Building the Knowledge-Based Economy

“Mauritius is metamorphosing itself into a knowledge-based economy underpinned by higher education.” – Mahen Kundasamy, High Commissioner of Mauritius in the United Kingdom

The ambition for Mauritius to establish itself as a regional hub in the tertiary education sector has emerged principally as a consequence of the country’s continuous and remarkable socio-economic performance and in the context of growing educational aspiration throughout the African continent. Mauritius stands out as an exemplar largely attributed to the sustained investment in education, a key cultural touchstone in Mauritian society.

Successive Mauritian administrations, conscious of the uplifting effect of education to the economic development of the country, has continuously implemented strategies to attract foreign direct investment with an overarching vision to transform Mauritius into a knowledge-hub and centre of higher education for Africa.

As the demand for quality higher education in Africa has risen exponentially, the term “higher education hub” has been somewhat devalued and now teeters on cliché. Yet for many, the island of Mauritius looks to be at the vanguard of assuming that mantle, however hackneyed.

Mauritius has consistently worked to position itself as just that: a crossroads for tertiary education, attracting both high quality international academic institutions and top-tier students from all over the world.

Education is already the top priority for the Mauritian government, and the island ranks first in UNESCO’s list of African countries for tertiary enrollment.

Add to that its geographical location just a few miles East of Madagascar, a natural bridge for African and European cultures and between African and Eastern cultures, with several of the international tertiary institutions on the island hailing from India, United Kingdom and France. The island’s manifold cultural and historical ties to both Asia and Europe, which places it at the crossroads of a range of important international higher education markets. Mauritius would seem as the clear choice to play host to a new brand of global, affordable, world-class higher education institutions for the African continent and beyond.

With an enrollment rate at nearly 50%, and with the government aiming to have 70% of young people entering tertiary education by 2020. Honourable Leela Devi Dookun-Luchoomun, Minister of Education says: “Mauritius forms part of the African continent, which is poised for a take-off at all levels. This expected and wished-for transformation presents a number of opportunities for us to seize in Mauritius. We want to be one of the major players in the provision of quality higher education in the region and we are already offering some 50 scholarships to African students under the Mauritius-Africa Scholarships scheme.”

Families in Mauritius also have a powerful cultural commitment to tertiary education, which the government believes provides a strong fiscal incentive to educational establishments interested in investing in Mauritian higher education.

Mauritius is now working to produce high quality graduates by partnering with world-class institutions, which are arriving fast and now numbering 31 tertiary institutions.

Growing numbers of potential students on the African continent are yet another reason to sustain the Mauritian higher education sector. The demand for quality education in African countries having risen dramatically over the past 15 years in tandem with the African middle-class tripling in size over this time-frame.

“To me Mauritius is the natural place to develop the next generation of African leaders, politicians and entrepreneurs,” says Mark Simmonds, former UK Minister for Africa and Parliamentary under-secretary of state at the UK Foreign and Commonwealth office. Plans to develop Pan-African education on the island are taking major steps after the establishment of the African Leadership College, recently set up by Ghanaian entrepreneur Fred Swaniker. This has already attracted students from over 30 African countries and there are plans for several more ALU campuses to be set up across Africa in the coming years.

Observers have especially noted a marked rise in higher education activity in sub-Saharan Africa, with SADC students being the most mobile in the world, with the pull of Mauritius hard to ignore in recent years. Indeed Africa has a highly mobile student population, with more than 300,000 students studying abroad. An ambitious higher education goal of Mauritius is to grow its international student numbers from the current 1,000 to 100,000 with many of them coming from elsewhere in Africa.

Already international institutions like Middlesex University and the University of Aberystwyth from the UK have set up Mauritian branch campuses. Their aim: to offer high-quality UK degrees to students in the burgeoning African educational market at affordable prices, compared to what they would pay in the UK. “I genuinely believe that Mauritius can become an education hub, for Africa and beyond,” says Dr David Poyton, Dean of Aberystwyth University, Mauritius Branch Campus.

