UPNG Decaying

UPNG Decaying

Nesian
Nesian

December 20th, 2010, 3:11 pm #1

Pacific Scoop:
Analysis By Scott MacWilliam

During the early 1960s, when the initial conception and planning occurred for the establishment of the University of Papua New Guinea, two visions were especially prominent. The first, associated with Territories Minister Paul Hasluck, Administrator Donald Cleland and other liberal developers, including Sir George Currie, Dr John Gunther and Professor OHK Spate, saw the development of a national university as central to the needs of an emerging nation-state.

While there were some differences among top government officials, particularly about whether the institution should be affiliated with an Australian university or autonomous, these men had no doubt about the purposes, goals of and requirements for a university.

Two of them Cleland and Gunther were wise enough to walk around, scrutinise and select what would become a major part of UPNGs valuable inheritance, 1000 acres of land.

The second vision, held by some settler expatriates and others in Papua New Guinea and Australia, was condemnatory and cynical of the first. At its most extreme, doubt was cast on whether Papua New Guineans were even capable of attending university. Ridicule and abuse often appeared, in what would today be almost universally regarded as utterly offensive language.

Sadly, if some of the cynics were to visit UPNG today and selectively read some of the evidence available in various reports, they would find support for their bigotry. In important respects, UPNG is a 21st century university in name only. There is an important credit side of the institution, which is discussed below, but for now, the debits.

There is limited internet access at UPNG, little research and publishing, a library with most of its collection utterly outdated and what remains easily stolen or mutilated, inadequate housing for national and expatriate staff, and deteriorating buildings with little basic maintenance carried out.

By way of illustrating the above inadequacies, consider the following examples. On a recent visit to UPNG, I conducted some elementary research into teaching and research facilities. At a time when internet demand was as low as possible, with few staff and students on campus, it took more than three minutes to simply access the home page of the World Bank from an above average academic office. Downloading any document would have taken more time than I could spare. A colleague operating out of the same office has spent over K7000 of personal income travelling to a number of the more up-market hotels to use their faster internet facilities so as to have the most basic teaching materials.

Internet handicap
The effects of such limited internet access for students and academic staff are many. Attracting staff trying to teach, research and publish without one of the major technological tools of the twenty-first century is self-evidently difficult. But the absence of adequate internet facilities extends to internal administration matters as well. The UPNG web home page, which proudly proclaims the aspiration of being The Premier University of the Pacific has not been updated since March 2007. In mid-December 2010, less than two months before enrolment and orientation commences for 2011, staff did not know and had not been circulated with a recent Council decision setting academic dates for next year. By comparison, the University of the South Pacific web page is updated continuously and access is easy: by early December 2010, the Vice Chancellors Report to the November Council meeting as well as the Strategic Plan for 2010-2012 were already posted and available internationally.

While the library has an acquisitions budget, this is too limited to maintain journal subscriptions. Without internet access, online subscriptions would be a waste of funds anyway. The collections strengths end in the late 1980s-early 1990s but without adequate security any worthwhile holdings can be stolen. I tested library security: on three occasions on separate days. In each occasion I was able to walk in without leaving my bag at any form of depository and walk out without having the bag checked to see if it contained stolen material. Academics with whom I spoke readily admitted that they order no books and no longer lend their own publications to a library which can not ensure their safety. An especially frank colleague, whom I have known since the mid-1980s, acknowledged that it was years since he used the library and was often teaching with old material.

Staff housing on campus is run-down and completely inadequate: as a very senior administrator stated without obvious embarrassment, in his view much of it should be bulldozed. Not only is security minimal, when some of the housing is proximate to a major slum, but the occupation of university housing is itself not subject to any meaningful scrutiny. What was constructed to house an academic with family is now occupied by large numbers of people, many of whom have no employment connection to the university. In such circumstances, it is unlikely that any worthwhile academic work can be carried out at home.

To make matters even worse, the scarce housing stock is also occupied by people who do not teach or provide any other services to the university, but use university housing because it is cheaper than other accommodation in Port Moresby. The university is itself reportedly renovating some accommodation to be rented out to non-university personnel, so as to gain income, and without regard to its own staffs needs.

Decaying buildings
On several occasions I walked around the campus, with unoccupied acreages and decaying buildings, and tried to imagine what Donald Cleland and John Gunther would now make of their vision. Two among many instances suggest they too would be disappointed. The first is the condition of buildings in the old Art School, located right beside the now renovated and expanded National Research Institute. While the latter displays prominent signs indicating that some of the offices and accommodation are a Gift from the People of Australia to the People of Papua New Guinea, the former has buildings falling apart, pot-holed roads and run-down houses where staff and students, as well as squatters, live.

The second is the more recently constructed Arts building named in honour of poet and academic Ulli Beier. A teaching and display resource which has been and could remain inspirational as well as utilitarian, instead now is becoming dilapidated. The striking polished wood floor has major termite and other damage, with caution having to be exercised when walked upon. One section is so damaged and dangerous, that a cheap whiteboard has been used to cover the holes and weakened boards. An important tribute to an influential African and Papua New Guinean artist, the structure is falling fast upon hard times.

Yet standing among the inadequate facilities, it is obvious that UPNG has assets, possible building blocks for revitalisation and restoration of the founders ambitions. The first is students: UPNG still attracts most of the best students in the country, and the demand for a university education at this institution is not declining. It is a cliché to say these are the future skilled workers and professionals, as well as managers and political leaders. But they are also the nutrients which feed every great university, each year making campuses unlike most other institutions, with their energy, enthusiasm and ambitions.

