The revival of polytechnics

As African countries prepared to gain independence in the 1960s, each one started to establish a national university. Mauritius, a small island with a population then of barely three quarters of a million, was no exception.

But there was one major and fundamental difference. While on the African continent the university model being adopted was a copy of the one in the colonising country, with essentially the same academic and governance structure and disciplines taught, Mauritius opted for an unconventional institution, a ‘developmental’ university.

This was based on a 1963 recommendation of Professor Colin Leys of the University of Sussex in the UK, who was at that time at Makerere University in Uganda. He formulated a ‘downreach approach’ to the creation of higher education institutions in poor and small countries.

What the developmental university concept implied was that, as resources were not sufficient to create both a university and a polytechnic, the institution should operate as both, responding directly to the evolving developmental needs of the country.

Following Leys’ recommendation, the College of Agriculture in Mauritius, which had been in existence for many years for training technicians for the sugar industry, became the nucleus of the new institution, the School of Agriculture. To it were added a School of Administration and a School of Industrial Technology, and together they formed the new developmental University of Mauritius, or UoM.

When I joined the UoM in early 1972, there were hardly any degree programmes being run and almost all courses were at sub-degree diploma and certificate levels. The institution was effectively operating as a polytechnic.

Gradually, over the years, as Mauritius developed economically and industrially, the UoM started to mount programmes to degree level and to shed some of its diploma and certificate courses.

Looking back, there is no doubt that the unique model adopted by Mauritius was the right one and the UoM played a key role in providing the necessary skills, at all levels, for the industrial development of Mauritius.

However, for the UoM to operate at both the polytechnic and university level was a major challenge, especially in the recruitment and training of staff. It also, to some extent, handicapped the institution in undertaking research.

New public universities

The UoM remained the only public university in Mauritius until 2000, when the University of Technology, Mauritius, was created as the second public university.

At that time there were also two polytechnics operating in Mauritius: the Swami Dayanand Institute of Management, created in 1995, and the Institut Supérieur de Technologie, established in 1998. However, the student enrolment at these institutions was significantly lower than at UoM.

The next major change in the area of public higher education occurred in 2010, when the newly-elected government decided to create, for the very first time in the history of Mauritius, a ministry dedicated to tertiary education, separate from the ministry of education.

The newly-appointed minister of tertiary education started making significant changes to the sector. He first launched the concept of ‘one-graduate-per-family’ which, for a population of 1.3 million, invariably required a far greater output of graduates than hitherto.

To implement this policy, in 2012 two new public universities were created: the first one was the Open University of Mauritius and the second one was a merger of the two existing polytechnics to form the Université des Mascareignes, basically upgrading the polytechnics to university status.

The creation of three additional university campuses in different regions of Mauritius, to be completed by 2014-15, was also announced. Their construction started immediately. In parallel, private and transnational tertiary education institutions were also establishing themselves in Mauritius.

Return of the polytechnics

Then came the parliamentary elections of December 2014, when the majority political party that had formed the previous government was replaced by another political party. The new government’s first major move in the field of tertiary education was to abolish the ministry of tertiary education and subsume it under a single ministry of education, as was the case prior to 2010.

But the even more significant change was to appear a few months later, in March 2015, in the 2015-16 budget speech in which the minister of finance stated: “The mega projects as well as the development of the small and medium enterprises sector will require a substantial appropriately trained labour force, especially at the technical and middle management level. We have an education and training system that is not capable of producing such skills at the pace and quantum that the economy needs.

“We are certainly at the crossroads for our education system also. Do we want to continue producing hundreds of unemployed graduates every year, who have received training in fields for which there is no outlet? Or do we want an education system that caters for the needs of the new economy?

“We are in dire shortage of middle management and qualified skills. So, we are engaging today in a new direction on this question of manpower training and development.”

The minister then announced that the three university campuses currently under construction would be used for the creation of three polytechnics: the first one to offer courses in middle management and information and communications technology, the second one specialising in tourism and hotel management and the third in health-related fields.

This policy clearly heralded a revival of the polytechnic sector in Mauritius. It was a bold and laudable decision, going against the grain of current higher education policy in Africa. The polytechnic strategy was confirmed in the 2016-17 budget speech in July 2016 where it was announced that provision had been made for the launching of the three new polytechnics.

Polytechnic conversion policy

The move to convert polytechnics to universities in Africa was first initiated by South Africa when, in 2004, it decided to upgrade all its technikons to universities of technology.

The technikons were acknowledged, regionally and even internationally, as exemplary institutions for technical training and many academics and higher education policy analysts, in South Africa and elsewhere, regarded that move as erroneous.

Other African countries followed suit. In 2007, Ghana proposed a law to convert its 10 polytechnics to technical universities by September 2016. Kenya also decided to upgrade several of its polytechnics and technical institutes to university colleges. Nigeria, which has the largest tertiary education sector in Africa, is moving along the same polytechnic conversion path.

It is true that tertiary enrolment in Africa is very low and needs to be significantly increased. But the increase should not necessarily be in the university sector alone. Differentiation of the tertiary education sector is vital for Africa’s development.

What is of concern is that, generally, no new institutions have been or are being created to replace the upgraded polytechnics, leading to a serious skills gap in human resources.

The importance of the polytechnics can be gauged by considering the engineering profession. It is usually accepted that for the effective operation of the engineering industry, there is a need for a far greater number of technicians than professional engineers, the desirable ratio of engineers:technicians being of the order of 1:5.

Precise data on the employment situation in engineering in African countries are not available, but estimates seem to indicate that, in a wide range of engineering disciplines, that ratio in Africa is of the order of 1:1 or 1:1.5. There is even a risk that the ratio will worsen as the countries upgrade their polytechnics to university status.

This indicates the acute shortage of engineering technicians and it has led, in many countries, to graduate engineers being underemployed and having to work as technicians.

While Africa unquestionably needs an increased pool of excellent professional engineers, it equally needs an even greater number of practically-trained, versatile technicians not only to support the professional engineers, but equally to service and initiate small- and medium-scale industries, in order to create employment, improve the quality of life and make fuller use of local resources.

A major constraint, however, is the status of technicians. They are regarded as inferior to engineers, which is one of the reasons for the tendency to upgrade polytechnics and technical colleges to university status.

It is to be hoped that African governments will seriously reconsider their policy of upgrading their polytechnics to universities or, like Mauritius, create appropriate institutions to replace the converted polytechnics.

Professor Goolam Mohamedbhai is the former secretary-general of the Association of African Universities, the former president of the International Association of Universities and the former vice-chancellor of the University of Mauritius.