The ABC’s GERALDINE COUTTS interviews Dr Scott McWilliam from the State, Society & Governance in Melanesia program at the Australian National University
MACWILLIAM: The big problem in PNG is for about 20-odd years not enough resources have been put into education at any level at all. Even if you put more and more students into the schools and you have very limited resources, all that happens is that standards get lower and lower. So you could take the more students in, but they wouldn't necessarily get a better education.
One of the things that's happened internationally in recent years is that they've given up counting the number of years people are at school, and they've looked at outcomes when they finish schooling, for instance are they literate. So the government is in a bind really, they have to try to catch up 25 years of neglect of education, and it's very hard to do that when there are population increases coming through.
COUTTS: What are your thoughts then on the recent reports that six-thousand primary school children may be missing out on school in PNG? Why are so many missing out or why could so many be missing out?
MACWILLIAM: Well in some ways in PNG geography and so forth makes it very difficult to cover the education system. You've got lots of students have very difficult terrain and so forth to cover to get to school, so it's a whole of government question; roads, safety, a whole stack of things, but it's also the case that there simply has not been much attention paid to schooling.
So I'm not surprised at all that there is that number. In fact I would probably think that given the inability to get accurate statistics in PNG in many areas, it's probably even more than that.
COUTTS: Is part of it also, they talk about free education, but for families that struggle to educate their kids, there's still a lot of costs on top of the school fees. Is that also an issue?
MACWILLIAM: Certainly and lots of families go into debt, very substantial debt. I've done some work on indebtedness in urban areas, and the amount of money that people go into debt for to get their children to secondary and tertiary education is really striking. So indebtedness would be a major factor.
COUTTS: And the extended family, the wantoks helping out
there but still not making an impact?
MACWILLIAM: Well I mean the only sort of help that
similarly impoverished people can give is on a short term basis, so money
rotates for this year's fees because of the age of a child amongst friends, and
gets repaid the next year when the friends' children go to schooling. So that's
unlikely to make any difference when there's generalised impoverishment.
COUTTS: Well you've also argued that the root of the
problem in PNG's education system dates back to the colonial period. Why does
the problem go back so far and why does it still manage to impact in this 21st
MACWILLIAM: Right I have not really said that the problem
is going back to colonial period. There was a very major push from the 60s
onwards in PNG to increase the opportunities for education at primary,
secondary and tertiary levels. The real problem came in the mid-80s in PNG.
There was a burst of opportunity if you like for all those levels for about 15
to 20 years from the late 60s onwards.
From the mid-80s is when the real problem starts, and that
is linked to international changes, the argument that governments should spend
less and less money, balanced budgets and things like that, has affected all
the areas, including education in PNG.
The real problem has been the change around that mindset,
that education is one of those things you can turn on and off just to do things
like balance budgets. Education is cross-generational, I'm literate for example
because my great-grandmother was brought up in Scotland and there was a very good
public education system which affected males and females. You can't turn it on
and off, you have to do it regarded as a continuous process.
COUTTS: Well we've talked about sort of the kids that are missing
out when moving from primary to secondary school, but what about the education
system generally in PNG?
MACWILLIAM: You'd have to say with a few exceptional areas
that it's in a very parlous state. What happened was an argument was made that
you can focus on primary education and not worry about secondary and tertiary.
This is not true, can you imagine that for Australia
saying we won't worry about tertiary education and we'll just focus on primary.
When what we need is tertiary-educated school teachers. So the big problem in
PNG is turning all these areas around and seeing the inter-linkages between
COUTTS: Well the money that was withdrawn in the 80s
obviously is continuing on now. How much more does the government need to put
in to rectify the situation and get the education system back on track?
MACWILLIAM: Well I haven't got the figures for primary so
my comments would be about tertiary. But a recent report was done and it
pointed out that something like 14 per cent of the money per student went into
tertiary education now that went into it in 1975 at independence. So that you
gives you an idea of the scale of the cuts, that is 86 per cent doesn't go in.
And I'd be very surprised if primary and secondary were
any different, particularly when the population increase has been substantial.
The health improvements of the last colonial years are really starting to flow
through in population numbers now, and so it would be even worse in those
COUTTS: And the gender base, is it 50-50, boys and girls
those that stay in school, is it equal?
MACWILLIAM: Again I've only got tertiary education, but
UPNG for instance has gone from having a relatively small proportion of women
there when I first went to PNG in 1983, to now being about 50-50. When we look
at who comes to the ANU from Papua
New Guinea, there are about as many women
come as men.
COUTTS: And would that include lecturers?
MACWILLIAM: Well no not at UPNG, but the number of
lecturers are UPNG is so bad that …
COUTTS: You mean not enough?
MACWILLIAM: Oh it's shocking, absolutely shocking. The
staff-student ratios are appalling, there are certainly more males than
females, but I think you wouldn't take too much out of that because most of the
males are relatively under-qualified and employed at very low levels.
COUTTS: Well how many, what's the ratio of teacher to
student at UPNG?
MACWILLIAM: Well it would depend very much from area to
area. But for instance political science, the one that I knew, the small
classes, including all five for 80-odd students per lecture, and the standard
of the lecturers or the qualification level of the lecturers in many cases,
these were people employed as tutors and lecturers, there was at that stage no
professor, there is now. But there is next to no senior lecturer associate
professor reader staff at all.
COUTTS: What does that say about the standard of education
that the students are getting at UPNG?
MACWILLIAM: First of all you have to be really cautious
about going across all areas because it's quite clear that in some areas
there's been a degree of sort of retaining ability if you like. But my general
comment would be from those that I see in Australia who have come from UPNG,
is that the standard is very low.
COUTTS: So are they still getting jobs as graduates
though, or the certificates that they get at the end are valueless?
MACWILLIAM: Well I wouldn't say valueless, but they're
certainly not what they should be. It's not just in things like literacy, but
it's in all sorts of areas. Now you have to remember that the library for
instance at UPNG, that's the hub of the university as a library that's almost
non-existent in contemporary material.
There is no internet operating at the university of any
standard at all. And these are things that are very important of course for a
university. So those sorts of things, and again since we're talking about
primary and secondary as well, if they're bad at UPNG, they won't be any good
at all at some bush primary school.
COUTTS: Well it's not just a matter of throwing a bucket
of money at it, the problems and the issues are many?
MACWILLIAM: That's certainly the case. It will be probably
a couple of generations before you can bring an education system, make major
changes in an education system. But the whole thing is you can at least start
in some areas.