Honourable Leela Devi Dookun-Luchoomun

Minister of Education and Human Resources, Tertiary Education and Scientific Research

“Excellence is what we are aiming at. We have to see to it that the people coming out of our system are endowed with the right knowledge, skills and competencies as well as attitudes that will enhance their employability.”

FDI Spotlight: In your time as Minister of Education, which accomplishments are you most proud of?

Leela Devi Dookun-Luchoomun: One thing I definitely feel very satisfied about is that we have developed a proper reform programme for the education sector. The programme, which is now live, spans over the pre-primary, primary, secondary sub-sectors, as well as up to the tertiary sector and passes through the Technical and Vocational Education and Training. We have also developed a major policy document and started a number of activities that will lead us to our destination.

I am especially pleased by the fact that the reform plans have received the support of the vast majority of stakeholders, including the opposition parties in Mauritius. It gives me the confidence and determination to forge ahead and I am convinced that the time to institutionalise the reforms is now.

What key aspects of the reform will affect higher education?

Leela Devi Dookun-Luchoomun: Firstly, we have to be conscious of the fact that there has always been a high social demand for education in Mauritius. From when the first immigrants arrived up to now, it has been seen as the primary means of moving up the social ladder.

This demand for education, higher education in particular, is increasing. It is not only coming from those that leave school, but also from workers wishing to upgrade their qualifications.  Even more and more foreign students are eager to study in Mauritius. Inevitably, this increased demand has led to the mushrooming of a large number of tertiary education institutions. In this changed context, it has become imperative to ensure sound quality provision by all of these institutions. Excellence is what we are aiming at.

We have to see to it that the people coming out of our system are endowed with the right knowledge, skills and competencies as well as attitudes that will enhance their employability.

From the reports on our Mauritian Higher Education sector, which I have personally gone through, as well as recommendations from the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education of the UK and from an EU Team, we are developing a new legislation named the Higher Education Bill. This Bill will review the regulatory framework of the sector. We are also planning to set up a Higher Education Authority, a Quality Assurance Agency and a new funding mechanism for TEIs.

A greater emphasis will be placed on both applied research, for example for innovation through the generation of new knowledge. It is important to remember that the Research, Innovation and Industry linkage is nowadays considered a major criterion by some for the international ratings of Universities.

With the influx of international universities coming to Mauritius, how are you ensuring that the quality of the local universities stays competitive?

Leela Devi Dookun-Luchoomun: Mauritius is currently in a position where it can and does attract some of the best institutions. In an environment where we already have top notch services provided by brand names, local institutions are condemned to improve the quality of their tertiary education provision as well.

Therefore, our local universities are already quite alert to the fact that the global tertiary education landscape is currently going through a profound change. They know it is now subjected to the waves of internationalisation and learner mobility. There is today a fast evolution of ICT and content digitization. Learner expectations are changing and there is a shift from rigidity to flexibility in learning approaches.

The challenge has to be met. As mentioned, we are revisiting the Quality Assurance system and ensuring the local HEIs are establishing close linkages with industry for greater programmatic relevance and to promote the employability of students leaving the institutions.

Quality is, after all, fitness for purpose. Quality development of the higher education sector will help place Mauritius on a higher growth path, with the knowledge that industry is a catalyst in broadening the economic base.

Again, the generation of knowledge is also crucial to determine the quality of the higher education provision. To that effect, the University of Mauritius has come up with the Knowledge Transfer Office that will facilitate the exchange and commercialization of knowledge created there for commercial and non-commercial application.

However, there is one dimension that we have to keep in view as well. Should universities be primarily utilitarian as the concern for employability seems to indicate? What about those students who toe the Aristotelian line and want to engage in traditional academic disciplines and in intellectual enquiry? For a lot of young people, the need for higher education is triggered by interest in particular fields of study and universities have to provide the opportunity for these interests to be met as well.

Why has the private sector not been as involved with local universities as it could be?

Leela Devi Dookun-Luchoomun: Well, this is not quite right. The involvement of the private sector with the universities has been there for quite some time now. Perhaps the best example has been the Mauritius Sugar Industry Research Institute (MSIRI) that has always had strong links with the University of Mauritius.

To some extent, in the past, the connection between university and industry had been relatively weak. However, the context was different. Today, the situation has changed. Proper links are now being established between the two.

Our legislation does provide for Consultative Committees with the private sector to be held at the level of our public universities to discuss programmes, placement possibilities, and more.

Now that the Knowledge Transfer Office has been set up and that the Institute of Engineers is working in collaboration with the UoM, the synergy will be more pronounced.

Furthermore, until now research funding has been solely from the government side either through the Ministry of Education or through the Mauritius Research Council. Possibilities are being worked out for the private sector to fund some of the research work.

