Small island states, because of their small population and limited employment opportunities, face daunting challenges in setting up a higher education sector of their own. They do need qualified personnel and professionals, but economies of scale handicap them in setting up full-fledged training programmes. In the 1960s, before becoming independent from Britain, the small island of Mauritius faced such challenges. It then had a population of the order of 700,000, a booming sugar industry and good potential for tourism and manufacturing. The national debate then was on whether to create a university or to continue sending students to overseas universities, often resulting in brain drain. Finally, in 1966, Mauritius decided to set up its own university, building on the existing College of Agriculture. Now, nearly half a century later and with a population of nearly 1.3 million, one wonders how Mauritius would have developed without a higher education sector of its own.
Two other island states—the Seychelles and the Maldives—faced the same dilemma, the former being the smallest country in Africa and the latter the smallest in Asia. Both of them, like Mauritius, are famous tourist destinations.
The Seychelles, with a current population of about 88,000, is made up of about 115 islands but only a few are inhabited. It became independent from Britain in 1976. It has several post-secondary institutions, including the Seychelles Polytechnic, the National Institute of Education, the Seychelles Agricultural and Horticultural Training Centre, the Maritime Training Centre and the National Institute for Health and Social Studies, all falling under the aegis of the relevant Ministries. In 2009 the University of Seychelles (UniSey) was set up with the Faculties of Humanities and Science. The approach was to offer external degree programmes of the University of London. Graduating students are awarded two certificates, one from the University of London and the other from UniSey. Currently courses in Business Administration, Banking and Finance and Information Systems are offered but eventually courses in Teacher Education, Marine Science and Tourism and Hospitality will be added. Courses are delivered with the assistance of the Royal Holloway, the Goldsmith College and the LSE, all of the University of London. There are substantial tuition fees for all the courses but the Government of Seychelles has put in place a scholarship scheme to provide financial assistance to students.
The Maldives is made up of 1,192 islands of which 200 are inhabited. Its estimated population is about 320,000. Initially an independent Islamic sultanate, it later became a British Protectorate and then independent in 1965. In 1998, the Maldives College of Higher Education was established, integrating all the existing post-secondary institutions, such as the Institute for Teacher Education, the Vocational Training Centre, the School of Hotel and Catering Services and the Centre for Management and Administration. A few years later the College became the Maldives National University (MNU), having 8 Faculties (Arts, Education, Engineering Technology, Health Science, Hospitality & Tourism, Islamic Studies, Management & Computing and Shariah & Law) and 2 Centres (Maritime Studies and Open Learning). It offers a wide range of courses of 1-3 years’ duration ranging from Certificate to Diploma and Bachelor’s Degree. It charges a modest annual tuition fee. Its estimated student population is around 2,000.
Clearly, Seychelles and the Maldives have used different approaches—the former maintaining its existing post-secondary institutions and creating a separate university, the latter integrating its institutions within its university. Seychelles opted for the award of external degrees while Maldives went for its own qualifications. Both have their own merits but the crucial issue is the long-term sustainability of the approach used. Also, what is not clear is whether assistance from other developing countries was sought. There are now well-established higher education systems in neighboring countries (for example Kenya or South Africa in the case of Seychelles and India or Pakistan in the case of Maldives) and surely the island states would have benefitted from the experiences and advice of their neighbors. Mauritius could equally have shared its experiences with both of them.