The Mace

Mr Speaker

When I suggested this Adjournment Motion a couple of weeks back, I was worried about the state of Education in this country. I feel more optimistic now, after hearing the forceful suggestions of the Ministers of Education and Higher Education yesterday, and in particular the determination to ensure greater access to quality tertiary level education to all our people. My one regret is that we did not yesterday also pay attention to the role of the Ministry of Youth Affairs in ensuring that we develop a modern Education system. We have to recognize that Education means not just academic learning, but also the development of professional and vocational skills, and the soft skills that will allow these too to be used productively.

 We need to promote variety in Education, Mr Speaker, recognizing that the role of the State is to ensure that no one is deprived of quality education because of a lack of resources, but that the State should also encourage other initiatives. As the Honourable Minister of Higher Education pointed out yesterday, the State should monitor such initiatives to prevent exploitation, and also take advantage of the benefits they provide for those who need support.

Unfortunately our system so far has relied on monopolies, monopoly of supply and monopoly of attitude. We have relied on traditional systems, generally outdated British systems that even the British do not use any more, and have resisted change. Sadly, much of the resistance to that change has come from a few students. They have imposed their will on others so that often the system has been disrupted and necessary changes sabotaged.

Ragging plays a significant part in this. Ragging, Mr Speaker, is not only an obvious example of the violation of individual rights, it is also a method of ensuring submission. It targets the weak and the vulnerable in particular, and batters them into obedience. Year after year I have seen students forced to wear clothes of a particular sort and walk in a particular fashion, forced to eat food from common plates, forced into practices that strip them of their individuality. And then they are forced to demonstrate against the authorities, forced to take up causes that they are of little concern to them, on the grounds that they must function as a monolithic group.

The time that is wasted on ragging, Mr Speaker, is another element that destroys actual education. The habit of focused study is destroyed in the first few weeks. Those who are hardest hit are the students of Arts Faculties, and many then resort to the rote learning which, as we were told yesterday, is also encouraged by the school examination system. This is sad because, when students come to university, they are bright and eager to learn in an adult way. Reducing them to dependence on their seniors, and on notes, means that many do not fulfil their full potential. That in turn prevents them finding productive employment.

But we must also recognize Mr Speaker that our academics too are sometimes at fault. Often we do not respond swiftly to the real problems students face. Our counseling systems are weak. Appointments to positions that require training and sensitivity are given for personal reasons. There is insufficient attention to professional development, while promotions and indeed confirmations are not based on performance but rather on grace and favour or simple longevity.

We also perhaps created a problem when we expanded universities swiftly, certainly a positive measure, but one that led to many appointments to academic and administrative positions of personnel who were not of the highest caliber. After they get entrenched, they tend to resent those who are brighter and more able. Sadly, as excellence gets diluted, requirements for promotion are relaxed. Simple long service leads to chairs and administrative positions that are then used to perpetuate mediocrity. It is the students who suffer then, particularly when this means strong opposition to innovation.

With this and other such problems, we have moved more slowly than we should have done on curriculum reform. The soft skills that students need are not made mandatory. In many Universities we still rely on the British view that the Advanced Level Examination provided enough of a General Education, whereas even in Britain now educationists are moving to the IB system which demands a wider range of subjects. We can deal with this at University at least by insisting on Communication Skills, on Problem Solving and Decision Making exercises, on Leadership Training and Role Plays. But we continue to stress outdated theories and regurgitate old lecture notes which students sometimes ask us to read out at dictation pace so they can faithfully copy them down.

This is not of course true of many academics, but it should be true of none. Meanwhile we could introduce a novel approach to learning through pre-University courses that could be conducted on a regional basis. Such courses could also include social service projects that would allow for productive group work. This, rather than combative political demonstrations, would be a better first experience for university students of working together with their fellows.

Some sort of National Service is perhaps an ideal we should move towards, given the importance of developing in our students a sense of responsibilities as well as rights. But if that is too complicated, opportunities to work and learn together in a disciplined environment would be a helpful precursor to university courses.

We need, Mr Speaker, to move towards new models. We have an excellent system of basic education, but we need in today’s world to fine tune it, to maximize opportunities for all our youngsters, and in particular those whose own resources are limited. We should also seek, through focusing on what is essential, to allow students to enter the world of work early, to finish courses in the three years that is normal in Britain with a similar Advanced Level system, or to take split courses with credit for project work and professional assignments.

What we need is not just learning but also skills, not just abilities but also initiative. We know that our students, who do so well in other systems in other countries, are amongst the best in the world. They can live up to challenges, we should ensure that they are challenged productively, not through the dead ends represented by ragging and the copying of outdated notes.