“Mobility is no longer simply about our students coming to us in the UK, it is about us going out into the world and engaging in new and innovative ways, similarly it is very important that the activities undertaken by us contribute to the development of the sector and the economy in Mauritius,” he adds.

More recently, Medine Education Village, launched by Mauritian conglomerate giant Medine Group, has created a space for European institutions to set-up in Mauritius. This includes VATEL International Business School of Hotel & Tourism Management, ESCP Europe Business School and SUPINFO International University, among others.

Mauritian institutions have also partnered with international awarding bodies to deliver European degrees. “We certainly welcome the establishment of international universities in Mauritius and we are open to collaborating with them. At the end of the day, the winner is not just a single institution, it is the country at large” says Dr Sharmila Seetulsingh-Goorah, Director General of the University of Technology, Mauritius (UTM).

Meanwhile the Mauritian Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s Business School also offers programs awarded by the Institut d’Administration des Entreprises de Poitiers, and the Analysis Institute of Management offers an Executive MBA awarded by the Université Paris Dauphine Pantheon-Sorbonne.

These international tertiary educational institutions in Mauritius have a clear mandate to supply the regional market with highly skilled young graduates with transferable competencies and an ability to adapt to the rapidly changing demands of the continent.

High demand programmes include courses in management, business and IT, with pathways to chartered professions such as legal, accountancy and engineering, with medical and dentistry programmes also gaining in popularity, while the traditional programmes such as hospitality, and tourism perennially popular as professional options.

As Dr David Poyton further explained: “It is important to be conscious of the fact that Mauritius is already home to some excellent universities. Overseas providers need to collaborate with them on research and teaching-related projects, sharing knowledge and experience, in order to contribute to the overall development and enhancement of the education hub.”

Yet, competition remains stiff with many other countries vying for the position Mauritius is not necessarily a shoo-in as Africa’s leading higher education destination. With greater openness on the part of some other African countries, there is a growing interest from some international blue-chip educational names to set up on the continent. For example, Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, whose college of engineering opened its first overseas satellite in Kigali, Rwanda.

However, Mauritius continues to enjoy comfortable economic rankings in African indices, and the cosmopolitanism of its society remain some of its key selling points and, of course, its outstanding natural beauty and clement tropical climate, political stability, multi-lingual population and attractiveness to foreign investors will likely mean that it will remain a top contender for those wishing to study abroad.

In the final analysis, however, what will truly determine students’ choice of high education destination remains quality. Thus, while partnering with some of the big names on the international academic scene certainly adds some kudos to the programmes on offer, the main ambition that most students have is ultimately employability.

The risk for students is that such a knowledge hub can become a consumption and regurgitation machine rather than genuinely improving critical thinking. Indeed, a few unscrupulous tertiary institutions had established offshore campuses in Mauritius without seeking authorisation from the regulatory bodies in their countries of origin, with the result that the qualifications issued were not recognised.

The Mauritian Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) was subsequently established to oversee accreditation and quality control and recently blacklisted 11 institutions, which were not then allowed to recruit. Most of these were offshoots, (or masquerading as such) of Indian universities, prompting Mauritius’s major new Higher Education Bill to be ratified in order to bring about, “structural and legal reform.”

Many of the policy makers’ concerns are now placing greater stress on employability and good collaboration between tertiary education and the world of work. Mauritius also has some concern regarding brain drain, with many of its most ambitious citizens going abroad to further their education, many of whom never return.

This is also hopefully something that the establishment of so many foreign institutions on the island will help to ameliorate. “Not only do British University degrees have an international currency, they are also seen as producing highly employable graduates,” says Middlesex University’s Mauritian Branch Campus Director Dr Karen Pettit.

Even more important than having been garlanded in academic laurels from an august world reputed university, students will always gravitate towards those programmes offering strong transferable skills and links to industry and entrepreneurial opportunity and those which makes them the most attractive and employable in the job market.

This is the direction, which all potential higher education hubs, including Mauritius, must now start gearing themselves. Therefore, while it is clear that there remain many opportunities for overseas universities hoping to make a success of engaging and investing in higher education in Mauritius, it is equally clear that they will have to be able to collaborate, adapt and respond to Mauritius’s economic imperatives.