Education has always figured prominently in political ideology in Mauritius. Locked out of economic power, political parties, their voters and the state bourgeoisie laid great emphasis on education as a means of empowerment. Recently, a government even promised to have as its goal the production of one graduate per family.
However, the limits of that ideology are fast becoming apparent. The essential problem is that it ignores the obvious corollary: education and then what? The Mauritian state has invested quite a lot in educating its people but has inadvertently laid the foundations for another crisis. The educated Mauritian finds himself sequeezed between a nepotistic public sector and an equally nepotistic private sector. Both are in fact complimentary: those feeling locked out of the private sector go into the civil service, while those unable to call the shots in the public sector go into business. Mirroring one another in significant ways, each sector gleefully points to the shortcomings of the other while it credits itself, with no small dose of historical irony, with keeping the country afloat.
Each bemoans the lack of skills being produced, but neither actually explains what skills the country really needs when the state gives out public works contracts to its cronies and the private sector is focused on selling houses and real estate as well as mercantilist importing and retail. In effect, education is producing a glut of graduates with no real place, and which are not really needed. This is having a two-pronged effect: on the one hand, an average of 1,800 Mauritians are emigrating each year (an exodus of working-age, skilled workers desperately needed by a greying country: but with anti-immigrant sentiment picking up steam abroad not an unlimited safety valve) and those who do stay behind find themselves increasingly underemployed. At present, the government estimates 39,000 Mauritians with a university degree are in jobs that don’t require one. Since little skill is needed, it is little valued.
In the meantime, the expectations that such an ambitious programme has raised is such that these graduates are unwilling to take up agriculture or manual work, which is perceived as a massive step backwards. And so we are stuck in the rather ridiculous situation of foreign workers keeping what little industry is left humming and foreign expats running specialised occupations, with a great mass of underemployed Mauritians in the middle, dependent on political patronage and increasingly angry. The ideology of education as political empowerment has no answer as to what to do if there are no jobs to follow and expectations are destined not to be met. Countries such as Singapore have begun waking up to the problem when, in 2011, the government there was discussing restricting university education to 20 percent of each student cohort since their economy did not need so many graduates, but they quickly had to backtrack when the discussions were leaked into the public.
One prominent former policy maker – who shall remain nameless – once told me that Mauritius was becoming like the Gulf (foreigners taking up jobs at the top and bottom keeping the economy going) but the plan becomes fanciful as soon as one realises that Mauritius does not have the oil money to keep the local middle satisfied. And so it has to continue spending money it can ill afford to try to mask the failings of governance from its electorate. In the meantime, the country continues to produce graduates who will have no place and the pressure pot continues to boil.
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