled delegation members, the allowances that seem to be almost double United Nations’ standards, are about public funds and their legitimate, justified use. At an average of 10 overseas missions per month over the past 18 months, the “pigeon-voyageurs” have well-earned their nickname. At this rate, we could close or streamline quite a few embassies! It has obviously shocked the general public. Government may consider that an advance quarterly programme of overseas ministerial visits, the functions to be attended, the delegations, the duration and the expenditure to be incurred, be made publicly available on its website. Only imperative justification would justify departure from the approved programme. That might help towards greater transparency and accountability from those foot-loose folks who are happy to lay down rules of governance, accountability or productivity unto others.

On the political front, there are rumours of a renewed ‘Koze-Kozer’ between parties in government and those in the opposition. How do you think the situation will evolve?
Clearly, the reintegration of Pravind Jugnauth in cabinet and his designation onto the critical portfolio of finance, was pregnant with foreseeable realignments within Lepep and the emergence of new power lines within the MSM itself around the party leader. The only question was how and when he would start imposing himself, his priorities, style and trusted allies and rid himself of those most susceptible to destabilise his future ambitions. The changes are on the march and there will be some “collateral damage”. I don’t believe in any major upsets or upheavals in the short term, unless the pressures of office and the health situation of the prime minister changes. As for koze-kozer, some political leaders may be jumping the gun and there are no reasons for either the Mouvement Socialiste Militant (MSM), under Pravind Jugnauth, or his alliance partners to engage in alternative scenarios when they are in such numerical supremacy in parliament. But politics can be so unpredictable!

Where do you see this country three years from now?
In the midst of another general election, after another “la bous dou” budget and all the preliminary “koze-kozer” have firmed up the alternatives!

And economically? 
Hard to say whether the economy will have picked up, if the jobless youth, that can be mopped up in temporary attachment programmes, will have meaningful jobs or perspectives, whether entrepreneurs will be busy and a mood of general confidence prevails in the country. 

You have followed the Heritage City saga and the acid war between Roshi Bhadain and Pravind Jugnauth through his adviser Gérard Sanspeur. What are your predictions on this front?
Most serious analysts have been mystified by the justifications of such a massive project, its consultancy agreement with Stree on the basis of a government-to-government agreement with Dubai – when neither governments were apparently injecting funds into it – and the numerous risks associated with government turning into a property developer and ministers into business tycoons… Pravind Jugnauth must have been receptive to the reservations of his level-headed senior advisers and the two other party leaders. He, in my opinion, made his position clear after the function in St Pierre: the Heritage City project that had attracted such controversy was not simply frozen but dead. I don’t see the minister changing position. I don’t see any minister resigning either as there may be consequences further down the road.

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