IN MARCH 2013, Dr Albert Schram, the vice-chancellor of the University of Technology was controversially deported from Papua New Guinea.
Schram’s exile came off the back of his efforts to address mismanagement within the university’s governing council, attracting the ire of university administrators and the PNG government.
While Schram spent his exile in Australia’s James Cook University (where he is an adjunct professor), a coalition of Unitech staff, students and others coordinated protests calling for his return.
Their efforts saw Schram re-enter Unitech, on the shoulders of cheering students, in April 2014. These events became known as the ‘Unitech Saga’.
The Unitech saga captured both local and international headlines. However, little has been written about the legacy of one of the country’s few successful anti-corruption protests. In a recent interview, Schram reflected on how both student politics and the university’s administration has changed since his return.
Since he’s been back, Schram stated that there had been no ethnic clashes and, until recently, no boycotts. Student leaders have been engaged by university management through regular monthly “management forums”, where student representatives and staff have a chance to air their grievances and work with management towards finding solutions.
While protesting students helped ensured his return, Schram said he has guided students away from politics and protest.
“We try to tell students that real leaders do not only protest. They also graduate to become lawyers, scientists, and teachers who contribute to society”.
For those involved in student politics, he warns, “you are not a real student leader unless you graduate”.
He believes that students continue to follow this advice and embrace more peaceful methods of protest, in particular through airing grievances on social media.
Yet, he still encourages students to register their concerns directly with politicians. In the lead up to Christmas in 2015, Unitech was told by the government that there would be a cut of over K3 million kina to scholarship funding, which would affect about 320 ongoing students.
The Minister of Higher Education, Research, Science and Technology, Malakai Tabar, met with Schram, while concerned students independently called the Minister.
The resultant conversations between the Minister, the students and university management led to the Minister backing down. For Schram, this victory reminded students that violent protest is not the only way to achieving their goals, and negotiation can produce better results
The Unitech Saga reminded university management of the importance of meeting students’ aspirations.
“If the students don’t have hope that things will get better then they will become unmanageable; this is clear to everyone now”, Schram said. “So we must be seen to be improving services for students.”