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Part 2

December 24 2010 at 7:21 PM
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Response to Re: UPNG Decaying

The Michael Somare Library at UPNG ... seen from the Earth Sciences Building. Photo: PMC

Pacific Scoop:
Analysis By Scott MacWilliam

In Part 1 of this analysis, the current parlous condition of the University of Papua New Guinea was outlined, with debits and credits briefly considered.

In Part 2, some suggestions appear for the immediate action which is needed. Necessarily, these are only indicated briefly: What is to be Done? requires more detailed consideration than can be provided here, as well as the evidence upon which these conclusions are based. Nevertheless the direction of changes proposed should be obvious.

Recognising that what is currently being provided to many young Papua New Guineans who attend UPNG is not at a satisfactory level is a major first step. While attention is correctly also directed at primary and secondary school standards, the same emphasis should be put on rectifying the inadequate level of tertiary education.

It is patronising and in other ways offensive to suggest to current and many recent graduates that the degrees they have obtained are at an internationally acceptable standard when they clearly are not.

In order to raise this standard for future students, it is important to acknowledge that for the foreseeable future UPNG is almost entirely an undergraduate university. Instead of spreading resources too thinly and raising false expectations which cannot be met, PNGs most important university should be branded as aiming to be a high standard undergraduate institution. Developing quality postgraduate programmes, including through the establishment of a would-be Harvard Kennedy School of Government or any of its pale imitations elsewhere, will be impossible in the near future. Postgraduate training can and should be undertaken at lower cost and a higher standard at overseas institutions, with the possible exception of some twinning supervisory arrangements for PhD degrees which involve research in and on PNG.

Focusing UPNG upon undergraduate teaching should commence with the recognition that prestige takes many forms. Following the narrow recommendations of academic consultants who have no undergraduate teaching experience, or have never shown any inclination to value this activity highly, is undesirable. Instead in the current circumstances, UPNG should focus upon the area where it can make a short-to-medium term substantial improvement. This direction also follows what is being proposed for primary and secondary schools, that student and teaching staff standards are raised and accorded due prestige.

Better role models
Instead of using well resourced, highly funded research universities as role models, inspiration should be drawn from any number of quality teaching universities which exist in the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere. Apart from introducing a worthwhile goal in line with the resources available, of making UPNG a better undergraduate university, such branding would encourage alliances with comparable institutions overseas. These alliances could facilitate student and staff exchanges, to the advantage of people within and outside PNG.

Because of the excessive workloads which currently exist at UPNG and the undergraduate teaching universities in many countries, few of the staff at such universities conduct much research anyway. One very conservative estimate is that well over 50 percent of all academics, tenured and contract/sessional, at Australian universities produce very little in the way of publications. That is, most staff at most universities behave in similar manners, and UPNG teaching staff are unlikely to gain much benefit from being subjected to the atypical experiences of academics who do little teaching and lots of well-funded research. A properly funded twinning arrangement between UPNG staff and the best teaching academics with relevant experience at overseas universities would at least ensure that like meets like, to mutual benefit. The predominant current arrangement in which occasional visitors with limited if any undergraduate teaching experience make brief visits to PNG at considerable expense and few if any long-term benefits for UPNG would disappear.

Staff should be rewarded for attaining teaching excellence, evaluated by international and local peers as well as UPNG students. Funds should be made available not only for the exchanges noted above, but also for the long-term support of academic skills programmes. Staff at UPNG should also be encouraged and provided with the knowledge of how to apply for grants and scholarships to improve their teaching skills. Similar programmes should be extended beyond those which currently exist for UPNG students so that these have adequate academic skills training, as well as the improved content-based courses. As is done at the University of the South Pacific and other universities, review panels should be funded to make regular visits to UPNG to assess, encourage and recommend possible improvements. (It is vital that these panels should not be construed as having a punitive purpose. Academics with recent PNG and other developing country teaching experience must conduct the reviews.)

Frustrated youth
From what has been said already, there is a further proposal to improve UPNG which might at first sight appear counter-intuitive. If UPNG staff are overworked, secondary school and university academic standards lower than desired, then shouldnt enrolments be capped? While being the opposite of that which has occurred in most industrial and industrialising countries over the last 40 years, it would also be an unwise move for PNG. Without any commensurate increase in additional forms of tertiary, post-secondary schooling, population growth alone would mean that the pool of unemployed, frustrated young people would grow. Apart from the obvious opportunities for corruption, lower teaching standards and raised high school marks, plus other undesirable practices being stimulated throughout the education system, limiting university enrolments would have additional serious effects.

Most importantly, when Papua New Guineans, parents and young people have already shifted their aspirations from secondary to tertiary education as a major marker of citizenship, capping university enrolments sends the wrong signal. Instead of limiting numbers of students, why not aim to expand capacity and raise undergraduate standards as quickly as possible utilising the above means, allied with a major increase in funding for UPNG?

There is a further reason for expanding rather than contracting the availability of places. PNG is increasingly short of skilled personnel as well as politicians and public officials imbued with ideas of service and national development. As much as the migration from PNG to Australia and other countries satisfies those who see virtue in global labour markets, the country has joined other South Pacific nation-states where there are fewer educated people left to demand democracy and good governance. The brain drain now afflicts PNG too, and UPNG cannot satisfy the demand for either migrant labour or domestic participants in the search for a better society.

Divine Word myth
Lastly, as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said in another context, TINA there is no alternative. It is pure fancy to suggest that Divine Word University at Madang, for all its current attractiveness, can substitute in place of the premier national public university located in the capital city. Think Bond University on the Gold Coast or Notre Dame in Fremantle substituting for a major public teaching university based in Sydney-Canberra combined! Further, Divine Word has not demonstrated that it can make the transition from its founding highly centralised administration to the next generation of university officials. While the Roman Catholic universitys existence provides some limited, desirable competition for UPNG, it is one of the travesties of international aid funding that over the last 20-30 years UPNG has been neglected, while Divine Word continues to be held up as a role model deserving of support.

So if the objectives are raising academic standards and growing enrolments at UPNG, how is this to be funded? While a major combined international aid effort should form one cornerstone of the increased funding, along the lines currently provided for USP, there are at least two other possibilities. The first is from UPNGs own asset base, the acres of underutilised land in the centre of a rapidly growing city with housing and other related shortages. During my recent visit to PNG, an international aid official indicated one means of using the land, involving existing superannuation funds, land leasing for a 20-25 year term and construction of housing on campus for staff. His estimation was that this would provide a comparable rate of return to the funds along the lines of other investments. The security and other advantages of intensification of housing and other buildings are already obvious across the road from UPNG at NRI, where AusAID has played a major role.

The third leg of funding support must be the PNG national government, possibly using assets either currently held in various funds or one of the sovereign wealth funds soon to be constructed to handle the anticipated revenues from resource projects. At least the availability of the latter funds should make it possible for the national government to think of quality tertiary education as a long-term resource and worthwhile aspiration without engaging in the supposedly unsound deficit financing.

Is the goal of rapidly improving the educational experience and teaching standards of undergraduates who enrol at UPNG undesirable? Unattainable? Hopefully not, for anything less will have serious short and medium term consequences for Papua New Guineans, their country and people in many other countries.

Dr Scott MacWilliam is a sessional lecturer in the Australian National Universitys Crawford School of Economics and Government. This article is Part 2 of a two-part series. This article was first published on Pacific Media Centre Online.

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