Should undergraduate education in our public universities be free?

We pride ourselves to be first in many sectors in Africa but in higher education we are lagging very far behind indeed — By Sada Reddi

In 1976 when free secondary education was announced by the Labour Party and subsequently implemented, there was only one public university in the island, the University of Mauritius, and free education was extended to its undergraduate students. Since 2000, three public universities have been established by government: the University of Technology in 2000, Open University in 2010, and the Université des Mascareignes in 2012. None of the undergraduates of these public universities has benefited from free undergraduate education and this constitutes a major infringement of the principle of equity and social justice in higher education in Mauritius. The issue of equity is also linked with the funding of public universities and constitutes one of the major obstacles to improving the quality of education in public universities.

It should be obvious to anyone that denying free education to undergraduate students of these public universities (UTM, Open University and Université des Mascareignes) has been a major flaw in our educational policy. It has been particularly discriminatory towards a high number of freshers who have had to pay for their undergraduate education in public universities, the more so as many are likely to come from the more disadvantaged groups of our society, though so far there has never been any study on the social origins of our student population in higher education. This issue has at one time been flagged by the president of students union of at least one of these universities. But unfortunately it has met with a wall of indifference for a number of reasons; one of them could be that those who could have fought in favour of equity were unlikely to benefit from it given that they would have left the campus by the time it were to come.

However, despite the surprising silence of students on this issue of tuition fees even among the most politically articulate, the subject has received attention on several occasions at the University of Mauritius. As far back as 1993, the matter came up for discussion at the Council of the University. A document entitled ‘Higher Education: National Development, Access and Financing’ was presented by the then President of the Council, Surendra Bissoondoyal. It proposed that the university should not depend exclusively on Government grants and a decision was to be taken on the fees to be claimed from students — but no decision was ever taken. At the Ministry of Education, a report on funding in higher education prepared by an expert on the subject from the London School of Economics was submitted, but once again the status quo was maintained.

There are two major reasons for the failure of authorities to tackle the issue of student fees at the University of Mauritius. First, the university is not an autonomous institution. Second, no government has been willing to deal with the issue of tuition fees because it is thought to be politically explosive and consequently no one wants to bear responsibility to tamper with free undergraduate education at the University of Mauritius.

The failure to address the issue has had some deplorable consequences both at the University of Mauritius and on the question of equity. At the University of Mauritius, several measures have been taken to increase funding to meet its growing needs for resources, making further inroads on the principle of equity. One of them has been the setting up of a UOM trust to charge fees and run courses similar to those which are currently being run free for other students of the same university. This anomalous state of affairs has compounded the issue of equity at the university and beyond.

The other three public universities, especially the two that are expected to run full-time and part-time courses for freshers, are affected in several ways by the anomalous situation though they charge tuition fees. They are compelled to recruit students with lower grades, for the majority of students with better grades are more likely to apply to and secure a seat at the University of Mauritius where no tuition fees are charged. University of Technology and the Université des Mascareignes cannot compete on equal terms as regards intake if we only consider A-Level grades though it has been found that many students of the two universities tend to have rounded personalities and are very often much preferred by employers for a number of reasons which we cannot delve into in this article .

Teaching and learning at the University of Mauritius is also affected as it is reported that many students join some courses simply because they are free without any interest at all in the subjects that they are studying. On the other hand, the university administration finds it necessary to recruit as many students as possible to increase its revenue through administration fees rather than take measures to deal with learning and teaching problems. As a result of inadequate funding, the quality of higher education in Mauritius has registered no major improvements despite the courageous and rather desperate efforts of academics to tackle the issue of quality. We pride ourselves to be first in many sectors in Africa but in higher education we are lagging very far behind indeed.

The absence of a decision on the question of equity might in the future lead to various legal contestations; the Equal Opportunities Commission might even be approached to take up the issue in the future. To preempt any legal battle, it is necessary to take a fresh look at the funding of higher education both from the point of view of equity and quality. Good education is very costly. As we regularly remind ourselves that that our only resource is our human resources, we should do everything to improve the quality of our graduates. The slogan ‘a graduate per family’ was intended not only to encourage all Mauritians to aim for higher education, but to improve the quality of our labour force because we need all Mauritians to become professionals in their respective fields.

The poor quality of our infrastructure, goods and services can only be a reflection of our educational system. In a modern Mauritius, we need high quality education for our survival and our global competitiveness. Whether one is a gardener, a maintenance officer, a musician, a caterer, a journalist or a cook, we should all strive to become professionals and professionalism is acquired mainly in higher education institutions. One would not like to attend an event in a building where the lights and acoustics are lamentable or where the sound technicians have to be constantly reminded to lower the volume.

Quality in education does not come cheap and all our public institutions are very poorly funded. It is high time that the different universities work out in their respective administrations how best to address the problems of funding and quality. It is up to them to find creative ways to tackle the problem whether it be free undergraduate education for all the three public universities, a uniform administrative fee, free tuition for a selected number of undergraduate courses, student loans and scholarships while respecting the equity principle and the need to improve quality.

In a first instance, these issues must be removed from the domain of politics and be assigned to a commission to make its overall recommendations. Ultimately only a unanimous decision of a select committee of all political parties should take the final decision regarding funding. In the past and at present, we have benefited significantly from an important segment of our young people trained in foreign universities, but with fewer students coming back, we have to rely mostly on our local tertiary institutions. It is therefore important that we give them the maximum help – for to help them is to help ourselves.

 

*  Published in print edition on 17 November 2017

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