Further, bringing up young people with a goal to attend university is a sign of an important change, even maturation in a country. Thousands of parents, many of whom have never had secondary or tertiary education themselves, now channel their energies and household expenditure into providing for their children. Parents run into debt often to ensure that their children have the possibility of tertiary studies. While accountants and economists abhor deficits and applaud balanced budgets for nations, most parents engage in deficit financing constantly, much of it to pay education costs. (In PNG, micro-financiers and/or loan-sharks feed upon this ambition mercilessly: most government institutions deduct money from employee wages to meet such debts before paying the balance to individuals.)

It is also the case that for an increasing number of parents and students, the ultimate goal is to obtain positions outside PNG. The Air New Guinea in-flight magazine boasts of Papua New Guineans now piloting advanced aircraft for other airlines, and UPNG graduates are filling positions in Australia.

Staff commitment
The second major resource which UPNG has is staff, present and past, the latter with residual loyalties to the universitys earlier vision which is currently untapped. Teaching loads are unreasonable, and it is hardly surprising that in the conditions little research is done. Nevertheless, there are many people working with limited resources such as would not be acceptable in most international universities. That they continue to do so, when more favourable employment exists elsewhere, suggests a remarkable degree of commitment to teaching and the university itself. For instance, in one academic strand, with no staff above lecturer level and only five academics in total, more than1400 students are taught in 11 subjects. Every course has more than 80 students, so there can be no accusation of too wide a spread of subjects for this area. One serious consequence of the over-loading is that existing staff undertake little development training.

Thirdly, the university still owns a very large portion of the land which was so assiduously secured over 40 years ago. One informed estimate provided recently suggests that, despite losing a portion of its undeveloped holding to a developers land-grab, UPNGs remaining land could be priced at up to K1 billion in the current land shortage. Unfortunately buildings and housing are currently so sparsely distributed as to make security almost impossible, and the vacant areas remain potential prey for other real-estate developers. The housing currently being built for staff is off-campus and in suburbs regarded by many Papua New Guineans as unsafe, especially for expatriates who do not have kinship and other ties to provide some support.

Over the next few years, it will become apparent whether either the liberal development vision or that of those who sniggered will triumph. UPNG is in a parlous condition, in a country which desperately needs a major national university able to meet the aspirations of thousands of its citizens. A few smaller institutions, private and/or religious may make important contributions, plug a few holes, but nothing will be as important for the future of tertiary education in the immediate future as what happens to the countrys first university. Can national leaders, some of whom were beneficiaries of an earlier, better UPNG, and international donors combine in an overdue rescue mission?

Dr Scott MacWilliam is a sessional lecturer in the Australian National Universitys Crawford School of Ecinomics and Government. This article is Part 1 of a two-part series. This article was first published on Pacific Media Centre Online.

Tomorrow: What needs to be done?
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t-ray
t-ray

December 23rd, 2010, 7:56 am #2

so... where's the next part to this article? We shouldn't have to wait for days.
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Nesian
Nesian

December 24th, 2010, 10:21 am #3


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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well known info
well known info

December 26th, 2010, 9:40 am #4

It's hard to argue with any of his observations. Our universities and colleges give out crap education that's for sure.

Unfortunately the only solution is to bring in more expats because too many of the local faculty unfortunately spend too much time drinking at the club or attending to family matters rather than focus on their teaching.

Naturally the only expats who bother to apply for the positions open these days are from Nigeria, India, Sri Lanka or Bangladesh. That says something about the salaries that are offered to the expats.

But if the universities offered competitive salaries to bring in truly qualified people from overseas then the local faculty would raise a big stink and eventually defeat the initiative.

So is there any way out.
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Observer
Observer

December 28th, 2010, 11:09 pm #5

Also those with good academic credentials do more externally paid consulting work with less teaching, whilst junior academics are left floundering teaching large classess. No tutorials, no student consultations like in the past.
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Anonymous
Anonymous

December 29th, 2010, 7:32 pm #6

No student today should suffer the illusion that they're getting a good college education in PNG.
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Joined: December 29th, 2010, 3:50 am

January 2nd, 2011, 7:54 am #7

Don't be deluded with the notion that institutions make people clever or bright. The gift of being a clever/bright student is a result of personal nurturing. We have dumb kids from rich families attending the most expensive schools and they will not progress in a positive way to be independent because their future is well secured - they have the money to buy their way here and their.

Over the years children from ordinary/poor families have excelled in their education in PNG INSTITUTIONS over the years and they are now working as professionals in their respective fields in all corners of this planet so that's something foreigners need to take into account when they write their sorry *** polemics about PNG education.
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Anonymous
Anonymous

January 3rd, 2011, 7:54 pm #8

You're very true with your statement about uncaring kids going to great schools. However when kids grow up in a country with almost no book stores and go to schools with poor learning resources how do they learn even when they're capable?

Our schools are so poor from top to bottom that even talented, eager to learn kids aren't given a chance. How old are you? How long ago did you pass thru the schools? They are getting progressively worse by the day.

And let's not fool ourselves. Many, if not most of us who pass thru college are not competitive by world standards unless you consider our ability to con others.
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