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No heroes these wasted years: memoirs of a vice chancellor

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Signing the charter to support student involvement at UNITECH. Dr Schram wanted to "create a real student-centred university"

ALBERT SCHRAM | Life Is a Journey of Learning | Extracts

Link here to read the complete version of the latest chapter of Dr Schram’s Papua New Guinea memoirs

"Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centres of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls” - Robert F Kennedy

VERONA - Papua New Guinean universities had been founded in colonial times as Australian universities, and were presented as a gift to the newly independent state in 1975.

Given the history of almost annual violent student protests and staff strikes, however, one can ask whether this gift was not a Trojan horse.

The concept of a university operating under the law, producing employable and competent graduates, offering opportunities for personal development and promoting active citizenship, remains utterly foreign.

Hence successive governments continue to see universities exclusively as part of the political system and a source of patronage. They cannot respect institutional autonomy, the freedom of inquiry, or academic freedom.

It is no coincidence that since 1975, all foreign (white) vice chancellors - who were a product of the western university tradition - at some point have been threatened, blackmailed, insulted, and finally expelled from the country.

The year 2018, in that sense was only exceptional in the sense that two instead of one vice chancellor were pushed out by prime minister Peter O'Neill and some of his associates.

In this year, both the European vice chancellor of the Papua New Guinea University of Technology (UNITECH) as well as one from the University of Natural Resources and Environment (UNRE) were expelled in a period of frenetic nervousness before an APEC meetings when the government knew the eyes of the world would be upon the country and China's favours had to be strongly courted at the expense of everything else, especially due process and decency.

Regrettably, since independence, universities have been structurally underfunded and run down and, as a result, by 2012 these powerful institutions, meant to produce competent and employable graduates who contribute to nation building, were totally dysfunctional and rendered practically unusable.

At UNITECH, for example, in 2012 there was no functioning internet and none of the laboratories, forest nursery, farm or any other potential teaching environments could be used to effectively teach students. Instead, these facilities were being used by some staff for personal benefit.

Any practical training, for example, invariably involved a "field trip", usually to the far away home province of the lecturer. This is the comfortable state of affairs for entitled university staff, when there is no effective leadership or management.

In 2010, an independent review of the PNG University System, the Namaliu-Garnaut Report named after its main authors, made two key recommendations: reform university councils and improve academic quality before anything else.

The PNG government promised to invest the revenue from new liquefied natural gas projects to improve the education system, among which were the universities. These recommendations were approved by government in June 2012, and as vice chancellor it was my duty to facilitate their realisation with appropriate measures in the context of UNITECH while upholding the provisions of the University Act.

It was not to be, and the events of 2016 proved to be a watershed, after which everything again went into reverse.

Due to the violent repression of protests against prime minister O'Neill in 2016, subsequent  political interventions by him and members of his circle and violence on the campuses of all public universities, the university councils decided to suspend student representative councils indefinitely.

As a result, the voice of the students, which in the past was the only voice from civil society in the country powerful enough to force a government into making any concessions was silenced, probably forever.

Here is the story how short-sighted and self-interested members of the government of Peter O'Neill, in cahoots with the worse elements among the university council, staff and faculty, managed a 'palace coup' and stop all necessary university reforms, probably for the next 10 years.

The consequences are to be borne by students: they are still not getting a true university education and they will continue to be unemployable as university graduates.

…….

My ideal was to transform UNITECH so that it would produce highly employable graduates, and would serve its students, their sponsors and the broader PNG society well. Employable, that is, as university graduates, not as maintenance or operations technicians as they are now by the oil and gas industry or mining sector.

The former vice chancellor for 19+ years, Misty Baloiloi, would propagate a lie when he said that there was nothing wrong with the engineering programs at UNITECH because the graduates were employed, even by foreign companies. You cannot say that you contribute to 'nation building' when your graduates are not employable as university graduates.

Creating a real student-centred university is what I had in mind, and what I had experienced at Maastricht University in the Netherlands (ranked fifth in the world in the Times Higher Education ranking of young universities), for example, where I worked for four years responsible for a research grant portfolio of over $40 million.

When Sir Nagora Bogan was appointed as UNITECH chancellor in November 2012, I immediately found agreement with him on the matter of a focus on the employability of graduates. In fact, he said something to the effect of "Vice Chancellor, I am not an education man, but you have to provide the leadership so that UNITECH graduates are highly employable".

His experience as diplomat had given him a broader vision, and his activities as professional board director meant he understood well what the private sector needs.

