By Lindsay Pearlman:
Article 26 of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights lists education as a fundamental right that should be free and universal. For many developing nations, education serves as a marker of how far the country has come. Yet underneath the glossy exteriors of new schools and published figures often lie hard truths about an educational system on an unnaturally accelerated development course. This is certainly the case in Mauritius, an island nation of 1.3 million inhabitants off the coast of Madagascar.
Students in Mauritius begin school at age five. After six years, they sit for an island-wide examination called the Certificate of Primary Education (CPE) that evaluates English, French, Mathematics, Science, History and Geography, and Asian language skills. The CPE often makes or breaks a child’s future. Before 2001, students were ranked according to their scores on this exam. The highest-ranking students moved on to “star” secondary schools, while average students were relegated to schools with significantly less resources. With a nationwide CPE pass rate of 68.5%, as reported by a Ministry of Education and Human Resource report, almost 32% of primary school students were forced to drop out of the system.
Educational reforms targeting greater inclusion have brought muted success. Minister of Education Steven Obeegadoo abolished the ranking system in 2001 and replaced it with a more holistic grading system. His regionalization system also encouraged students to attend secondary schools near their homes in an effort to prevent the brightest students from becoming concentrated in just a few schools. Over the past decade, however, many of Obeegadoo’s reforms have been diluted through the new “A+” system, which allows students sitting for the CPE to choose between competing for a spot in a “national college” and attending a less prestigious regional school.
Attempts at keeping students in schools until the age of 16 have been more fruitful. A student in Mauritius has two chances to pass the CPE. If he is unable to achieve a passing grade, he enters a prevocational program. After four years, that student can continue on to a vocational school or choose to sit for the CPE again. If he passes this time, he enters secondary school at Form III level. In this way, students who fail the CPE still have educational options.
Unfortunately, however, the systematic inequity continues. Students have the opportunity to pay for teacher-provided or private tuition, which in theory is supposed to reinforce the lessons taught during regular hours. Yet since tuition profits supplement meager government salaries, abuses are rife within the system. Teachers have begun withholding course material during official school hours and bullying their students into paying for tuition. Some families are wealthy enough to afford the extra schooling; those who are less affluent do not have that choice. Their children must face a fruitless and isolated educational experience.
Essentially, tuition creates a huge education disparity between the haves and have-nots in Mauritius. Education is no longer a right, but a luxury.
A glance around any Mauritian village reveals just how extensive a problem tuition is. The buildings are covered in advertisements for after-school tutoring and test preparation. The figures for tuition in Mauritius are also startling. According to a study reported in the November 2002 edition of the International Review of Education, 88% of secondary school students in Form VI were paying for extra classes in 1988. By 1991, that number jumped to 100%. This means that 100% of families are spending over 20% of their income, per child, for private tuition. A 1991 UNESCO Report on Education in Mauritius reports that 60-70% of educators who specialize in grades 4-6 hold private tuition sessions. Private tuition has become rampant in Mauritius on both the supply and demand sides.
The Mauritian government, along with various nonprofit organizations, has explored a few different options to decrease the prevalence of tuition. The government officially opposes private tuition and has taken steps to ban tuition for certain grade levels and monitor teachers in the classroom to maintain quality of education. These government-led measures have unfortunately been largely ineffective in cracking down on the pervasiveness of private tuition.
An alternate campaign to restore equality to the education system is being pursued by various nonprofits around the island. One such organization, ELI Africa, provides free after-school enrichment programs for students who cannot afford to pay for tuition. ELI Africa was founded at Yale University in 2009 by varsity football player and Mauritian native Vedant Seeam. Since Mr. Seeam experienced firsthand the perils and narrow-mindedness of education in Mauritius, he has always placed a huge emphasis on equality of opportunity for children. “Mauritius boosts a free educational system, but many (students still) have to pay for it…I know how difficult it is to pay, and you get victimized if you can’t have private tuition,” said Seeam in an April 2011 interview published in the weekend edition of national newspaper Le Mauricien.
A highlight of ELI Africa’s teaching strategy is “experiential learning, described on the organization’s website as “learning by doing” that enables “active dialogue between participants that goes beyond traditional ‘teacher’ and ‘student’ roles.” Through this hands-on approach, ELI Africa aims to create “creative, confident, and conscientious youth who grow into adulthood with the ability and desire to play positive and active roles in their communities.” Five Yale undergraduates (Lindsay Pearlman ’15, Lincoln Mitchell ’15, Brittany Robinson ’14, Bryan Epps ’14, and Lauren Davis ’12) travelled to Mauritius this summer to teach experiential learning classes as part of ELI Africa’s Fellows program. “The service we provide isn’t something dreamed up on the other end of the globe to be implemented rigidly and coldly upon native populations. We provide what is so desperately desired, what is needed but cannot always be attained,” Mr. Epps recently wrote in a blog post on the ELI Africa website.
Nonprofits like ELI Africa also work to counter the endemic hyper-competition that makes public education in Mauritius overly narrow and skill-focused by emphasizing a balanced childhood. In 1988, primary school students spent an average of 5.7 hours per week in tuition; this number has only increased as competition has spiked. This means that Mauritian students have little time to practice those skills better learnt on the football field than in the classroom. Compared to the academic-focused tuition programs, the nonprofits’ unconventional programs encourage students to think creatively through art and writing programs and remain physically active—something that many public teachers ignore in the name of better preparing students to excel on examinations.
Though the efforts of these organizations have helped to equalize quality of education regardless of financial resources, the system will never achieve true fairness as long as students must contend for a better education through examinations. This over-competition is what will continue to fuel the demand for private tuition. The permanent solution, then, must involve substantial changes in the way that Mauritian schools measure their students’ success and intelligence. The country must shift toward more holistic evaluations and greater acceptance of different intelligences to truly eradicate private tuition.
No nation can sustain success without treating education as a fundamental right. With a little bit of help and a lot of effort, Mauritius too can rebuild its system on a foundation of equality and universal access.
Lindsay Pearlman is a sophomore in Morse College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org