The University of Papua New Guinea in crisis

2018 PNG Update
The 2018 ANU-UPNG PNG Update

The University of Papua New Guinea has for a long time been in need of far-reaching reform. But not all change is good, and what has happened this year at UPNG has taken the university in the wrong direction.

In late January, the Higher Education Minister, Pila Niningi, dissolved the UPNG Council, appointed a new interim Council, and put in his own choice of Vice Chancellor, all on the grounds that the old Council was not performing. You can see his reasons for the decision, basically a number of serious performance and integrity issues, in this just-released Ministerial statement. It seems convincing.

But what the Minister has never mentioned is that the selection process for the position of UPNG Vice Chancellor was concluded last year and the result informally made public early this year. That process, widely regarded to be transparent and credible, resulted in the appointment of Dr Frank Griffin as the new VC. Just when everyone was expecting the formal announcement, the Minister instead made his move, dissolving the old Council and appointing a new Council and VC. To make matters worse, the the Minister’s choice of interim VC competed unsuccessfully for the position last year, and is the subject of serious and wellknown allegations.

The government’s inability to explain the timing of its decision, and even to talk about last year’s VC selection process, let alone why it was overturned, goes a long way to explaining the sense of illegitimacy and controversy that surrounds the university’s new leadership arrangements. It is one thing to say that the old Council was not performing. It is another to override, without explanation, what was widely seen as a credible process. That way lies disputation and worse performance, not better.

The controversy will not fade simply with the passage of time. The recently sacked Registrar has just delivered a stinging critique. University staff have now started protesting by stopping lecturing.

At his 2018 PNG Update address, Deputy Prime Minister Charles Abel spoke of the need for more Australian lecturers in PNG and more links between Australian and PNG educational institutions. But PNG cannot ask for such support and then behave however it wants. Without some decent governance and adherence to good process, greater integration with the Australian education system will simply be impossible. At the regional level, UPNG is far behind USP, and what is happening now will only increase the gap.

The issue is also one for the Australian government. The now-retiring former Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s flagship project, the Pacific Precinct, has UPNG at its heart, and a mandate around ethical leadership. Australia has just built three new buildings for UPNG.

All is not lost. Many at the university are unhappy. And at least some commentators are speaking out. Trade Union Congress President John Paska has described the recent UPNG appointments as “horribly wrong.”

For now, friends of UPNG such as myself watch on in dismay. Reform, not needless turmoil, is what the university needs.

Professor Stephen Howes is Director of the ANU Development Policy Centre, and leads a partnership program between ANU and UPNG.

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Stephen Howes

Stephen Howes is Director of the Development Policy Centre and Professor of Economics at the Crawford School of Public Policy at The Australian National University.


  • Readers of this note by Stephen Howes and the subsequent comments may be interested in previous writings on the state of UPNG: and here and allan patience here . For more than a decade people with actual undergraduate teaching experience at UPNG have been analysing and calling for reforms to PNG’s tertiary education system. While it is welcome that the spotlight is now on UPNG, the problem is much deeper than corruption and disputes over senior appointments. The malaise began in the 1980s and will not be corrected by a bit of tinkering with these processes. The focus on such matters as the VC and Council now draws attenton away from the real crisis, that undergraduate education in PNG is of such a low general standard that the effects permeate all education in the country and many other aspects of the society.

  • If the termination process is a due one then it’s ok. However, if it was done for a purpose of lucrative Gains then the protocol has to be vetted vigorously so that things are done in accordance to the Constitutional dictum as prescribed by and that must be consulted in parallel to the established by-laws.Importantly the students are the priority hence their learning must remain the priority.Students cannot be neglected this far without genuine reason.

  • This article perfectly publicises the exact scenario of current situation. Suggestions on the likely outcomes and remedies would help shape the premier institution better.

  • The Minister cannot just appoint people as he wishes. I gather the Minister’s VC choice failed in all aspects of the recently concluded recruitment process. Is Sec for Higher Education in any way providing biased advice?

  • Excellent article and straight to the point.

    Unfortunately, the PNG universities are de facto no longer independent, and now run Chinese-style directly by the government. As a consequence, they indeed no longer deserve any Australian support. Unfortunately, without autonomous universities and freedom of inquiry, and a free press, however, PNG democracy is doomed.

    This PNG government however can make a case for the legality of its intervention. The Higher Education Act 2014 gives government extra-ordinary power to intervene. The accompanying regulation was never passed, however, and the government shirked back from amending the single University Acts, which still guarantee a degree of institutional autonomy necessary to protect academic freedom. In this legal limbo, the PNG government believes it can do what it wants.

    The HE Act 2014, however, was passed in a highly irregular manner, and the mandatory regulation was never approved. It did not contain any of the approved policy recommendations contained in the 2010 Independent Review of the PNG University System, the Namaliu / Garnaut Report, which advocated a range of measures to improve academic quality for the students, and a sensible reform of the University Councils. It never mentioned the appointment of the Vice Chancellors, or abolishing the Student Representative Councils.

    The shooting of hundreds of life rounds at protesting student on the UPNG campus on 8 June 2016, today exactly 1,000 days ago, was I am afraid an ominous sign of things to come. The Student Representative Councils at all public universities have been suspended, and the students’ voice has been silenced.

    Finally, it turns out I was the last Vice Chancellor regularly appointed by an independent Council, in the end just to be falsely accused, arrested and expelled from the country forever in a move orchestrated by this government. For good measure, the other foreign Vice Chancellor, Prof. John Warren at the University of Natural Resources and the Environment UNRE in Vudal was also threatened and expelled last year.

    It is time now to wake up and see what the universities in PNG have become, and judge this PNG government by its actions, and not by its pious talk.

  • Hi Stephen many of us watch on dismay. I don’t know how much money is spent on uni to uni collaboration not only with ANU but JCU here in Cairns and frankly all for nought. You guys along with others need to make your views known every day of the week. It is instructive that this is an all too familiar tale been going on for years. Australian academics are making a pile out of consultancies around a basket case education sector. I like your stridency here. Aussie taxpayers played off a break again

    • Apart from the Uni collaboration “twinning projects” for AU$30+ million, over AU$100 was invested in new buildings on the UPNG campus, without the University being ready for it. All eggs were put in one basket. The political and financial risks were evident from the start.

      By contrast the PNG University of Technology received next to nothing, although it was making great strides improving its academic quality (e.g. independent aptitude test for selection, internal quality audits, provision of campus wide broadband internet through O3B satellite system). In addition, the PNG University of Technology in 2017 became the first university to obtain an unqualified, clean financial audit from the Auditor General, one of the only a handful of PNG institutions to have achieved this.

  • Can’t agree more with Prof Howes. PNG universities (UPNG included) need consistent collaborations with top Australian universities. ANU is a top university in the World. UPNG is lucky to have a good relationship with ANU.

    The participation of the ANU-UPNG resident lecturers, PNG Update conference and research work that are examples of strong collaboration and the people behind these works should be supported and strengthened by all means.

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