Rebuilding the University of Papua New Guinea

Written by Scott MacWilliam

After years of neglect as well as deliberate policies which downplayed the importance of tertiary education for Papua New Guineans, there are some signs suggesting changes are underway. What is not clear is whether increased attention from the relevant PNG institutions and international aid donors is too late to rescue the country’s first university, the University of Papua New Guinea at Waigani. If UPNG, located in the nation’s capital cannot be reconstructed to international standards, then it is unlikely that any substantial university-level institution will exist elsewhere in PNG.

UPNG, which is primarily an undergraduate teaching university, is in a near-terminal condition regarding classrooms, staff offices and housing, out-dated library facilities and limited internet access. Most importantly of all, staff-student ratios are disgraceful and despite their undoubted enthusiasm and abilities many students are taught only by junior staff, many of them on temporary employment contracts as early-career lecturers and tutors. The standard of undergraduate teaching and learning is very low, and has declined substantially since the university was established over forty years ago.

UPNG bears little resemblance to ANU and the other Go8 universities. Many of its problems are more like those faced by the Australian universities which teach large numbers of undergraduates, by staff who have little time or other resources for research. Despite the recent Garnaut-Namaliu Report advocating the construction of postgraduate courses and higher degree programmes, this is fanciful. There will be no Kennedy School/Crawford School at Waigani in the near or even mid-term future, nor should there be. Resources are too limited and better graduate training can be obtained more efficiently and effectively outside PNG. While there may be some UPNG staff who are involved in international collaboration on research, the number is very small. Instead more permanent academics supplement their university wages and salaries through consultancies, which also reduces their commitment to teaching. Attention should be directed at strengthening undergraduate courses, up to the Honours level, though, as argued below, this will also require a strengthening of research capacities.

While some changes may be on the way, there are also signs that the `mobilization of bias’ against substantial shifts remains powerful. An especially discouraging indicator is the superficial process now taking place to find candidates for the soon-to-be-vacant position of Vice Chancellor. As far as I have been able to ascertain, the search did not go beyond placing ads in the country’s newspapers. No advertisement appeared on the UPNG website, which has not been updated since 2007.  While the closing date for applications was May 18 and the applicants are not publicly known, the limited scope of the advertising does not provide much hope that the senior management of the university is about to be revitalised. At a time when education is internationalised and students at UPNG aspire to obtain training and credentials which will be accepted world-wide, the failure to scour the globe for the best candidates is tantamount to neglect on a major scale.

What is to be done? Firstly, the PNG government and international donors should closely monitor the decision-making process now under way to select a VC. In the likely event that the list of candidates shows no one with international university management experience, there should be pressure to re-open the process. Extend the advertising and sharpen the criteria to ensure the new VC meets international standards of expertise and experience, as well as the physical capacity to perform an undoubtedly stressful and demanding task.

Secondly, commit immediate resources to ensure that the electronic needs of a twenty-first century university are met. Whether this is done by the university investing in a few satellites, creating study centres with internet access as well as wireless communications on campus for students who have their own computers but no funds to buy even Digicel time is for others to decide. However with a library packed, not enough study space and little in the way of contemporary books or journals, rapidly improving internet access would provide an important starting point for a wider up-grade of facilities.

Thirdly, because of the above, any Australian twinning arrangements must first address improving the standard of undergraduate teaching. Although the Go8 secondment of academics to teach for relatively short periods has had limited success, and is not helped by the indifference of the current UPNG administration, it is probably worth pursuing this form of assistance providing adequate housing and other facilities can also be supplied.

Fourthly, a major contribution that AusAID and Australian universities could make is to persuade the UPNG administration of the merit of external course advisers and co-examiners. Once the international comparisons of the standard of student education at UPNG are made and known, then constructive, not punitive, steps can be taken to improve all aspects of education at what should be PNG’s foremost university.

