Dr. Keith Robert Thomas

Director General | University of Technology Mauritius

Key Points

  • University of Technology, Mauritius sees Industry 5.0 as an opportunity to put the human at the centre of industry and technology.
  • A human-centric approach means interacting with emerging technologies holistically.
  • In 2022 the university will continue to promote the empowerment of women in male-dominated industries and will also focus on developing masculinities in the workplace and society.
  • The university intends to be the go-to institution when it comes to solving societal problems. With a reliance on sugarcane production and international tourism, Mauritius faces a complex transition to a more sustainable economy. UTM has built strong relationships with industry that put it in the position to drive action.
  • AfricaLive talks to UTM Director General Dr. Keith Robert Thomas on what it means to put the human at the centre of industry 5.0.

AfricaLive: How can we define the identity of UTM?

Dr. Keith Robert Thomas: University of Technology, Mauritius is an institution with a great history and at a critical point of its transformation. I arrived here in 2019 and was made aware of the need for the institution to carry out a massive transformation, and am happy to be leading that project.

For me, the project is about building on what has been done in the last twenty years and polishing the quality aspect of the UTM experience. We are going about it by centering the human above all else, which means leading with empathy and care for all. It all leads to a very student-centric approach that guides everything we do.

The human-centric approach makes considerations about things like technology where we have gone from industry 1.0 to 5.0 at the moment. I come from a background that was at the epicentre of industry 1.0 back in South Wales in the UK. Now I am here on a small island in the Indian Ocean hundreds of years later, engaged in transforming an institution titled the University of Technology, Mauritius.

An institution with that name can be perceived by some in society as having all the latest technology. Unfortunately, because of historical funding and the economy in this part of the world, we cannot provide that yet. So we have to interpret the technology part of our name in a very different way.

The construct of industry 5.0 will be very pertinent for us because there are changes in all parts of technology that centre on a human-centric approach. This encapsulates our operation here because our students are interacting with emerging technologies and seeking to innovate using them. Technologies shouldn’t only be looked at in a very technical and industrial way, but also in a very holistic way.

AfricaLive: How has the identity of the institution evolved over the past two years?

Dr. Keith Robert Thomas: We have evolved when it comes to our reputation in the last few years. Like any other institution in the world, reputation is extremely important. People talk about their experiences of going to school, college, and university. This is part of everyone’s conversation where they detail their highs and lows. What has happened at UTM is a shift from face-to-face learning, to a blended university.

Under my leadership, we have set up a blended learning unit and appointed an internal member of staff to take lead with experience of change management and leadership. With the technologies we are using, we needed to have a very deep understanding of distant and remote learning. We used several free online programs on FutureLearn in the UK.

All of my staff engaged in some online learning by following those programs to better understand what online learning is and how it can be rendered with top effectiveness.
So I can say that we have a shared understanding on which we built a deep foundation for our practice. This is better than a ‘tips for teaching’ approach. Last year, we had an internal conference where staff shared their research into their own teaching and learning practice.

The kind of pedagogy people came up with was very interesting and staff came together to change the way we teach at UTM. People across the island are beginning to understand that UTM has a unique way of imparting knowledge and developing our students holistically.

We are being led by the concept of ‘studying locally; learning internationally’. Our students are mostly local with about only 30 international students because of the pandemic. We have had to think about things that are typically Mauritian about our content and mode of delivery. I have encouraged that we deliver content in a variety of languages.

Not only do we encourage multilingualism, but we also call on students to take advantage of the plethora of international online conferences to get important material and experience. Such free and accessible information can be woven into the learning process and not just an add-on. The point is to make it clear that students need to have their eyes fixed on local matters whilst seeing international learning opportunities.

We are at a bit of a crossroads at UTM when it comes to our internationalisation with other organisations. We are involved in partnerships with some big hitters in the international field such as Huawei. In terms of links with other universities, we rely on the Erasmus project in Europe. We are fully involved in the Erasmus and Erasmus + programs.

AfricaLive: Building in your identity, what approach do you take to working with industry and understanding the needs of the private sector?

Dr. Keith Robert Thomas: Partnering with industry is very important for us. I inherited an organisation that has a deep-rooted partnership culture. We have hundreds of lecturers who teach here part-time while also working with different local firms across various industries. They bring fresh case studies, examples, and materials from those jobs to our very appreciative students. It’s great that they can make the lectures so alive and relatable due to their experience.

The other way our partners get involved in our programs is through regular reviews of our modules. In most institutions, this can be mere lip service where people meet in an office and share their modules with people from a company; then they say they have consulted. We do it very differently at UTM because our process is very participatory and collaborative.

It is a regular consultation that’s formalised with a series of meetings. As universities, we have to concede that we usually fall behind what’s going on in the real world and often have to play catchup. So UTM formulated a work placement module that students have to go through and incorporate with the rest of their learning.

We must also see ourselves as a research hub and not just a teaching university. You can’t just be a teaching university when you have the word ‘technology’ in your name. The kind of research we do here is aimed at solving local and global problems. We do that by working with government ministries and other organisations.

We want to be the go-to institution when it comes to solving societal problems. My staff are highly motivated to carry out transformative and impactful research; it makes me proud because that is how five-star research is measured and we are heading in that direction.

AfricaLive: As you go forward, what opportunities exist for private sector collaboration, investment, or funding?

Dr. Keith Robert Thomas: There are a lot of opportunities in the technology industry especially when it comes to fintech and enterprise. We have built great relationships with some high-end technology companies such as Harel Mallac, Huawei, Oracle. Such organisations see universities like UTM as nurseries of future human capital. To that end, we have shared values and organisational goals. The way those goals are delivered is by way of our students becoming employees in those organisations.

UTM and Harrel Mallac have jointly signed a memorandum of understanding regarding their partnership.

