28 Mar ‘We are very open to our teachers and students working in industry too’
Dr. Kaviraj Sharma Sukon, Director-General, Open University of Mauritius, explains the institution’s flexible and progressive model
Would you share with us a bit about the institution’s evolution over its decade of life, the original vision behind its establishment, and those elements that are unique to Open University of Mauritius?
Since we started in 2012, we have aimed to take education to people’s doorsteps. And I would say that we have achieved that because we are currently close to being number one on the island after 10 years of operation. Over 90 percent of our students are already employed. They are looking for prospects for promotion, certificates to build their knowledge, and essentially ways to move higher up in the career path. To that end, we have worked extensively with industry and we have a lot of partnerships—both public and private—for a number of whom we are their sole training partner. They sponsor their employees to come and follow courses at the Open University. It is also worth mentioning that even as a public university, we are now financially independent.
How would you sum up the role that the Open University plays in advancing Mauritius’ research and innovation ecosystem?
We are deeply involved in empowering all players, as we are also involved in research, through the organizing of a number of international conferences with partners from South Africa. The last one was with the University of KwaZulu-Natal, before COVID-19. Since then we have not had any gatherings of over 50 people. The next one will happen in October, so we are working with partners to design it with the aim of our staff and local researchers being able to meet international researchers. We do some consultancy projects, too.
One of the most important research projects at Open University involves looking at Mauritius as a multicultural and multiracial society that is, at the same time, a peaceful one. We have conducted research to see the tenets that bind people together, and how we have evolved since our independence in March 1968. In January of the same year, there were riots in the country and people died, and yet today we live together peacefully. We would like to showcase Mauritius as an ideal for peaceful existence among different ethnic groups.
Tell us a bit about the experience at Open University and the new type of adaptive learning methods you have implemented in the last two years? How have you upgraded?
I have just published a model of digital learning in an international journal in the U.S., which summarizes our experience. As an open university, we were already offering courses in a blended modality. Courses were online and students would come to our campus to meet their tutors and peers. When COVID-19 hit, many of our colleagues from conventional universities came to us, to see how they could negotiate that digital shift. We supported them in carrying that out because it’s not at all easy if you’re not used to it. We had distance education materials and an e-learning platform already available, which we shared with them. It was indeed the first time we were going purely online, so we had to prepare proper guidelines and had training sessions for both the students and the tutors.
As I mentioned, we work a lot with different industries. For example, many of the staff from the tax department do their courses with us at various levels. Therefore, our tutors must be incredibly prepared and come from industry too because they must be up-to-date with all the regulations, changes and procedures. Our work is more demanding than other universities’ because our students are not arriving from secondary school. They already have quite a lot of experience and are in the workforce. During COVID-19, we had to train all of these people as well, in order to make that digital shift.
It’s a proven fact that closer ties between universities and private sector enterprises result in more capital expenditure on R&D and therefore stronger innovation agendas for all stakeholders. In your opinion, what are some of the key ingredients that the Open University can contribute in order to make these flows of technology and talent work most efficiently?
We have a group of experts who teach, research and work in industry. That is our forte, and it something that we make known. We are also quite flexible; our mantra is Improving accessibility and flexibility, in that we ensure that our students can work, do their research, and study at the university at the same time. Third, we ensure that proper quality assurance is carried out so that we meet the necessary standards. Finally, we are highly affordable. It is important for us that all of these ingredients are present. We are also developing new programs in AI and data science, in line with the requirements of the government.
How successful have you been in developing the university’s international footprint in recent years and are there any specific areas, geographically speaking or in terms of research areas, where you are seeking to establish new alliances?
As I mentioned, we organize conferences with partner universities, the most recent having been with UZKN—the University of KwaZulu-Natal. We are also providing teaching materials to Botswana Open University, in the field of teacher education. The conference in October will be organized in collaboration with the North West University and details will be provided as it matures. We have a number of international students, but we haven’t yet gone out of our way to market Open University abroad.
You have recently announced plans to build a “smart campus” at Côte d’Or. What specific and innovative fields is the new campus targeting as part of advancing Mauritius’ STEM capacities and developing the Institution’s research output?
As a smart campus, our focus is on technology and technology-oriented programs. In fact, we just invested a huge amount of money in setting up a new highly digital studio. We will be taking advantage of the proximity to the cybercity which is on the same motorway and a short five-minute drive away. There are plans to provide short-, medium-, and long-term degrees for the employees and the actors there.
As part of your STEM curricula, you will now be offering degrees in Data Science & Artificial Intelligence, as well as in Business Process Services. What does this tell us about the economy’s overall direction and how Mauritius is positioning itself as a tech and innovation hub between Africa and Asia?
If you look at employment opportunities, the IT sector is the only one that has been recruiting people continuously, and did so even during the pandemic. It is a sector in which we still need a lot of people, and that’s why put a strong focus on it. As part of STEM, we run data science courses and statistics, but we do not offer sciences like chemistry or physics for the time being.
We do have a Master’s in Public Health that we run in collaboration with Imperial College London, and we are an approved CPD provider for medical doctors and professionals, through several programs.
In your opinion, what are the competitive advantages of Open University Mauritius and how do you differentiate yourselves from the competition when it comes to leadership skills?
We are among the best here because we have been able to win over the trust of industries. A perfect example of that is the program we are running for the board of directors together with The Mauritius Institute of Directors (MIOD), to enable directors to become chartered directors. We are the only people working in collaboration with the MIOD. We also run management courses for other staff members and we are fully committed to developing that breed of excellent leader.
I would love to know your vision for the Mauritius Research and Innovation Council (MRIC), given you are also Chairman there.
As soon as I was appointed Chairman of the MRIC, we decided to change the Act because we want the MRIC to be the research arm of the government. If the government wanted to go into a particular field, the MRIC would be the organization conducting all the research, doing all the feasibility studies, and looking at whether that particular area was worth exploring or not. All research-based questions would ultimately be tackled by the MRIC.
Do you have any closing remarks for the readers of Newsweek?
We are all trying to get out of COVID-19 and at the same time out of different messes created by other people around the world. The only way to do so is to empower every citizen. I would make a plea to not cut education sector budgets, and instead to seek ways to empower every citizen. That is the only way we can sort out all the troubles that are caused by wars, infectious diseases and climate change.