With the results of the Higher School Certificate (HSC) out last week and the celebration of the laureates, Weekly speaks to Dhanjay Jhurry, vice chancellor of the University of Mauritius (UoM). He talks about the perceived elitist education system and believes that the whole educational landscape should be reviewed. He also discusses alternatives to the academic stream and shares the UoM’s vision and the new programmes put in place.
The Higher School Certificate (HSC) results are just out of the oven. What is your initial reaction?
Over the past six years, the average has been 75%. It is also interesting to note that laureates from the 'non-star' schools are now a regular feature.
Are you satisfied with our elitist system that promotes laureates?
I am not against the elite system, which I believe stimulates pupils and teachers to do their best. What is more alarming is the number of pupils sitting for the HSC exams, which has gone down from 10,285 in 2015 to 8,975 in 2019. Serious attention will have to be given to this if we are to produce the skilled workforce Mauritius requires to develop an innovation-based economy. There is certainly a demographic issue, but a complete review of teaching and learning at all levels – as well as curricula – needs to be undertaken. It’s good that we have an elite, but getting to focus on a few laureates each year – as if something extraordinary will come out of it – is not very good. Besides, there might be a decimal point difference between the first and the 25th pupil. So, it’s not really fair to those who come after the laureates.
But you could say that about any competition in any field, couldn’t you?
Absolutely. My point is that being a laureate is not an end in itself. Laureates will have to go to university, and then get a job afterwards where they will have to show not so much knowledge, but skills. Maybe they will be sacked from their job, etc. Then what? Have a heart attack saying ‘Oh my god! I was the best. How come I got sacked?’ This happens all the time. Also, when they get into married life, they will probably get into so many problems.
Is it because of all the publicity around them?
I think our country puts too much focus on the need and importance of succeeding all the time. Success becomes the major point. A country that wants to be innovative also has to realise that failure is important. Saying that you have to be a laureate means that what others are doing everywhere else is not good. Pupils should not only be prepared for the HSC – there are so many hurdles after that. Should we not also train people to address lifelong problems and get them to understand that they will face many hurdles, that they should do their best and learn from their failures?
As long as the laureate system is there and a huge financial reward comes with it, pupils will want to be the best, won’t they?
I am not against it per se. The question is, what do they give the country in return for the generous scholarship? Maybe the country is also responsible because it does not have the kind of ecosystem for them to thrive.
Academically successful people don’t want to come back mainly because they say there is no meritocracy. Do you agree?
I don’t know about that. Lots of people send me CVs. I got one from a woman who holds a PhD from Cambridge and wants to come back to the University of Mauritius (UoM), but I am not sure whether there is an opportunity or a conducive environment for proper research here.
What prevents you from creating that environment?
Thanks for that question. This gives me the opportunity to state the vision that we have been championing since 2017: to have a research and entrepreneurial university. We have reached out to the academic diaspora, so they don’t just see us as a teaching university and don’t want to come back. But if they see the emphasis on research, then they will come back.
The perception is that the UoM is heavily politicised. You are not going to agree with that, are you?
I will answer you very honestly. Even the minister of education finds it weird that I never go to her for anything. She says that she always expects to see me, but never does. That’s because this university does things on its own. We need to go to the ministry for funding as 65 per cent of it comes from the ministry. We are very objective and rational in our budget and are not engaged in petty politics.
What about recruitment of staff? Is it done above board?
Let me be clear about this. I don’t put my nose in anything. I cannot interfere in recruitment and I don’t know anything about it. When we interview candidates, we don’t know them. In an interview, we have six people interviewing for the academics. The panel is chaired by the chair of the staff committee. Even the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) is surprised by how we conduct interviews. Each member of the panel marks the candidate independently and the secretary of the committee collects everything. I am on the panel, but I don’t know what marks the other members put down. Then we take the average of all the marks and reach a consensus about, say, the top three.
The staff committee is appointed by whom?
By the Council of the UoM.
And the council is appointed by the ministry, isn’t it?
According to our act and statutes, the council is supposed to be independent and the appointment of the chair of the council is done by the prime minister. But the chair of the council does not sit on the subcommittees.
Who appoints the subcommittees?
They are appointed by the council.
Whose chair is appointed by the prime minister?
Yes, but the council is not only the chair. The council is made up of 25 people. Five or six are appointed by the Prime Minister’s Office and the rest are chosen from various fields. In the UK, the chancellor is appointed by the Queen. I think I should give you a copy of the act and statutes.
We have the Mauritius Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) Act, the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) Act and all committees and statutes created by prime ministers. Is it the act that makes a body independent?
I tend to disagree on some points. What you are saying is perception. What you need to see is how the council really functions. When we get a complaint from the EOC and they say, ‘send all the marking schemes of all the panel members,’ we cannot refuse, so we send everything. We do our job properly and try to do our best. I remember there was an article by two sociologists from France and they did a survey on the trust of people in European countries and France was down the list. What they said was that the mistrust of the system led to a lack of productivity. I would like journalists to also say that some institutions are doing a good job.
Coming back to the HSC results, they are generally similar. There is a high percentage of passes because, after the School Certificate (SC), there are a lot of students who do not even make it to the HSC level. There was a big polemic about the three or five credit system. What do you think of that?
This is not a political game. People need five credits to get to the HSC. What we see at the university level is that first-year students are very weak. Our staff are complaining. We will kill the country tomorrow if we succumb to the three-credit temptation.
