Electoral reforms at UPNG: student elections back and working well

Students vote in the 2021 UPNG elections
Students vote in the 2021 UPNG elections (Michael Kabuni)
Written by Michael Kabuni

The election for University of Papua New Guinea’s 2021 Student Representative Council (UPNG SRC) was conducted over two days from 21 to 22 October 2020. This was the first election after the SRC was suspended in 2016 following student boycotts against the national government. UPNG SRC elections are important not only for the university and its students but also because UPNG student leaders often go on to careers in national politics.

The PNG Electoral Commission (PNGEC) conducted the polling, counting and declaration. Generally, it was peaceful, and the students followed the PNGEC procedures. The enthusiasm during the campaign period was similar to public rallies during general elections in PNG, with more than 2,000 students present at the Forum Square to listen to candidates speak.

Limited preferential voting was used (as in the national elections). The winners of the vice-presidential races were decided after the first preference counts, as there were only two candidates for each seat.

There were seven candidates for the position of president. The winner of the president’s seat collected 1,567 votes after the fifth elimination and the runner-up had 1,317 votes.

The treasurer and secretary seats were left to the student representatives of each school (faculty) to elect.

There are five schools at UPNG: School of Humanities & Social Sciences, School of Law, School of Natural & Physical Sciences, School of Business & Public Policy, and the School of Medicine. One of the changes introduced this year was the requirement that schools should nominate candidates to contest the SRC elections. Provincial and regional groups were specifically banned from nominating candidates. For the president’s seat, the winner was a nominee from the School of Medicine.

Another controversial reform introduced at these elections was to prevent student nominees with a Grade Point Average (GPA) less than 3.0 (out of 5) from contesting.

The SRC Screening Committee was set up within the Student Welfare division to screen candidates. Several students were disqualified from contesting because of a low GPA, whilst no candidates nominated by regional or provincial groups were accepted. There were some protests from candidates who were eliminated by the SRC Screening Committee, but they accepted it in the end.

Following the election, I created a short online survey using Google Forms and sent it out to students via email, and posted the links on the UPNG Facebook group and UPNG Political Science Facebook group, to gauge student views. To prevent non-students from participating in the survey, students were required to sign in using their UPNG email address to participate in the survey. A total of 160 students participated in the survey that lasted for one week. The survey focused mainly on GPA eligibility criteria, and the decision to stop students from nominating candidates based on regional or provincial lines

Of the 160 respondents, 91% said the GPA minimum was a fair criterion, with many agreeing that the core responsibility of the students is to study. One participant said:

The intending candidates who missed out did not meet the GPA requirement. However, I agree with that decision because one needs to perform extremely well academically before he/she can involve with extracurricular activities. Because our sole purpose here in UPNG is to study.

The remaining 9% of the respondents did not agree with the GPA eligibility criteria. There were several reasons, best summed up by this student:

GPA is not a measurement of leadership. There are students who lead their social groups, student societies, or provincial groups effectively, but were left out because of low GPA, whilst students with high GPAs but no leadership qualities were selected.

On the question of banning nominations from provincial and regional groups, 74% thought it was a good idea, and 26% disagreed. Those who supported the ban mainly argued that regionalism is divisive. Those who opposed it said that the ban would remove the incentive for students to provide leadership in these groups. Some students see their regional and provincial groups as training grounds for contesting the SRC elections.

There were three additional criteria, namely the nominee must not have a bad disciplinary record, must be a boarding student (residing within the campus), and must not hold other leadership positions within the university. There were no disagreements on these additional criteria.

I also looked at how students voted. After all, although candidates could not be nominated by provincial groups, there is nothing to stop students voting along regional lines. I asked the survey respondents to state the main factor determining their vote, for each of their three preferences. Students were allowed to select only one from: the candidate and I belong to the same region or province; the candidate is from my faculty (school); I liked the candidate’s policies; the candidate has a good character; the candidate and I are friends; or other.

The results are shown in Figure 1. Encouragingly, a candidate’s policies was the most important consideration for students, especially for their first preference. The candidate’s character was the second most important consideration, and whether the student was from the same province or region came in only third.

Figure 1: Determinants of votesFigure 1: Determinants of votes

In a country where voters support candidates based on tribal affiliations, it’s interesting to note that it was not a common practice among students. Of course, students might not want to admit they are voting along regional lines. In fact, 54% of the students said that they did vote for a candidate from their region or province, but it was usually because they liked his or her policies. 46% of the students said there was at least one candidate from their region or province, but they did not vote for them.

I also asked a question on whether any of the candidates or their supporters offered ‘gifts’ such as buai, smokes, drinks, or flex cards to influence the votes (i.e. bribes); whether they received these gifts; and whether it influenced their votes. Around 39% of the students said they were offered gifts. About 19% of those who said they were offered such gifts said they took the gifts, but only 5% said it influenced whom they voted for.

