ALLAN PATIENCE: The serious under-development of Papua New Guinea’s university system

Jun 1, 2018

There is a crisis in Papua New Guinea’s university system. Universities are devastatingly under-resourced and under-performing. The bizarre persecution of PNG University of Technology’s Vice-Chancellor, Dr Albert Schram, also points to a disastrous governance breakdown at university council level. Can the Australian university sector do anything to help? Yes it can.  

University students in Australia today are often criticised for being self-absorbed and indifferent to domestic and international politics. Some of this criticism is unjust because there certainly are students who are sincerely committed to better understanding their world and they certainly want to help in making it a better place. But quite a few are also uncritically accepting of what they regard as their just entitlements. Their campuses are groaning with extra-curricular facilities – gyms, swimming pools, playing fields, tennis courts, a wide range of food outlets and coffee shops, and a bewildering variety of clubs and societies catering for every imaginable pastime and inclination. All this they take for granted.

Meanwhile, right on Australia’s northern doorstep, there are university students struggling under conditions of the most shocking physical and educational under-development of almost any third world country today. In 2010 Professor Ross Garnaut and Sir Rabbie Namaliu were commissioned jointly by the Australian and PNG governments to report on the growing crisis in PNG’s higher education system. Their report stated:

Papua New Guinea’s universities made a significant contribution to the nation in its early years. They can do so again but, right now, the quantity and quality of graduates is far short of what is needed—due to inadequate resources and a range of governance and general service quality issues.

 They noted that funding for PNG university students had declined to one seventeenth of what it had been in 1975, when Australia relinquished the administration of its then colony to the newly independent state of PNG. The consequences in almost all areas of public policy have been disastrous, including higher education. It is particularly galling that the Garnaut-Namaliu Report has been wantonly ignored by governments in both PNG and Australia for almost the past decade now.

Take, for example, the University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG) whose main campus is located in the suburb of Waigani in Port Moresby. UPNG is a tragedy. It is under-staffed, massively under-resourced, and very restricted in providing an education for young people to the levels that are badly needed to plan and manage the country’s social, economic and political advancement. Its infrastructure is collapsing around the ears of students and staff. The student dormitories (housing some 90 percent of students, mostly from remote villages, often with several students per room) would be classified as slums in Australia. Many of the toilets and bathrooms are broken down. The so-called recreational facilities are a couple of bare and gravelly ovals, a mess hall that serves food that few Australian students could stomach. Little else. Labs, teaching spaces and offices have broken doors, windows, benches and seating. Library resources are mostly out of date and the library’s air-conditioning breaks down so often that many books, journals, manuscripts and artifacts are deteriorating through tropical mould, inadequate indexing and curating, and everyday wear and tear. Staff and students’ access to the Internet is sporadic and limited.

There are high levels of drunkenness and violence on the UPNG main campus. Rapes have occurred in the past while young women remain vulnerable, especially at weekends when there is so little for students to do, apart from an occasional rugby game on a dusty pitch, or attendance at religious observances. Much of the anti-social behaviour is caused by the sheer boredom of being stuck on a campus without facilities and without leadership and appropriate venues to find better things to do. Many of the guys, and not a few of the women, head out to sleazy dives, to meet “wantoks” (mates, relatives, people from back home) to booze, party, fight and fornicate to pass the time. While this is by no means uncommon on Australian campuses, in PNG the situation has become seriously pathological. Yet no one is doing anything to address the seriousness of it all.

The marvelous thing is that, despite all the educational deficiencies and related problems, there are some excellent students and some very fine academic staff at UPNG. But their contributions to the academic life of the University and the nation are being severely curtailed by lack of resources and lack of proper recognition – both inside and outside the country.

Meanwhile PNG bumps along near the bottom of some of the world’s most reputable international indexes of under-development. Human Rights Watch International has reported on several occasions about the appalling breakdown in morale and discipline in the PNG police force, resulting in numerous human rights abuses across the country. Transparency International annually demonstrates that PNG is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. The yearly United Nations Human Development Index shows that PNG rates among the poorest, worst governed countries in the world when it comes to issues like literacy rates (they are declining precipitously), infant and maternal mortality rates remain stubbornly high, disease pandemics (HIV and TB, for example) remain out of control. At the same time there is a population explosion, especially in the Highlands, meaning that PNG governments simply don’t have the capacity to exercise the United Nations mandated “responsibility to protect” their culturally diverse peoples. In so many ways PNG fulfills nearly all the criteria for being considered a failed state.

It’s time for Australian universities and their student representative bodies to look beyond their own creature comforts to lend a hand to their PNG counterparts. For a start, why can’t university student unions in Australia reach out to the student union at UPNG to explore how they might contribute to improving student life on the UPNG campus? For example, if their UPNG counterparts agree, maybe they could commit to raising funds to construct a swimming pool and a decent gym for the UPNG campus? Or whatever resources the UPNG students identify to improve their lives at the University.

Let’s set aside one day in each semester across all Australian universities as a fundraising day, over the next eighteen months. Students from UPNG must be invited (and paid) to attend, to explain about the conditions under which they are forced to study and to advise on what they need to improve their situation. Australian student organisations are very good at organizing and coordinating national university sporting competitions. Is it therefore too much to ask that all the university campuses coordinate just one day of fund raising for their counterparts in PNG? The swimming pool and the gym may be a good start – although this must be subject to advice from the UPNG students themselves. Any hint of neo-colonial arrogance must be avoided if cultivating this special international friendship is to succeed. If it is successful, so much mutual good will and positive international attention could be won for Australian students, while UPNG students will begin to experience a better quality of campus life.

Meanwhile university academic staff across Australia should set up a national organisation to support their beleaguered UPNG counterparts, to work with them to upgrade qualifications and to develop research profiles. In the first instance, seeking their advice, about what they believe they need, would be essential.

ANU has done some good work in this regard, but it needs to be much better and more widely resourced. This kind of engagement could provide opportunities for some senior Australian academics and also for young Australian PhD graduates to work collaboratively in PNG’s university system. They could all be contracted to spend clearly defined periods of time working alongside PNG colleagues, contributing to human capital development in the country, while gaining invaluable experience for the development – and broadening – of their own careers. Given that there is ample funding available in Australia for building wonderful “student precincts”, student unions, student residences and all, surely there could be a joint university pooling of some funds to create an academic exchange program with a university like UPNG, to reinforce the academic strengths of the country as a whole?

It is unjust for Australia’s relatively well-resourced academe to remain indifferent to the plight of PNG’s under-developed universities. It’s time for it to stop its obsessive navel gazing and look out to, and for, PNG – in the first instance. And Australian universities need also to accept that while they have a regional responsibility to help PNG’s universities to lift their game, they should also be thinking about extending real and sustained assistance to other universities across the South Pacific.

Allan Patience is a Melbourne based academic. From 2004-2006 he was Professor of Political Science at the University of Papua New Guinea.

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