Finally, while the PNG government and UPNG administration focus upon improving living and working conditions for staff and students, Australian academics could assist UPNG with journal publication. As far as I am aware, UPNG has no journal in any area that appears regularly and publishes at an international standard. (I have heard claims to the contrary but have not seen evidence to back the claims.) Australian academics could be involved on editorial boards, refereeing articles and providing mentoring/editorial functions. These tasks could be combined with teaching students and academics at UPNG how to do research, to write up the results of their work, to apply for research grants etc from UPNG and other domestic sources. Building a domestic research culture is vital and UPNG academics collaborating with academics at overseas universities, utilising ARC and other funds, have a limited demonstration effect as islands of relative privilege. Papua New Guineans who train overseas are less likely to want to return to work at UPNG without seeing a research culture developing.

Rebuilding UPNG will be a monumental task. However, every effective modern nation-state needs tertiary institutions which educate their labour forces to international standards and instil the civic virtues of citizenry which play a part in good governance.  Despite the neglect of recent years, there are still dedicated teachers and enthusiastic students at UPNG whose efforts deserve domestic and international support so that their country can be enriched by continuing generations of well-educated people.

Scott MacWilliam has taught and conducted research in Canada, the USA, the UK, Uganda, Kenya, Papua New Guinea and Fiji, as well as Australia.  In July he is joining the State, Society and Governance in Melanesia Project at ANU where he is completing a book Securing Village Life: Development in Late Colonial Papua New Guinea for ANU E-Press.

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Scott MacWilliam

Scott MacWilliam has taught and conducted research in Canada, the USA, the UK, Uganda, Kenya, Papua New Guinea and Fiji, as well as Australia. In July he is joining the State, Society and Governance in Melanesia Project at ANU where he is completing a book Securing Village Life: Development in Late Colonial Papua New Guinea for ANU E-Press.

6 Comments

  • Hi, ive been in tertiary level teaching for more than 2 decades now, in fact I’ve been the dean of the College of Education in one of the universities here in the Philippines, particularly in Central Luzon (Region III). Now I am one of the campus directors in the university responsible to the operations of the campus at all aspects.

    I just would like to share my experiences and talents to your school just in case you are interested. I am a graduate school professor who has presented researches international. I am willing to help you rebuild your university if you would trust me to help you. Thank you

  • Scott MacWilliams analysis of the current situation in UPNG is shocking. I find it hard to comprehend the picture painted of an elite institution of pride in PNG, which I had the privilege to study in from1985 to 1986. The picture seemed alien to an institution I once knew. The standard of learning, I can attest, were much higher, even comparable in many instances to the University of Queensland (where I am currently studying), of course discounting the modern internet and library and other learning facilities, plus multi-media used. I am confident of making this comparison because I once studied there and I am currently studying at UQ. The important, ingredient for learning is the quality of lecturers. During my time, all my lectures were professionals in their fields at the Phd level. Most have numerous international research publications against their names and some even authored or co-authored books and text books. They came from countries around the world. They were actively involved in lectures and research. We also have visiting professors from universities in USA and Britain coming over to UPNG and taking lectures. The Michael Somare library was the state of the art library at that time. You can breath the air of professionalism when walking around the corridors of university lecture theaters, laboratories etc. It is sad to note that the standard has substantially dropped. What has gone wrong? How could those who have savored the past legacy of UPNG, who are now in the positions of responsibility at the Institution allow the standards and facilities to deteriorate. I fully endorsed the recommendations Scott made. The government need to seriously refocus on higher education and give it the necessary support it deserves.

  • I acknowledge and share the views expressed by Jonathan, Peter and my mentor Allan Patience.

    Since returning from the United Kingdom in 1997 I tried sustaining the Journalism Program at UPNG introducing innovative skills and theory based journalism program BUT I could not get the required backup to sustain a technology based curriculum.

    I built a community radio station and was running around trying to secure funds to purchase TV/Video cameras for the television journalism courses. I couldn’t.