Overall, the elections went well and the new criteria that candidates had to meet were popular. That said, there are worrying signs that student politicians (and voters) are learning bad habits, in particular the giving (and receiving) of electoral gifts.

It is good to have an SRC at UPNG once again. The real test will be for the newly elected student leaders to see what they make of their new positions in 2021.

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Michael Kabuni

Michael Kabuni is a lecturer with the political science department at the University of Papua New Guinea.

12 Comments

  • An interesting piece Michael Kabuni, I wonder if the same restrictions or requirements could possibly be applied to our leaders in parliament, especially where intellectual capacity is concerned.

    • No. PNGEC only runs elections for universities/unions etc upon request. (The benefit of PNGEC running the elections is that the people get to know how the system works in elections. Invalid ballots is still a big problem during elections in PNG.)

  • In my opinion, the criteria used was discriminating, defeating the purpose of the Electoral Commission’s motto promoting fair and free election. Was UPNG SRC elections fair and free. My take is it was free but not fair.

    More importantly, I believe it’s against specific sections of the Constitution.

    Because of the laws governing the Electoral Commission’s does not have harsh and oppressive criteria, such as you have to obtain a bachelor’s degree and work for 10 years to stand for elections.

    UPNG SRC need leaders not academics. An organization may have highly intelligent employees but without a leader, it’s like a flock of lions led by a sheep.

    That is why, executive positions in organisations stress on leadership rather than brilliance.

    UPNG needs leaders!
    My Take.

  • Hi Micheal,

    This blog survey conducted was very informative and thank you for publishing.

    1. Out of 160 students take part in the survey, it will be more better to take 3/4 of students in the survey. This will determine the true outcome of the election survey.

    2. In practical PNG politics, voters are not educated to understand set of policies from their intending candidate unlike the outcome of UPNG SRC election, many students (voters) voted based on policies because they are educated at some level. I hope UPNG students should do more awareness to the people to understand policies and how it works.

    3. UPNG management should refine and repeal the SRC Constitution purposely to SRC limit power for external politics. They must be SRC regulation to govern the SRC Executive conduct and ethics including its functions.

    4. President is from SMHS and he must be stationed at UPNG Waigani campus because it is close to UPNG Management for decision making. Also, many students are leaving on Waigani campus he should be attentive to their daily activities.

    Overall, my points 2, 3 and 4 are based on my own observation during my term as UPNG SRC Representative for NGI in 2016.

    • Hi Alois, yes the sample size (160) is very small. It may not give us the views of majority of UPNG students, but it does give us the views of 160 students. Because the students are getting ready for exams (some are sitting for their exams this week) I kept the survey open for just a week.

  • Hi Richard, your question is answered in the graph (figure). Some students did say being friends with the candidate determined how they voted/which preference they used to vote. According to the survey, being friends with the candidate was not the main determinant. But because the sample size (160) is small, I cannot confidently say what the graph shows is an accurate representation of how students voted.

  • Thank you Mr Kabuni for this well written article. The recent hectic mobilizations election of the SRC at the university have demonstrated the capacity of students, especially young people to organize, communicate, exercise, influence, and to act as a positive force at a time of defining change wrought by COVID-19 and the cancellation of the provincial association and regionalism at the university.
    To make a difference in the future, it is important that young people are engaged in formal political processes like the election of SRC and have a say at the university in formulating today and tomorrow. Inclusive participation is not only a fundamental political and democratic right but also is crucial to building stable and peaceful societies and developing policies that respond to the specific needs of younger generations at the university level.

  • Thank you Mr Kabuni for this very interesting blog post.

    It is heartening to know that student representation is returning to the University of Papua New Guinea. I would be interested to know whether students will be able to share their views and suggestions with university management. Are there any formal processes that will be in place next year for this to occur?

    Also, I am curious to know whether the PNG Electoral Commission runs voting for student bodies on other university campuses around the country. Do you know if that is the case?

    Thanks again,

    Amanda

    • Hi Amanda,

      The SRC election for the University of Technology was conducted by PNG electoral commission office in Lae. PNGEC has offices in every province, but I’m not sure whether they are engaged to run the SRC elections in other institutions. According to people I spoke to, PNGEC only conducts elections like this upon formal request from the institutions.

      According to responses I got from the survey, the students believe that with the SRC in place, they believe their views/concerns can now be raised through SRC. Some thing there is gap between the UPNG administration and student body because there was no SRC. I couldn’t talk about all the responses from students due to the word limit, but there were some interesting comments from students.

  • On behalf of the political science student I am more than happy for this survey conducted which summarizes the election at the campus and gives a view of how future elections should be conducted to the best interest of the students, administration and general public who come across this article. Just to add to this survey do we really measure the election by this survey? If then I can conclude that majority students did perform well internationally casting their votes out of fear or favour. But in actual cases a bit different correct me if am wrong, students do vote based on other reasons like their friends more than just good policies. Thus, one of the things I think we have to look in to is to carry out more awareness to students to do away with any other favors than good policies with academically well performance.
    Thanks, just my view:

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