The Mauritius Chamber of Commerce and Industry (MCCI) Business School offers programmes awarded by the Institut d’Administration des Entreprises of Poitiers. As for the Analysis Institute of Management, it offers an executive MBA awarded by the Universite Paris Dauphine and IAE Paris 1 Pantheon-Sorbonne. Equally, we have the Medine Education Village that is developing into quite a vibrant higher education hub.

Do you see public-private partnerships as a good tool for the government to get involved with the private sector?

Leela Devi Dookun-Luchoomun: Undoubtedly — it cannot be otherwise. We are already doing it at the local level. Thus, two of our universities, UTM and the University of Mauritius, will have special technology labs provided by the private sector, in particular Huawei Company. They are establishing those labs for students to develop their skills for work in the private sector. We are planning to come up with special IT departments for training.

We are now going even further. We are asking public and private institutions in Mauritius to share modules. For example, private and public institutions may encourage their students to take up modules shared by two institutions, thus leading to the creation of partnership between the two.

Over and above that, we are thinking that the co-awarding of degrees will gain momentum to allow our students wider openings into the global work environment. This is already happening in certain cases. Thus, the Universite des Mascareignes has linkages with the University of Limoges in France. Their degrees are fully recognised by the Ministry of Education in France, so it is like getting a French degree in Mauritius. In fact, they are given a certificate from the University in Mauritius, and one from that in France.

I also wonder if it is not time for our universities to envisage the possibility of inter-campus mobility for an enriched intellectual and social experience of students.

Overall, partnerships are extremely vital if we want to meet the influx of young people looking for higher education opportunities.

In Africa, every year you have around 800,000 students leaving secondary education and opting to go into higher education. Consider Nigeria, where you have about 1.7 million students coming out of the system, out of which only 400,000 or so manage to enter the tertiary sector. Therefore, the demand for higher education is already there.  Observers have noted a marked rise in higher education activity in SSA, with SADC students being perhaps the most mobile in the world. Equally, we are witnessing rising aspirations among the expanding middle classes in Africa.  Already, an increasing number of African students are opting for Mauritius for higher education.

Furthermore, the linkages we have established with international universities are the best possible. The Ministry has insisted that the courses provided by these institutions are exactly the same as the ones provided at their main campuses and that recognition should not be a problem for students coming from Mauritius to join postgraduate courses there. It is important that cross-border mobility of students be accompanied by a mutual recognition of qualifications.  

How do you want Mauritius to be known in the international arena with the goal of promoting it as an educational hub?

Leela Devi Dookun-Luchoomun: As a parent myself, I know the first thing I’d consider when I send my child for studies elsewhere in the world is safety and security. Students coming to study in Mauritius are safe, and security wise, Mauritius is very well-known as a safe haven. On top of that, the country is reputed for its strong adherence to democratic principles and hence the resulting political stability.

Secondly, the quality of the education we offer is top-class. We have an open-door policy, ensuring that universities from abroad can come and open branch campuses here. But then we are insisting on top-quality and full recognition in the mother institutions and elsewhere. After this, it is most important that we have sound diplomatic relations with all the countries in the region, which we do due to our membership in diverse regional groups.

Why Mauritius? For a number of reasons: One, we have a robust academic framework and internationally recognized academic and professional qualifications; two, we have modern expanding infrastructure; three, Mauritius is a democratic country with impressive ratings in international surveys and regional indices; and four, the high quality living standards in Mauritius.

So for us, the idea of an Education Hub is not a new one- we started talking about it in the year 2000- but you have to grow towards it. We have learned from mistakes in the past, and now we want to make sure that, when we go forward, we go for top quality institutions and brand institutions.

Apart from the universities that are already here, what other universities from overseas have expressed an interest in entering Mauritius, be it by setting up their own branch campus or collaboration?

Leela Devi Dookun-Luchoomun: Imperial College London has started collaboration with UTM and the Open University of Mauritius. The African Leadership College, and through it, Glasgow Caledonian, is another example. We have had a few from India such as Amity University which is planning to come up with a new and much larger campus in Mauritius. Collaborative arrangements are also ongoing between IIT Mumbai and the Universite des Mascareignes, on the one hand, and between Benares Hindu University and the University of Technology Mauritius.

Mauritius has more accountants and lawyers per person than any other country in Africa, and yet there is a high demand for graduates in the tourism and ICT industries. What can be done through regulation to match education to demand from industry?

Leela Devi Dookun-Luchoomun: The Tertiary Education Commission has already been informing institutions that they would not be allowed to touch base here if they do not come up with different or new courses. Additional Management courses are no longer being accepted. This type of control is already being exercised. As for the ICT and tourism sectors, a few universities are providing this type of training, but we have also come up with three new Polytechnics that will be opening their doors soon.

