AfricaLive talks with Dr Keith Robert Thomas, Director General of the University of Technology Mauritius, on the transformational journey he is taking the University on. As discussed in this interview, it is vital for Africa’s future that education on the continent is truly African in its nature, with finding African solutions to African problems at its heart. Dr Thomas offers the benefit of experience from teaching in Europe, Asia and Africa, and puts forward an ambitious vision for the future of education in Mauritius and on the African continent.
AfricaLive: What are some of the goals you wish to accomplish, and how do you intend to change the University of Technology Mauritius?
Dr Keith Robert Thomas: I found it interesting when I first came here and noticed that the institution was getting so much press. It then became quite concerning for me because the media was mostly focusing on the negatives of the school. My family and friends thought I had lost it because I was willing to take on a project surrounded by negativity.
Transformational organisation has always been my thing though, and I couldn’t turn down this opportunity. Making a quick transformational change as an outsider can be difficult, but it is possible. You cannot make changes by imposing your methods, but rather through collaborative and co-creative ways. The approach I have taken is different from my predecessors. I have been able to engage the press and talk to them about changing the negative sentiment surrounding the school. The media must report on what is happening at the school, which is student learning and student experience.
Constant less than flattering reports about the school led to many having sympathy for me as I took the job. I, therefore, came here alert and confident that my methods would work. My approach has been able to move us forward because it is collaborative and consultative. The press describes my management style as the “Thomas method” because I am very hands-on. Revolutionising this institution will be easier because of the quality of staff I have around me. One of my other goals is to boost our tech capacity. It’s ironic that our middle name is ‘technology’ yet our technology is so limited and underfunded. As much as I would love a massive outlay on our tech capacity, I prefer to change the way we think about technology. My goal is to instil a mindset where we value and make use of what we already have. Our smartphones would be a great start since much learning can happen if we use them properly.
AfricaLive: What current trends in education do you think will mostly impact the future of African education?
Dr Keith Robert Thomas: The current copycat trend will affect the future of our education adversely. Africa must desist from emulating everything that takes place in more advantaged parts of the world. If we follow behind Western institutions like Cambridge, Oxford, and famous French Universities, we will be in trouble. Copying those institutions means we will always be behind them. I have seen this copycat model of education in South East Asia as well, where they copy the education system in places like Finland. If you copy and paste the Finnish model to the Malaysian system, it won’t work. This model just doesn’t work because everything is different, the funding, the geographical location, and the perception of education. We have to ask ourselves what works in our context, and what we want to do with our higher education.
African regions must turn the education system on its head and confidently create their versions of higher education. Sadly our education system is based on what happened in ancient Greece and Rome. We have to revolutionise it in a way that takes stock of Africa’s challenges and opportunities.
E-learning is a trend that will be quite significant in the future. Though I love a traditional face to face kind of teaching, e-learning is quite useful. The big trend which really shouldn’t be a trend but a must is the education of women. We all know that women are change agents and must be empowered. The African leaders I have had discussions within my short time here are cognisant of the gender imbalance. On this island, for instance, we saw little female representation in the last election as far as the candidature. We, therefore, need to push for more female representation in leadership, education, and in the workplace. If we get it right, Africa can be a leader by doing things differently.
AfricaLive: In your opinion, what does it mean to be an African institution of higher learning in today’s world?
Dr Keith Robert Thomas: For me, it means learning from other African countries. Having worked in South East Asia, the UK, and other parts of Europe, I can say that Africa can do higher education very differently. Africa gets a raw deal in terms of reporting and publicity, but I’m glad that’s beginning to change. Media channels like BBC World are now showcasing positive stories about Africa. My Malaysian adopted son has a book series out known as “Life through My Eyes”. This book changes the perceptions about the education system in Ghana. The book blows the whistle on Europeans who come to Africa under the auspices of charity, just to make money from poor people. We must be wary of post-colonial opportunists who come to Africa to make money by offering watered-down education. These postcolonial opportunists often offer training that is of lesser quality than what is being offered by poorly funded local schools.
AfricaLive: In a world that mostly sees education as a business, how do you intend to push the idea that education is a right, not a commodity?
Dr Keith Robert Thomas: It all has to do with advocacy. I am delighted to be working in a country where education is free. The step Mauritius has taken is enormous in democratising education and pushing the cause. We lost free higher education in the UK back in the 1990’s, which is so sad. Some people are of the opinion that making education free devalues it, I would really challenge that. I know a lot of people from my generation who are successful today that benefited from free primary, secondary, and higher education. We all know that most people in positions of power today come from well off backgrounds. Our job as educators is to be equalisers that give everyone a chance despite their financial history. It is tough to give everyone a fair shot if education is a commodity and not a right.
AfricaLive: The legacy of colonialism has seen African institutions relate more with their Western counterparts than domestic counterparts. What will foster more intra-African relationships between institutions of higher learning?
Dr Keith Robert Thomas: This is indeed true and sad. When I come to Africa, I don’t come as a post-colonial English person but a Welsh man. My culture and people have endured the same kind of brutality Africans experienced under British occupation. I, therefore, don’t look to the UK, US, Australia, and Canada for my models of doing things. I intend is to collaborate with African educators and see what we can do here. Collaboration and discussions will foster intra-African partnerships.
AfricaLive: What should the future of research coming out of Mauritius and the University of Technology Mauritius be?
Dr Keith Robert Thomas: My staff and I are in the process of constructing new research centres. We need one for well-being where we look after people’s physical and mental health. We can do this through research and discussions on best practice. We need another for gender, as well as a focus on the fourth industrial revolution. We also need to study linguistics and how we can have a lingua franca that unites us. Mauritius is a fascinating country because it is one of the most linguistically talented countries in the world. The linguistic diversity and language parity here is a marvel.
AfricaLive: How would you define success in the next few years as the head of the institution?
Dr Keith Robert Thomas: If the students and staff are happy, then I am successful. This University has to make contributions to causes that are there to reduce poverty and narrow the wealth gap. We have to walk the talk and demonstrate our core values.