I believe in 2014 our shared focus on employability of university graduates was the main reason he endorsed the findings of the Sevua Investigation into the practices of the former university council and management, stating there was nothing wrong with my academic credentials or appointment process, and I have to be given a chance to exercise my vice chancellorship.

After my return from exile in 2014, I started by collecting evidence and in 2015, 2016 and 2017 I held graduate surveys at the graduation ceremony in April among those students who had graduated in November.

It turned out that after six months only 40% of graduates were employed. In comparison, universities in Fiji have about 60% and industrialised countries about 90%. This is a key metric, and everything should be done to make sure this number goes up…..

As expected, however, after my departure in 2018 these surveys were discontinued, because the current management and council could not care less about UNITECH students or graduates. Now they are blaming the students for being unemployed, and in rambling graduation speeches tell them to try harder.

Frankly, I cannot understand how students put up with these insults and shirking of responsibility. The current management is not even trying to provide them with competent lecturers with a terminal (PhD) degree, and are not providing them with an adequate learning environment with internet and functioning teaching laboratories or an adequate library.

Regrettably, this is a story with only very few heroes: the alumni who never betrayed their university, and those graduates, who were taken in by international companies which offer excellent training opportunities, and those we helped to get scholarship abroad.

…….

Most observers agree that we are living a period of accelerated change, also called the fourth industrial revolution, which will change the way we do everything.

The first industrial revolution was initiated by the steam engine, the second one by the adoption of electricity, the third by computers, and the fourth by internet, robots and artificial intelligence. Only now are the effects felt of ubiquitous the internet, mobile phones, robots, now powered by artificial intelligence using big data in real time.

As a consequence of the 4th industrial revolution, which we are living now, the role of knowledge and in parallel the role of education become increasingly important. Professionals nowadays are expected to have at least a master’s degree.

Regrettably, in PNG the state does not sponsor post-graduate degrees, and the universities are still struggling to assure graduates have the required competences and are employable.

It is therefore vital that universities adapt to the increasing speed of change around them to assure their graduates remain highly employable. Regrettably, university governance is set up for a sedate "community of scholars" and it is hard to drive necessary changes through a university organization.

Only by involving students in a meaningful way can we assure universities keep pace with the rest of society, and deliver a modern, competence based curriculum. I never stopped trying to improve the academic programs, but in the end I seem to have been the only one, except for the students who know it is in their own best interest.

My experiences at UNITECH demonstrate that if students themselves don't take action on the matter of university reform,  demanding qualified lecturers, adequate learning environments, functioning laboratories, efficient management of operations, and internationally accredited programs, the current council and management will not do anything for them.

UNITECH is not a true university, and its main purpose at the moment is to serve its staff, some of whom feel entitled to life time salary without any accountability or professional performance.

After reading my experiences, one can conclude PNG has wasted 10 years by not implementing the recommendations of the Namaliu-Garnaut Report, and will probably waste another 10 years with the corrupt O'Neill government having appointed chancellors and vice chancellors in all public universities, and expelled the two foreign vice chancellors.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world moves on: the University of the South Pacific with council support and good leadership, for example, in 2012 had no internationally accredited programs, while in 2017 it had over two dozen programs with international accreditation.

Their employment rate 6 months after graduation is 60% and growing, while UNITECH remains 40% and not growing. Moreover, many UNITECH graduates are not employed as graduates but as clerks or technicians.

It is sad that in this story there are no heroes. I managed to achieve a lot of academic quality improvements in the six years I was vice chancellor, and it has been a pleasure and honour to serve the bright UNITECH students.

It is sad, however, that the necessary university council reform, and personnel restructuring was blocked by a few ignorant, selfish, and spiteful individuals.

The negative internal dynamics brought the university back to where it started. As a result, I was unable to achieve international professional accreditation of one or more engineering programs, necessary to produce highly employable graduates.

The best chance for UNITECH students to receive a real university education, and be employed as graduates during their professional career was wasted.

Comments

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Professor Dilip Kumar Pal

There were many good things Dr Albert as VC sought to achieve and we had been all-praising of his initiatives. As a counsellor throughout his regime, I personally stood by him.

Regrettably things changed for the worse at the last phase, when professionals were ignored and fiercely ambitious, poor calibre individuals started calling the shots. The unfortunate part was flatterers started ruling the roost and the professionals were choked.

I fully agree, post Albert, the university has gone to worse hands. Stooges and cronies have a field day because the academic credentials of the person at the helm beggars description.

Feeling really sorry, I don't see things getting better at any time in the foreseeable future. Our aspiration to establish a regime of meritocracy remains a pipe dream.

With no light at the end of the tunnel, I preferred to call it a day and left PNG with a feeling that my 12 years of dedicated service got wasted.

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