These are institutions meant to be alternatives to University education where courses will be provided that are aligned with the needs of the world of work, courses of which placement programmes will be an integral component.  And one of three Polytechnics will offer courses in ICT and ICT-related fields.

We have already gone some way regarding potential collaboration with Polytechnics from New Zealand, Switzerland, Singapore and Australia. Our Polytechnics will also have to concentrate on the provision of skills that will be required in the new sectors that we are planning to develop. For example, the Prime Minister’s Economic Mission Statement for Vision 2030 underscores the leveraging on the Exclusive Maritime Economic Zone to develop the Ocean Industry.  So, our young people have to be equipped to engage themselves in such fields. Again, Hospitality Management will remain one other major component as will the Medical and Paramedical one.

You are now at a very key moment in the country’s history in terms of education. If we were to meet in 20 years’ time and Mauritius is already a higher education hub, how would you like to be remembered for the work that you have done and the legacy you are leaving?

Leela Devi Dookun-Luchoomun: I believe that twenty years from now, a number of important changes would have already set in. The open air access policy would have increased the connection of Mauritius with the external world and facilitated student and staff movement.

Some of the best brand institutions would have already established themselves in Mauritius and have reached cruising speed. Hence we would have an extremely vibrant education Hub in place that would have regional and international credibility.

Obviously, we will be recognized for the quality of our higher education provision. It will have to be properly regulated but simultaneously flexible enough to respond to a multiplicity of needs. I am speaking here therefore of a higher education culture with a purpose, one that emphasizes research and employability and fulfils contextually relevant needs.

Hence, in 20 years’ time, I would like to be remembered as someone who has been instrumental in the transformation of the entire educational edifice and provided the country with a progressive higher education set up.  

I would also wish to be recognized as one of those who would have helped prepare the best decision makers of the future, those leading the nation towards further development. I hope to see students from many other countries in the region coming here, getting trained, and being sought after—not only in their own countries but globally as well.

If I could be the architect of such a transformation, I think I would have had my tryst with my destiny.

Do you have any special message for the readers of FDI Spotlight?

Leela Devi Dookun-Luchoomun: I think we should not judge a country by its size. Mauritius is indeed a small island in the centre of the Indian Ocean, at the crossroads of Europe, Asia, and Africa. But what it can give to the world is certainly something unique. Here in Mauritius we have always demonstrated our capacity to achieve our objectives. When Mauritius was about to get its independence, V.S.Naipaul, the famed novelist, referred to Mauritius as ‘overcrowded’ having no chance of survival. But years after, through the sheer determination and perseverance of our people, the country demonstrated its ability to turn around that hand-wringing economic state into what was universally recognised as “the Mauritian economic miracle”.

Today, the picture is such that Mauritius enjoys an appreciable economic ranking in African indices and it has a strong degree of attractiveness to foreign investors. That is our competitive edge.

But there also are other plus points for Mauritius.

I believe that the experience a student can have in Mauritius is a unique one. Mauritius is more than bilingual. People can speak more than three languages. The cultural experience in Mauritius is unique. True, like in other places, we have many different cultures, but unlike elsewhere, cultural specificities have been maintained here while, simultaneously, there has been some sort of symbiosis that has created the typical Mauritian culture.

We have reached a point in Mauritius where living in harmony is almost natural and is now even taken for ‘granted’. This is something we can give and I believe there are few places where a young student can get this experience. Our inter-culturalism is an asset that we prize. Living in Mauritius itself places a premium on developing the understanding, the tolerance and accommodation of the ‘other’. Thus, the Mahatma Gandhi Institute can today boast of hosting simultaneously a Centre for African Studies as well as a Centre for Asian Studies.

Let me also add that we are very strong on conservation of endemic species. Thus, something like 7% of species recovered globally through conservation intervention are from Mauritius. Much of this has been possible thanks to the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation through its captive breeding programme. Indeed, since 2015, a niche area has been identified with the Durrell Conservation Academy launching a Post-Graduate Diploma in Endangered Species Recovery. This Diploma, validated by the University of Kent, is exclusively based on Mauritius that has demonstrated the ability to save critically endangered species such as the pink pigeon, the Mauritius Kestrel, the echo parakeet, the Mauritius fody and the Round Island boa from extinction.

Finally, let us not forget that Mauritius forms part of the African Continent—and this is one Continent that 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. We are already offering some 50 scholarships to African students under the Mauritius-Africa Scholarships scheme.

Mauritius has demonstrated its ability to be part and parcel of a bright future that lies out there, a future that must be further shaped through regional networking and through a stronger synergy in higher education.

For all these reasons, I believe steadfastly in the destiny of our country.  We are committed to becoming a major player in the Higher Education field and, as someone once put it, “The task ahead of us is never as great as the power behind us.”