Even a broken clock is right twice a day

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The government wants to reduce the cost of higher education. In this, the ruling MSM party is taking a leaf out of the Labour Party’s old playbook when in 1976 and on the cusp of an election, Sir Seewoosaguar Ramgoolam made secondary education free. With the Labour Party long claiming credit for free secondary education and free transport for pupils and students, Pravind Jugnauth too needs a slogan and his will be about making public universities free. But just because the government is eyeing the next election does not necessarily mean that all of what it is saying is false.

Those baulking at the cost of free universities are mirroring those that in 1976 similarly baulked at free secondary schooling. Back then too, critics were pointing out how a similarly profligate government would foot the bill for its promise. And yet, what is instructive is that since then nobody has even thought of taking away free secondary schooling. What is more, the creation of a literate workforce is one of the biggest selling points used by the government and private companies to attract investors. The hand-wringing over the cost of free schooling being long forgotten.

And until recently, this was enough. In an economy with mass employers in labour-intensive sectors like textiles and sugar, even people equipped with the minimum of language and numeracy could be absorbed by the job market. In other words, schooling was enough since the economy did not demand much by way of skill and technological finesse. But let us be brutally honest here: manufacturing was never a viable economic strategy for Mauritius. Sugar and textiles depended upon all sorts of quotas and international agreements, themselves drawn up out of fear that without them Mauritius would sink into economic chaos and communism. Now that these agreements are at an end, these two mass employers are on the way to oblivion. There are no more safety nets and no more is there the luxury for illusion.

Today is the era of increasing automation and industrial sophistication. What to do with unskilled citizens with just a secondary school education is roiling developed countries as we speak, and this turbulence will make its way to developing countries as automation displaces dirt-cheap workers there too. Those that capitalised on the good times to increasingly educate their people will continue to prosper, while those that neglected that will fall on troubled times. Mauritius is not an exception: it too must prepare its people to grapple with technology and open access to higher education as much as possible. Or it can simply wither away into economic insignificance, its unskilled citizenry descending into drugs and debauchery. There is no sector left capable of absorbing on a large scale the unskilled and the non-university educated.  

Consciously or unconsciously, the government in its eagerness to gain votes has stumbled onto a major point whose time seems to have come. The devil, as always, is in the detail and it remains to be seen how it handles – or mishandles – this issue. But what is certain and not subject to change is the fact that illiteracy has never been a formula for prosperity.

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