    I left UPNG in 2008 and have been teaching at the University of the South Pacific in Suva, Fiji. The Community radio station I helped rebuild with money from VC’s discretionary fund with state-of-the-art equipment is my pride. With the help of Media Centre here we have 3 HD cameras and 3 Sony – using mini-DVs outdoor. The journalism program here is now near perfect. I have a lot of pride in this place.

    I love Suva and Fiji as a whole. My kids do NOT want to leave Suva. But after five years – I have decided that I should return to UPNG and redevelop the Journalism Program BUT UPNG has refused to give me the chance to give a hand.

    I wish UPNG and Professor Mellam all the luck..

  • As a second year student in Political Science Strand, I went through the struggles and hardship as points outlined by Scott Mcwilliams, to complete my second year because my mouthpiece couldn’t stand up and speak for me. We, the majority, gave them the legal rights to speak on behalf of essential student welfare and teaching conditions on the campus but they just couldn’t. The problem I see in this university is that,there is no proper channel of communication between the Student Reps and Administration. If Student Reps voice out their concerns to the public in any publication using media, then I am preaty sure most of problems would have been solved.However, the VC’s term is over and the academic year is over, and I am confident that 2013 will be a turning point for everything. I am praying to see a good VC, a visionary and innovative person that has the heart for this country to excell in every aspect of life disphite the criticism. I for one belive that this institution will produce the intellectuals the country would need for tomorrow. Finally, I believe that 2013 will be a great year and I put all my hope in my Reps and believe that God will make a way out for this forsaken institution.

  • Many thanks to Scott MacWilliam for highlighting the desperate situation at UPNG. Urgent and comprehensive action is needed to respond to the situation he outlines. The students at UPNG are forced to live in student accommodation that is not only slum-like, but also dangerous. Their health and wellbeing is under threat. New students residences should be given a high priority. The students also deserve improved facilities that ensure their security, health and capacity to read widely and learn deeply. In addition to new teaching facilities, laboratories, and related learning resources, they also need a swimming pool, decent playing fields and areas to develop their own gardens – these should be part of an over-all plan to totally redevelop the University. The UPNG library is a tragedy – ill-stocked, grossly over-crowded, books rotting because of the malfunctioning air-conditioning, out of date books and journals, hopelessly inadequate internet resources. Mr MacWilliam is correct – academic standards are shockingly low and deteriorating; many staff are under-qualified; research barely exists. A system of “parallel support” is needed – i.e., bringing in overseas academics and administrators to work closely with local staff to help improve the teaching and learning at UPNG. Nearly every building on the UPNG Waigani campus is sub-standard. ODA donors should take a long hard look at the University and really come to grips with the appalling conditions and inadequate education the University is providing. They should come up with a comprehensive plan to reconstruct the entire University. Any thing less will be simply whistling in the wind. Until such a plan is activated the human capacity deficit that is undermining all attempts to lift the quality of life for all PNGeans will continuing growing. That plan should also bring all the other public universities together under one administrative umbrella – i.e., create a new national UPNG (PNGNU) that has significant outreach to and strong support from universities in Australia and New Zealand. Certainly the need for immediate action is profound. By assembling a national approach to high education capacity building in PNG, the universities there can achieve economies of scale and teaching and research coordination that they presently lack – with very negative consequences for the peoples of PNG.

  • As a new incoming 2013 Students Representative Council (SRC) President and one of the senior students I totally agree with all the points and recommendations made by Scott MacWilliam about University of Papua New Guinea. I’ve been studying at UPNG for 6 years; completed my BA (Political Science) in 2008 and am now in my third year of a Law degree. Whatever MacWilliam mentioned about UPNG is true to the best of my knowledge.

    There is a great need for bringing UPNG to a next level to meet the international standards and become competitive in the region. Right now, we are no way near to the international standard…. Our only hope is God who will one day make it become possible.

    Our Government needs to seriously look into it, and the UPNG Administration needs to manage funds properly and extend their arms outside to bring funds in to develop this institution. Donor Agencies such as AusAID, NZAID, etc are willing to help but its just that we need to seek rather than wait.

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