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Universities should beware of ministers bearing (small) gifts

Matheson Library_0
Matheson Library at the PNG University of Technology in Lae

ALBERT SCHRAM

VERONA, ITALY - The recent visit by minister Richard Maru to the Papua New Guinea University of Technology (Unitech), where he donated a few hundred thousand kina in laboratory equipment may give the impression that everything is fine.

In fact, the opposite is true.

In Papua New Guinea, there have been four major student uprisings in the five years from 2012 to 2017, the result of endless government meddling in university council affairs.

As a result, for anyone interested in student protest, it has become the world’s number one place to be. If you want to lead a peaceful family life on campus, however, it is possibly not the preferred location.

Moreover, the overtly anti-foreigner attitude of the government, chancellors and many university staff members, as demonstrated by the recent persecution of foreign vice-chancellors and academics, is not conducive to a positive working environment.

In 2012, when I accepted the vice-chancellor’s position at Unitech there was great hope that governance would be streamlined and major investments in infrastructure would take place. One minister even announced this in the international press.

None of the changes was implemented and none of the investment took place.

The traditional model of PNG university governance was at best a recipe for stasis, but most likely a pathway of gradual decline and irrelevance. In 2010, the Namaliu-Garnaut Report, an independent review of the PNG university system had rightly recommended streamlining the independent university governance structure and improving academic quality of programs. The two things are of course related.

After 2012, however, the O’Neill government followed none of these recommendations and instead proceeded to steamroll a Higher Education Act through parliament, abolishing university autonomy and giving the universities tough medicine for 10 years.

This is how the first fascist legislation in Europe in the 1930s was passed, always announced as a ‘temporary measure for exceptional circumstances’.

Meanwhile, the show must go on. During my two terms as vice-chancellor, I focused on creating employable graduates and producing world-class academic programs. Industry supported the efforts to turn Unitech into a real university with graduates who could be employed as professionals rather than as technicians.

We called this program ‘Making Unitech Fly!’ and it focused on key higher education values and creating a rule-based organisation and a mission-focused and student-centred university.

As an administrator, I had to first put in the building blocks. I established financial controls, stopped the leakage of funds and by 2017 managed to balance the budget. This was the year the university received a clean audit from the Auditor-General’s office for the first time in over two decades.

This gave us the opportunity to engage with outside industry and academic partners, in fact we were able to send 77 staff members abroad for training - almost half the academic staff.

The mismanagement and stealing stopped, the budget was balanced and industry support for international accreditation of programs increased greatly.

We significantly improved the teaching environment on 1 June 2015as the first university in the world to open an O3B installation and buy discounted laptops for all first years students. The operating environment for Unitech, however, remained extremely challenging due to government meddling and insufficient and irregular monthly funding.

Student safety and welfare issues could not be addressed vigorously due to lack of funding and political infighting.

The violent suppression of the students’ demonstration at the UPNG campus on 8 June 2016 was a major turning point. A boycott on classes had started in May 2016, the students demanding that PM Peter O’Neill submit himself to due judicial process after serious and credible allegations of fraud and corruption had surfaced. That he did not do so increased suspicions of his guilt.

The demonstration was violently suppressed with police shooting hundreds of live rounds into a crowd of peacefully demonstrating students, even following them into their dormitories. The promised investigation never happened so we don’t know who gave the orders to shoot and nobody was charged. The message was loud and clear: anyone protesting risks being shot.

On the same day at Unitech in Lae we convinced the students not to attack the police and stay on campus although in later riots one student was seriously wounded and one murdered in inter-tribal fighting. We were able to re-open the campus on 30 August and finish the academic year, unlike UPNG which abandoned classes, court action continuing long after the protest had been crushed.

As Unitech’s vice-chancellor with the principal duty of upholding the provisions of the PNG University of Technology Act, the way forward for me was clear: the government should respect academic freedom and university autonomy and stop trying to direct university affairs from Waigani.

The university council would restore the voice of the students by granting a modified version of the Student Representative Council constitution. The principle of shared governance enshrined in the University Act was to be respected.

Instead the PNG government decided to appoint political cronies as chancellors who did not follow this course of autonomy and academic freedom but reverted to how things had been before. First the government needed to get rid of all foreign vice-chancellors, who were unceremoniously insulted, disrespected, expelled, charged and, in my case, even arrested.

What’s more they were not given the legally established accumulated pay, in other words the foreign academics were cheated out of their salaries. Then the government decided to appoint political cronies as vice-chancellors, mostly relatives of current ministers.

As a result, I predict the collapse of the PNG university system within two years. First, because of the financial unsustainability, and secondly because the voice of the students has not been restored.

Unsustainable finances are not a secret in PNG and as a result no private company will give credit to universities. Now Unitech is trying to run its messing facility, for example, without qualified managers or support from a professional catering company. Students expect three meals a day for 250 days a year. We will see what happens.

My greatest mistake during my tenure as vice-chancellor was believing that my management team of supposedly highly educated Papua New Guineans had genuinely bought into the vision of turning Unitech into a rule-based organisation, a university producing employable graduates and engaging in meaningful research and knowledge transfer.

Regrettably, they said one thing to my face and did the opposite behind my back. They could not resist going to Waigani to flatter the government of the day, thus feeling more important. In this way, they failed to provide the necessary university leadership and missed the last opportunity to put Unitech on a solid and sustainable footing.

In general, there are two models for public universities: the politicised model and the shared governance model with institutional autonomy and academic freedom.

The first model, dominating in corrupt environments, is based on political control of the governance and management of universities. The university is never adequately funded but small gifts are handed out in return for demonstrations of allegiance, admiration and voter support.

The recent donation of some equipment to Unitech by minister Richard Maru is a case in point. He is not the Minister for Higher Education but has been meddling in the university. Previous donations of this kind were not effectively used. For example, some laboratory apparatus donated by the European Union is still rotting in boxes 15 years after it was donated.

Although Unitech’s Act is clearly based on universal higher education values, the ruling classes in PNG never liked this second model highlighting academic freedom and institutional autonomy. They much preferred a system where universities operated like government departments. Under my predecessor who was at Unitech for 19 years, the university became part of the mechanism of political patronage and a means of diverting public funds.

It was an uncommon honour and pleasure to be vice-chancellor for two terms serving the students of Unitech – young people who were able and talented learners, willing to overcome unimaginable obstacles to obtain a true university education.

While the politicians stayed out of my hair, we achieved substantial and rapid progress, despite the management team's lack of commitment to true transformation and constant disobedience from staff.

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