Mauritius is currently going through a phase of transformation from a middle income to high income country. How do you think this moment has to be managed in order to keep growing?
When you look at the basic ingredients that have always contributed to the socio-economic growth of Mauritius, we will certainly find that one of the most important ones has been its human resources. Therefore, first thing to do is to make sure we have a competent human resource base to help to accelerate socio-economic growth especially during difficult times. After the erosion of trade preferences, we need to manage the diversification process carefully. We have to be careful when we diversify because, as a small country, we have limited pairs of hands. We must make sure that when we diversify into new areas we, have sufficient number of people to develop those new sectors. When we embark on a new sector we must gauge the competences that will be required and consequently, prepare our people well in advance. The force of Mauritius is its people; its people make it strong and the best in Africa for several attributes like ease of doing business.
Mauritius has one of the highest alphabetization rates of Africa, and the educational sector is rapidly developing. What do you think is the key of this success in the country?
The main factor has been free education since 1976. That was the main reason for people to have access to education. Today we talk about 100% enrolment at primary and secondary levels. We have good schools to accommodate children. This is the result of significant investments in this sector and we have the culture of ensuring that our students have all the facilities to study; transportation, materials, textbooks, and extra-curricular activities. No effort is spared to ensure that they have the right learning environment. Children at primary school receive free text-books. Students at primary and secondary levels not only benefit from free education but they also have free transport.
The Government wants to transform Mauritius into an education Hub for Africa. What has to be done to achieve this goal?
Every year, the Government of Mauritius is offering 50 scholarships to African students through the Mauritius-Africa Scholarship scheme. On top of it, Open University of Mauritius has offered 50 distance education scholarships in 2013. To consolidate the position of Mauritius as the education hub for Africa, we need to take up several actions with renewed energy. We need to focus on quality education, because people will come to our island only if we offer a quality education and service. A second element would be relevance; we have to continue providing programs that are relevant to all around us, and for example, in the Indian Ocean region there is a need to ensure that people are well trained in areas like maritime security and piracy; for instance, this may require training of meteorologists, custom officers, lawyers and judges. People must be empowered to carry out inter-regional trade. Thirdly, we must focus on providing a pleasant student experience. Mauritius is still not used to accommodate students like other countries. We must leverage on the fact that “Mauritius” is already established as brand of excellence in Africa.
Open University of Mauritius opened its doors in 2011 as a pioneer in the education sector. How has this concept being received in Mauritius? How many students do you currently have?
The success that the Open University of Mauritius (OU) has achieved is definitely beyond our expectations. In one year and a half, the number of students has reached nearly three thousand. Clearly, OU has come to satisfy a long awaited demand for courses on distance education mode. It provides the flexibility, qualifications and world-class teaching learners from Mauritius and Africa are looking for. Everyone can earn a qualification while working; learners may also wish to work part-time and study part-time; and others, including, school-leavers can study full-time at anyone of our campuses in Mauritius and abroad. OU offers a wide range of qualifications ranging from short employability courses, B.Sc./B.Ed., M.Sc./M.Ed./M.A, MBA to DBA/Ph.D. in various fields. Most of our students are employees seeking to improve their competencies and skills without being in a classroom. OU also provides quality education, for example our MBA is the Commonwealth of Learning Executive MBA that has been prepared by experts from the Commonwealth. Finally we ensure that our fees are lower than those at the conventional institutions.
It is worth noting that we didn’t go for pure distance education. I don’t believe in pure distance education. That’s why we created a model that combines the distance education courses with direct contact with our professors and facilitators. This is the reason to have several campuses.
We currently have students from thirteen different countries, so we organize tutorial sessions. Interaction between our lecturers and those who are overseas takes place through video conference and virtual classrooms.
I am the first Mauritian who has been entrusted with the responsibility to start a public university in the country and therefore the challenge was bigger because hitherto people from abroad were recruited to start universities. The experience I have acquired in the field of education in Mauritius coupled with the work I have carried out at the Association for the Development of Education in Africa has played a pivotal role in the successful establishment of the Open University.
E-learning is assuming a pre-eminent position in the education system and in the case of Open University is more than essential. How are you using new technogies to make education more flexible and accessible?
We have developed an elearning platform. Students can now use this platform to communicate to each other as well as to have access to pedagogical materials and upload their assignments. This is what people are looking for. Today people want to continue working and improve their competences at the same time. This focus on technology has also provided teachers with an excellent opportunity to demonstrate innovation in teaching and to meet the growing need for flexible delivery of education. Overseas students have access to all the materials through the platform while having the opportunity to interact live with our tutors. This good blend of distance education and face-to-face sessions has reduced the number of dropouts considerably. This has also helped to keep the motivation of the learners high.
We had the chance to meet with Minister Jeetah, who explained that the vision of the ministry of Tertiary Education is to transform Mauritius into a Knowledge-based Economy by 2022. What is your contribution, (or how would you intend to contribute) as Open University, to reach effectively this objective?