But there is nothing prepared for those who don’t make it, is there?
I agree. That’s why we have to review the whole learning process, come out with clear learning outcomes and address the problems at the root. We need to accelerate the process at the Form 3 level to channel people into either the technical or the academic streams and valorise those going for the technical side. This is something that we have been talking about for a long time, but we have not been emphasising the technical side as much as we should.
Maybe we should do what Australia does and offer multiple pathways?
That’s why we have diplomas, certificates, top-up programmes and so on. Since I joined the university, my focus has been more on postgraduates, but there are polytechnics that are emphasising the technical part.
But polytechnics are not improving the perception that people have of the technical stream the way the university would, are they?
Does it mean that we should replace polytechnics with universities? Then people will say you are not doing enough research because you don’t have enough postgraduate programmes. Or that you are not putting much emphasis on getting programmes geared towards the industry and so on.
I am talking about a route for getting pupils who could not be upgraded to the HSC to join the university at some point.
Then you will be happy to know that, 15 days ago, a memorandum of understanding was signed between polytechnics and the UoM, where they will offer diplomas in midwifery and mental health. They will be upgrading the nurses who have certificates from the nursing school to a diploma and those with a diploma now have the option to come to the UoM for a top-up to get a degree, exactly as you are saying.
Do the pupils studying at polytechnics know about this?
I think it will be made public very soon by the polytechnics themselves. This was just approved in January and we are moving forward very fast.
When you said we should review the whole education system from the start, it starts getting complicated here at primary school. The new reform, which was supposed to decrease pressure on pupils, has increased it. Now, they have to compete so much to get a school after getting their Certificate of Primary Education (CPE) and then undergo more pressure to get into academies, etc. Was it all worth it?
The idea was to make sure that pupils were not going into competition too early. The second was to channel pupils towards either academic or technical streams. The academic side is well-established. Now, the emphasis should be on the technical. We cannot quantum leap. In education, it’s difficult to go several steps. Maybe in the coming years we will start to see the results.
But the competition has got worse.
There is no competition now. You go to the school in your region.
You still have to compete for the best school in your region, don’t you?
Don’t you think the parents should also play the game? The parents want to send their children to tuition as from Standard 3. Now, let me ask you a rhetorical question: what would you propose? We all agreed that the competition at the CPE level was bad. We cannot stop pupils at 11 or 12 years of age from acquiring knowledge to get into the workplace. If we can now take care of all the pupils, this will decrease the competition by putting them in different branches and avenues, as they do in the French system. They go through the Brevet and then they are channelled into different areas. The French, too, are reviewing their own system right now. In the field of education, the problem is that people want immediate action but, at the same time, we are talking about mass education so there are economic considerations to take into account as well. Let’s not tackle problems in a superficial manner. Let’s identify the problems and tackle them. If we think that channelling everyone to the academic side is creating more competition, then let’s review that. If you had asked me three years ago about all this, maybe my answer would have been different. But now we have polytechnics, which is great. At the end of the day, we have to ask: can we undertake sudden, quantum leaps in education?
Coming back to what you wanted to emphasise earlier, research and postgraduate courses, isn’t the UoM still expensive for postgraduate studies?
Compared to other alternatives, I would say that we are still very affordable to the Mauritian population. We cannot sacrifice quality. Also, to be able to offer postgraduate courses, we need the most qualified people. If we didn’t offer the best, who would come and enrol here? Besides, if a university decreases its fees, there will be a perception that it’s offering poor quality. That’s why, in Singapore, you will never see a university decrease its tuition fees. Why? Because they think that they need to increase tuition fees to be amongst the best.
Even if students cannot afford them?
We try our best. We are not at the level where nobody can afford it. Rs125,000 is less than €3,000.
But people are not paid in Euros here and the minimum salary is still Rs10,000.
In a previous interview, you asked me a question about where the UoM is ranked in the world’s university rankings? Should we not be competitive? How do we attract the best students of Africa and India if we are just playing on low fees? We want to be able to say that we have the best programmes, and you have to pay for that.
Are there any scholarships for postgraduate programmes?
We only offer scholarships for undergraduate courses and only to those who cannot afford it.
But isn’t the university free for undergrads?
The student still has to pay Rs10,000. We have increased our scholarship to Rs20,000 for a whole year. That decision was taken last year. Each year, we offer 350 such scholarships to students who cannot afford it. The main criterion is that their parents’ combined income should not cross a certain ceiling. This university is a developmental university to address the needs of the lower- and middle-income students in this country.
This university started out by taking top, three As students only and then lowered its entry criteria. Has the output also suffered because of lowering the standards of the intake?
The main criterion of assessing success these days is employability. We still have a high rate of employability. In computer sciences, the employment rate is 100 per cent. I would say we are very satisfied on that side. We don’t have the overall figure for all the university programmes as we do it by sector. We hope that most of our students get employed and we are helping improve their chances by enhancing relations with industry and the community. The quality assessment criteria have remained the same. Employers would know better when they recruit our students.
Concerning your position as vice chancellor, there are objections from various unions against the renewal of your contract. How do you react to that?
As per the University of Mauritius statutes, the vice chancellor's first three-year term contract can be renewed by Council for another three years only upon excellent performance. A subcommittee of Council is looking into the performance and will report to Council. Obviously, I do not form part of the subcommittee and am waiting for Council to take its decision on the renewal. I cannot comment any further nor do I want to make any statement on my own performance. You can understand my position.
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