HE hub targets universities in France, India and UK

Positioning itself at the crossroads between Africa and Asia, Mauritius is also looking north - especially to France and Britain, where it has strong historical ties. Africa's most developed country is striving to become the continent's leading higher education hub.

There are at least 30 international institutions and groups involved in one way or another in tertiary education in Mauritius and the government has set attracting more international students - currently there are 1,000 - as a national objective.

The tropical Indian Ocean island's higher education ambitions were outlined at the Mauritius International Knowledge Investment Forum 2014, held at the Waldorf Hilton in London last month. It was the third such forum and the first to be held outside Mauritius.

The forum provides a platform for sharing knowledge and experience and building partnerships between local and international players.

Mauritius has an enrolment rate of nearly 50%, said Dr Rajesh Jeetah, minister of tertiary education, science, research and technology.

"Next door in Africa it is only 10%. I see tremendous opportunities here. We believe it is in our best interests to keep raising access to higher education. In Mauritius we believe there is no better tool for the emancipation of the more humble in society."

Rapid development

Mauritius is a democracy with political and social stability in a highly multi-cultural environment, a melting pot of people of African, Indian, Chinese and French origins. School education is trilingual - in French, English and Creole.

This, the government believes, makes Mauritius a natural bridge between African and European cultures, and between African and Eastern cultures. Several of the international tertiary institutions on the island are from India, and most others from Britain and France.

Mauritius is Africa's most developed country, according to the UN Human Development Index, which ranks it at 80 among nearly 200 nations according to level of education, life expectancy and income. The island has a literacy rate of 90% and is ranked at the top in Africa of the World Bank's knowledge economy index.

The economy has been growing by 5% a year for the past decade. At independence from Britain in 1968, gross domestic product per capita stood at US$100. Today it is US$9,300 and the island is expected to graduate to a high-income economy in less than six years.

Over the years Mauritius has developed several economic pillars, transitioning smoothly from an agrarian economy based on sugar cane to a manufacturing economy producing textiles, to tourism, then financial services and information and communication technologies.

Health care and higher education are emerging sectors.

"Mauritius is metamorphasising itself into a knowledge-based economy strongly underpinned by higher education," Mahen Kundasamy, high commissioner of Mauritius in the UK, told the forum.

"We are on the right path to transform the island into a global educational hub with a focus on high quality education and more equitable access."

The education sector

Mauritius' education model is largely based on the British system, with Cambridge the awarding body for high school exams. The country has a population of 1.3 million people.

The island's success "comes down to good policy measures of our founding leaders", said minister Jeetah, who has a PhD in textile technology from the University of Manchester, is a Commonwealth research fellow at Cambridge and an honorary fellow at Imperial College.

As a country without resources, Mauritius made people its primary resource. First prime minister Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam - who read medicine at University College London - focused heavily from 1976 on educating Mauritians, building schools across the island.

At the time, Jeetah told the London forum, Mauritius was solely dependent on sugar. "Once we started building schools, other things started happening. We started making basic textiles and moved into the tourism sector."

In 2005, when it became apparent that some children from poor families were missing school because of the cost of transport, free transport was offered to all young people - including international students.

The higher education ministry was created in 2010. "The current prime minister was not happy with the access available to our kids to go to university. My job now is to ensure that more people have a chance to obtain higher education."

Today there are some 50,000 tertiary education students and a gross tertiary enrolment ratio approaching 50%. The government aims to have 70% of young people entering tertiary education by 2020.

"We have a policy of having at least one graduate in every family. And the poorer and more humble the child, the more effort is dedicated to ensuring the chance to get an education," said Jeetah, adding that the private sector was considering creating scholarships for bright kids from humble families.

Within the tertiary student population, some 10,000 are studying in foreign countries and 40,000 are studying locally. There are 11 public institutions enrolling 54% of local tertiary students and around 50 private institutions educating the remaining 46% including in branch campuses and franchise and distance learning programmes.

Families in Mauritius have a powerful commitment to education at the secondary and tertiary level. This, the government believes, provides a fiscal incentive to companies interested in investing in education.

An international destination

Mauritius is now working to produce high quality graduates by partnering with world-class institutions, Jeetah said. A number of international institutions have already established in Mauritius and most "have had a good experience".

Other institutions are coming in, and the latest figure is approaching 31 institutions. "The number is dynamic because we keep on getting new collaborations. We have more than 15 British institutions, and a number of top-rated French institutions."

Jeetah said he had opened two new universities during 2013, including The Open University UK. "We now offer a European degree from a French university in Mauritius. This year we will have a number of other collaborations."

Mauritius has also developed a platform for business schools to train executives from Africa, the minister added, and had attracted top-ranked schools such as France's ESCP Europe and ESSEC Business School. "The latest discussion is with the London School of Economics."

The role of Britain

Mark Simmonds, the UK Minister for Africa and parliamentary under secretary of state at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, told the London forum that by combining their strengths and working together, Britain and Mauritius were "boosting our prosperity by helping students from across Africa to enjoy a world-class British education in Mauritius".

The two countries were justifiably proud of their reputations in education. "Both a cause and an effect of that success is investor confidence generated by Mauritius' reputation as a very good place to do business.

"For example, the World Bank's 2013 Doing Business report ranked Mauritius first among all African economies. And Mauritius has the highest rating among all 48 Sub-Saharan African countries in the Mo Ibrahim Index of African Governance, in first place for the sixth consecutive year," Simmonds told the forum.

"To me it is logical that Mauritius is the ideal place to develop the next generation of African leaders, politicians and entrepreneurs."

It was exciting that world-renowned universities could for the first time offer exactly the same standard of education to African students in Africa, particularly in Mauritius.

"In Mauritius, British investment has established more than 25 awarding bodies and three satellite campuses, with more to come. There are 15,000 students, a third of higher education students in Mauritius, working towards British qualifications.

"And those numbers will rise as more foreign students are attracted by the opportunities."

The market in Mauritius is worth GBP7 million (US$12 million) a year for the British education sector, and on 1 March the British High Commission held its first UK development and education fair there. The UK government, Simmonds concluded, stood ready to support British higher education institutions interested in setting up in Mauritius.