In an effort to align itself with global trends in higher education, Mauritius has since the late 1990s identified internationalisation as a key strategy to achieve knowledge hub status and become a regional centre of excellence. In 2000, the government brought forward this vision in its New Economic Agenda.
The island has specific advantages supporting its aspiration to achieve this goal, from its strategic location in the Indian Ocean to its historical relationship with Europe and its bilingual educational system.
Since its independence in 1968, Mauritius has already proven that it is a global player in several sectors by being innovative in its approach to economic growth and diversifying from traditional sectors to its service sector.
The development of a knowledge-based economy
The 2000 Agenda to develop Mauritius into a knowledge hub served to catalyse existing internationalisation activities in the higher education sector. In fact, since the late 1990s, public and private institutions in Mauritius had already been engaged in internationalisation through cross-border education, mostly in collaboration with universities from developed countries.
Private institutions offered programmes through franchise partnerships and some also enrolled students on overseas distance education programmes. Public universities were collaborating with foreign universities to offer joint degrees in fields where there was a lack of local expertise.
Appointment of foreign external examiners by public institutions also brought an international dimension to programmes and curricula, ensuring they aligned with international standards.
The Tertiary Education Commission or TEC, a regulatory body for higher education, was established in 1988 to oversee the sector. In 2007, TEC was invested with additional powers when the existing regulatory framework was consolidated. In 2010, new momentum was given to the vision to transform Mauritius into a knowledge-based economy with the establishment of a separate ministry for tertiary education.
The TEC defined and implemented measures to reach the objectives of the government. As opposed to the gradual, incremental approach adopted previously, a bolder strategy was chosen.
Locally, the goal was to democratise higher education in order to have one graduate per family. The internationalisation goals were to attract 100,000 international students and at least one world-class institution by 2020. The ministry created a ‘one-stop bureau’, Study Mauritius, to cater to the needs of foreign students.
Private institutions already experienced in cross-border education were encouraged to expand access to their programmes and to partner with renowned universities. Administrative procedures for international student visas were expedited. The Board of Investment organised student fairs and investment promotion strategies in the region, in collaboration with TEC and higher education institutions.
The hurdles of internationalisation
Implementing and piloting the new measures was not without risks or unintended consequences. Opening access to higher education by lowering the entry threshold or offering alternative routes undeniably made an impact on the quality of recruitment, and consequently, the quality of education and employability.
The government introduced different training schemes for unemployed youth and graduates, the latest one being the Graduate Training for Employment scheme of 2015, which aims to equip unemployed graduates with relevant skills to enhance their employability.
Enrolment in public universities, which stood at around 9,000 in 2000, grew to 22,800 in 2014. Public universities were unprepared to service more students without additional resources. Although they were engaged in internationalisation activities, they had no formal internationalisation policies. Their market remained limited to local students, except in cases where they affiliated with private medical schools.
Strengthening the University of Mauritius, the oldest and premier university in the country, would have been the wisest decision in the effort to become a knowledge hub. A foreign vice-chancellor was appointed in 2010 to bring an international perspective to the university leadership, but he resigned in 2012.
Meanwhile, two new universities were created in 2012. One was dedicated to distance education. The other was the result of a merger between two polytechnics.
In the period from 2000 to 2014, enrolment at private institutions rose from 5,250 to 18,000, but these were not yet attractive to international students. Out of 50 private institutions, only a few had campus facilities, a factor that international students consider when choosing an institution. Courses on offer at private institutions were also costlier, which represented a financial barrier for full-time students.
Some private institutions took advantage of the new government policies to attract international students and went on student recruiting sprees in countries such as Bangladesh, highlighting programmes that had no formal entry requirement. Some international students came to Mauritius to work rather than study and in the process paid large fees to overseas recruiting agencies.
Regulating these ad hoc issues, as well as ensuring that private institutions were more accountable for their international marketing strategies, was beyond the purview of the TEC.
Branch campuses are important elements in the internationalisation of higher education in this context. Middlesex University and Wolverhampton University in the United Kingdom and EIILM University in India established branches in Mauritius prior to 2014.
Following public communiqués in 2013 by the University Grants Commission in India, which did not authorise Indian universities to establish offshore campuses abroad, the operation of EIILM University (Mauritius Branch Campus) came to an end.
The Wolverhampton University branch campus closed its doors in 2015, probably due to low student enrolment.
Another UK institution, Coventry University, was unsuccessful in sustaining its collaborative venture in Mauritius.
Although the number of international students tripled from 2010 to 2015 from around 500 to 1,500 students (with enrolment from Africa steadily growing), the critical mass of international students needed for Mauritius to establish itself as a knowledge hub was far from being reached.
In addition, the regulations of the TEC, unchanged since 2007, were not revised to provide sufficient incentives for world-class universities to risk setting up branch campuses in Mauritius.
By the end of 2014, the TEC was juggling many new challenges. Increasing the number of international students had created a demand for additional services beyond education. Several ministries had to revise their policies on health, labour, housing and immigration to support internationalisation and had to make concerted efforts to resolve issues related to the arrival of new international students.
Where do we stand now?
With the election of a new government in December 2014, the ministry of tertiary education was closed down and tertiary education was again integrated under the umbrella of the ministry of education. Since then, the TEC has adopted a cautious stance in its quality assurance activities. The government of Mauritius is presently engaged in a process of consolidation of its legislation impacting the higher education sector.
Some lessons on implementing internationalisation are evident from the case of Mauritius. First, internationalisation has to be planned sustainably and must include all stakeholders. Second, goals can be achieved with robust regulatory measures to encourage innovative ventures and to prevent abuse. Third, public universities need strong leadership that drives internationalisation.
Fourth, a tailored strategy has to be devised for private institutions, which have different agendas. Fifth, high-quality foreign universities need both a supportive infrastructure and appropriate incentives to be attracted to a new country. And sixth, cross-border higher education needs to be scaffolded by mutually beneficial inter-regulatory agreements.
These last years have been turbulent times but have offered a rich learning experience for the country to better plan and pursue the internationalisation of its higher education ecosystem. Mauritius needs to leverage its unique contextual advantages and design a culturally informed regulatory framework to align with its dynamic higher education sector.
Shaheen Motala Timol is quality assurance and accreditation officer at the Tertiary Education Commission in Mauritius, a 2016-17 Hubert H Humphrey Fellow at Pennsylvania State University, and a visiting scholar at the Center for International Higher Education, Boston College, US. Email: email@example.com. Kevin Kinser is professor and head of the department of education policy studies at Pennsylvania State University, US, and co-director of the Cross-Border Education Research Team or C-BERT. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. This article was first published in the current edition of International Higher Education.
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