I also invite local businesses to the university for talks on how we can work together to improve society through local business. Some of it is at a lower level and the rest is more formalised with written agreements and expectations.

Fintech is super important for us and the future Mauritian economy.

Port management is another vital sector. This is an island after all, so that becomes a very marketable skill. We have taken a key interest in this topic through an organisation called WOMESA. This organisation helps us encourage female students to get involved in male-dominated port careers.

This year we are also doing a lot of work on masculinity in the workplace and social relationships. It is an area of great importance and we have many initiatives to support work of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family Welfare in Mauritius. These initiatives promote a wider societal understanding of gender equality. We are also involved in grooming positive and equal relationships between young boys and girls in alignment with these initiatives.

Part of these partnerships is bringing local women and men to be role models to students. Before the pandemic, I would take students with me to meetings with some of our partners. That was life-changing to most of these students because they had exposure to people and places they had never been to.

AfricaLive: Mauritius will be one of the countries most impacted by climate change. When we look at the damage that our economic model has done to the environment over the past decades, do you believe the education sector needs to accept some of the responsibility?

Dr. Keith Robert Thomas: Higher education institutions just like all other organisations in 2022 need to look at their development and examine what their contribution to environmental degradation is.

We have departments working on many areas and the delicate balance between tourism and hospitality and environmental sustainability.

I had a friend visit me in Mauritius recently and she noticed that a lot of things all over the island are behind walls. That opened my eyes to the huge amount of construction projects all over Mauritius that will no doubt affect the environment. So as universities, we must model sustainable practices and as an institution, we have a long way to go in that area. We must also gather all the knowledge we can get to properly interrogate what decisions need to be made by organisations and individuals.

The island has relied on sugar plantations and high-quality tourism. Each of these developments has had a devastating impact on the ecosystem of the island. It is, therefore, a challenge for a small island state like Mauritius to adapt its economy and adapt to these sustainability challenges.

However, there is a lot of expertise here and a lot of knowledge about the issue. Now it is a question of turning that into more visible actions. I think that is the stage we are at; it is time for more swift action. It is time to move on from talk and take action on sustainability.

AfricaLive: We would like to hear your feedback on a couple of quotes taken from our African Higher Education & Sustainability debates. 

Prof Tawana Kupe of the University of Pretoria

“In developing markets we can’t treat the environment as a secondary concern to development. This line of thinking shows a lack of understanding of what’s at stake. 

People must understand that the issues they would rather prioritize are connected to the sustainability question. To create proper infrastructure and create a thriving economy, developing countries must embrace sustainability”. 

What is your opinion on the balance between sustainability and development?

Dr. Keith Robert Thomas: It’s a bit like what I said in the beginning, which is having a human-centric view as a university. I think of universities as microcosms of society. I think putting environmental sustainability issues at the forefront is something we need to do increasingly.

I have challenged myself and my staff to always check whether all the thinking and decision-making at the university is student-centric. As a result, there is a more student-centric approach to everything we do. We need to move further and ensure that all the decisions we make align with our guidelines on sustainability and the SDGs

Being on a small island like Mauritius, you easily notice any harm to the environment, because It only takes a couple of hours to drive from end to end. One of our challenges is to keep people’s eyes open to the problems at hand, lest we become habituated to ignoring the concerns. This island needs visitors to come in, observe and ask difficult questions when it comes to sustainability.

We must train our students on sustainability and make it clear that it doesn’t about just recycling some plastic bottles and thinking you are doing something. At this level, we must ensure our students are involved in the sustainability discourse. This should involve steering young people towards debates, discussions, evidence-based websites, and so on to attack these issues.

One of the things I do is share any momentous relevant content on the issue. I recently shared a documentary on Netflix for example known as Seaspiracy that exposes the damage to sea by the fishing industry. It is such a hard watch especially for Mauritians that depend so much on the sea for their economy. I recommended the film because the issues there are so complex.

We shouldn’t just be a university that delivers that through modules with the word ‘sustainability’. It has to be within the fabric of the university to have such issues as part of our moral code for it to be effective.

AfricaLive: A key stakeholder in the development of any society is the community.

According to Prof Jhurry, University of Mauritius:

“The triple helix method of innovation doesn’t hold if the community is not involved sufficiently. The COVID pandemic has shown us the need to reimagine the role of universities. We cannot just rely on universities to respond to the need of building human and intellectual capital but also business capital. We also cannot forego social capital.” 

Do you agree the community must be recognised as a key stakeholder alongside academia, government, and industry? And, how can universities play a role in empowering local communities?

Dr. Keith Robert Thomas: All the vice-chancellors and director generals of universities in Mauritius all took part in a harmonisation project last year. I was asked to lead this on behalf of the Higher Education Commission. The goal was to have a united strategy for harmonisation across higher education in the country.

What the work revealed to me was the enormous potential for cooperation in a small country like Mauritius. This is partly because we are a small country and also because there is a huge belief and commitment in higher education. The future for us is sharing resources with the community and involving them more. To achieve this, we have to break the silos between universities and everybody in society.

Part of this has to be about funding. Funding has to be equitable. Historical funding inequality is a problem all over the world. I see no reason why one institution should get more money than another. That is a societal and moral absolute for me.

It is a major challenge that the funding mechanisms for universities have inbuilt societal inequalities. There are the haves and the have-nots in the higher education system. It’s the same as other parts of the world where you find that in education, you have very well-funded schools and then poor schools.

It’s high time these disparities are evened out. Every student must have the same economic value in order to have the chance to impact society. All our young people have equal value. I am proud of the government of Mauritius for introducing free tertiary education to all. It is the right message to send to Mauritian students. I want us to build on that and for there to be more equitable funding for all universities. This is how we empower local communities.


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