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Friday, 22 February 2013 11:11

Democratisation of education: From knowledge to transparency

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The so-called regional colleges now start to be in the limelight. A tertiary education revolution has begun with the launch of an ‘Open University’. In this era of the Internet, what will be the socio-political meaning of this development in the years to come?
In the mid 70s, l’Express launched a contest of ‘the best letters’ presided over by Pierre Renaud. It was in this area that many youngsters of the pre-free education era (Meetarbhan brothers, Vine Ramnauth, Reza Issack, Ehshan Kodarbux, etc) made their debut in the field of journalism. One of them was even awarded a prize for his article entitled: ‘Queue to access knowledge’. He recalled how difficult it was to have access to reference books at the Port Louis municipal public library. People had to literally queue up on Saturdays, to have access to knowledge. Today, a single click on the Internet opens a window on all the knowledge of the world. Wikipedia has replaced the encyclopedia Britannica.

In the mid 80s, one needed to have a passion for knowledge and a strong purse to consider importing a book. The blockbuster ‘In Search of Excellence’ cost Rs 500 (at that time). The video of the same book, translated into educational materials for businesses, by Harvard Business Review, could fetch around Rs 25,000. At the same time, ‘In Search of Excellence’ was sold in pirated copies, at 50 Indian rupees on the streets of Connaught Place in New Delhi. The first videos of Business Studies of the Indira Gandhi Open University, then in the making, were available on the market at 90 Indian rupees a copy. The Indians subsequently invaded Silicon Valley.

In the mid 90s, discussions began on the launching of an Open University in Mauritius. The suggestion was made at a seminar organised by the Mauritius College of the Air, bringing together various stakeholders, including the media. Jayen Chellum, Secretary General of ACIM, would still be remembering this. Almost two decades later, this project is finally operational. Tertiary education in Mauritius is no more provided within four walls. The country, through the Internet, has fully entered the era of democratisation of tertiary education. It is now possible for a young person with no great means to have access to university studies.

It is also possible for youngsters who want to improve their knowledge, to study while working. It's an interesting mix because it fits into the German model which combines academic studies with the realities of the working world. The Open University should, in a second phase, emulate the American system, where professional experience and success of mature students are taken into consideration in order to assist them in their academic venture.

Meanwhile, the Internet, once again, created a miracle. The dream of tertiary education – of quality - is now within the reach of everyone. Prestigious universities like Stanford have started putting online, especially through Coursera, courses previously available only to rich students or the elite. Commenting on this phenomenon in a recent editorial in the New York Times, Thomas Friedman, author of ‘The World Is Flat’ (the very book which the Prime Minister had recommended to all MPs) wrote: “Nothing has more potential to pull more people out of poverty — by providing them an affordable education to get a job or improve on the job they have. Nothing has more potential to unlock a billion more brains to solve the world’s biggest problems.”

The cherry on the cake and a nightmare for tuition providers: Khan Academy offers, a wide range of real educational courses online free of charge, intended for different categories of students. And here we are! What will make the difference to-morrow are not the buildings constructed at high costs, but rather the teachers of high quality, real pedagogues, and well paid. This is the conclusion of a recent study by the London School of Economics Growth Commission. The Commission underlines at the same time the importance of supporting students of vulnerable groups (we think here of those who failed CPE twice), so that they can help build the ‘skills’ necessary for the formation of the ‘Human Capital’,  the real wealth of  nations.

If students of regional colleges are now performing as well as those of the so-called elite colleges, be it ‘Royal’ or ‘Saint’, this should not surprise us. Regional students stem mostly from the middle classes, where parents teach their children the craze to succeed through education.

On the other hand, we tend to hear less about those rich kids, who are equipped with latest gadgets and whose academic path seems to look progressively dull as their parents, once small shopkeepers have become big businessmen. But beyond the restrictive parrot learning system, there is now a level playing field in terms of access to knowledge. Every student and citizen with an Internet access can either chat on Facebook, or have access to a wealth of knowledge. Sesame is in his hands.

Youth access to a democratised tertiary education will surely provoke major disruptions to the socio-political scene. The young generation, which is individualistic, demanding and very fond of the freedom of expression conferred by the Net will not subject itself to the dictates of politicians and their methods of the 70s, 80s and 90s. A citizen of the free world, a youth of today will be increasingly critical of the speech of another age. This is good news for the country but a bad one for politicians.

Nevertheless, one must not lose hope. Latest statements from the Prime Minister indicate that he agrees the press has the right to criticise, while the new Leader of the Opposition said, in last Saturday’s l’Express: “I think we have come to a point where the country and the government should seriously consider the question of good governance, transparency and accountability.”
Last modified on Friday, 22 February 2013 12:35
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