We are helping all those who already have jobs to ensure they are ready for their next job because as the economy is changing and opening up, new competences will be required and in this way they don’t need to quit their jobs to start studying something new. On the other hand, we are already attracting foreign students because this is an important element. Anyone interested in having good education can come to us. What the UK, USA or Australia are for the rest of the world in terms of tertiary education provision, we want to be the same for Africa. We welcome everyone. Those who can afford coming to Mauritius can stay here to acquire quality education. Those who can’t, can equally benefit from high quality education thank to the Open University: they can stay in their own country and earn a degree. The team at OU is leaving no stone unturned when it comes to develop the capacity of our people to take up the jobs that shall be created in the context of the knowledge-based economy.
As a new player in the country you have the challenge of positioning yourself as one of the best universities not only in Mauritius but also in the international ranking. What are your strategies to become a top university in the global ranking?
Quality education! In one year and a half we have already taken 75% of the market of MBAs in Mauritius. The strategy of opening access to high quality education and delivering it at an affordable fees in a flexible way has been behind our success. For example the Commonwealth Executive MBA we offer has attracted a large number of students because of its high quality materials and low fees. We shall surely pursue this further while adopting innovative methods.
Another strategy is to provide the best student experience, although they study through distance education. For example, students who enrolled last year already have groups that allow them to communicate to each other. They regularly hold online meetings. Some of them have even created an environment protection group and they have distributed trees and promoted clean green areas. These means that even as an open university, we promote the best learning experience and stimulate interaction among our students.
Open University of Mauritius collaborates on some programs with Stockholm’s University, Imperial College London, Indira Gandhi National Open University in India, the University of South Africa and the UK’s Open University. What kind of interaction you have with these institutions? How do you attract other partners to participate with Open University of Mauritius?
With Stockholm’s University we are running a master’s program in international and comparative education, the same program that is being delivered at Stockholm is offered here, so we have experts from Stockholm teaching our students. With Imperial College for example, we are working on offering the masters in public health on distance education mode. In fact, we would like to contribute to ensure that we have good public health experts in Africa that has the urgent need to improve its public health services. Partners can see Mauritius as a knowledge hub for Africa. We are offering all infrastructure required by overseas partners to reach the African students. Many of the conventional universities are eager to go beyond the borders however they do not always have the platform. This is where we can help them. We know how to transform a module delivered at a conventional university into a distance education course. We are opening access to education, and not restricting it without compromising the quality. When the rigor is maintained and the focus is on excellence, partnership is not difficult to forge.
Globalization has raised the quality standards and continuous training is always effective to keep up with them. How do promote the right environment and resources, to keep your staff in continuous professional development?
When I was given the opportunity to start this university I would have loved to have at least ten professors from Harvard, even if they were retired, who would come to Mauritius, but I didn’t have the budget. So what we did was to recruit lecturers without much experience. So we are training them. They have been offered scholarships to complete their PhD. We have experts from Commonwealth of Learning who visit our university regularly to train our lecturers. By the way anyone studying for a PhD at our university must follow two taught modules namely Research Issues and Literature Review. Thus our members of staff are trained to publish research papers. This increases the research publications that contribute to improve the ranking of the university. We also promote the international exchanges. As I mentioned before, we have people from Stockholm coming to teach and this enhances the capacity of our team.
As the education sector grows and develops, so do the actors that are related to it. In this context, what is your vision for the Open University of Mauritius in the upcoming years?
In five years we expect to be the leader in Mauritius, in terms of number of students. But for me what is more important is to be able to be an important higher education provider in Africa. As a consultant I’ve seen the needs of this continent and one of them is quality education. I believe that for Africa to become the continent it can be, and the one that everybody is talking about, education is essential. We would like to play an important role in providing the education and training that is required.
Before being appointed Director General of Open University of Mauritius, you had a wide experience in the Education sector teaching, researching and consulting. From a more personal focus, when you look at this professional background, what do you feel most proud of?
I’ve been very lucky because when I left my first job at the University of Mauritius as a lecturer, I joined the research department of the Mauritius Examination Syndicate where I had the opportunity to start the marking of the first Cambridge O-level international paper in Mauritius. I had the opportunity to set up the Research Department at the Human Resource Development Council and we published the first National Human Resources Development Plan which aims at understanding the requirements in terms of skills and competences in the various sectors; this is something that I feel very proud of. And of course, starting up the Open University as such opportunities come only once in a lifetime. At the Council, I had the opportunity to work with the private sector. In businesses, managers don’t want to spend a lot of time in training people, they want ready-to-work employees and that’s why now, at the Open University we also offer employability and soft skills courses.
To conclude this interview, Mr. Sukon, our readers are more interested on the leaders we interview than on the company or institution itself. In that context, what message would you like to send to our worldwide readers of HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW?
The best investment anyone can do, is investing in education. And this is what I keep on telling to all my colleagues in Africa, you cannot move to higher development levels if the people are not well educated. An educated population is the best fuel for the keeping the country’s engine of socio-economic growth ignited. In today’s technologically wired world, they way we learn is changing giving us the opportunity to learn differently….so let’s learn differently.