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Monday, 11 March 2013

Council Reform and the Financially Sustainable Universities in PNG

Sir Nagora Bogan, the new UNITECH Chancellor with members of the management team and staff.

While the government today deliberates among other things on how to react to the UNITECH SRC student petition, which is widely supported by the UNITECH staff, we can reflect briefly on the bigger picture. 

Why do episodes like my deportation lead to these expressions of much wider discontent? As a foreign university executive I will confine my remarks here to university governance, and not make comments on national governance issues.

It is no secret that the state of the universities in PNG leaves much to be desired, and is mission critical. The precarious situation at UPNG is widely known, for example, and was recently reviewed by Scott MacWilliam.


UNITECH was created to "engender the critical evaluation of science and technology for PNG and the South Pacific". Currently, heavy teaching loads, lack of resources and insufficient of independent researchers with a PhD are available to live up to this promise. Better administration, however, can lead to quick results. Last year, however, we were able to improve lab facilities somewhat and hire over 20 new faculty members with a PhD. We are currently building 23 new houses for these and other new staff members.  At UNITECH, we believe that with fully qualified academics, research and teaching will improve, and learning among our students will increase.

In 2009, the Australian and PNG government commissioned the Independent Review of the PNG University system (IRUS), and appointed Sir Rabbie Namaliu and Ross Garnaut to undertake a review of the condition of the Papua New Guinea universities. The goal of the review was to assess whether the universities were performing the roles required of them in Papua New Guinea development, and to make recommendations on steps that could be taken to strengthen their contributions to Papua New Guinea development.

The principal recommendations were that:
  1. First functional governance structures needed to be created, principally that Council size had to be reduced from over 30 in several cases to around 9. UNITECH is the last university in PNG to engage in this process.
  2. Secondly, it was noted the universities had not been able to invest sufficiently to cope with the around 10% growth of student numbers per year, meaning a doubling of students every 7 years. It was therefore recommended to first improve the quality of in particular undergraduate education, make the investments, and then continue to grow. 
Since its publication in 2011, the PNG University Councils and the Vice-Chancellor's Committee made various comments on this report, and the government formerly adopted it as a national policy in June 2012. The implementation plan was approved on 10 October by NEC decision 50/2012. Regrettably, the projected funds for the implementation have not yet started flowing to the universities in sufficient amounts.

According to the UNITECH Act, as Vice-Chancellor of UNITECH it is my responsibility to carry out  government policy and uphold the provisions of the university act. This is  is why in April last year I initiated a process of Council reform within UNITECH. This process must be carefully orchestrated and must eventually lead in Parliament passing a revised University Act. I am committed to carry this through, because as an international university executive my personal mission is to contribute to the development of universities in developing countries, by sharing my experiences in this field from Europe and the Americas. 

Unable to oppose the Council reform policy any longer, regrettably in April the UNITECH Council panicked and the rest is history. When in November reconciliation proved impossible, the government did the right thing by dissolving the former Council and appointing by a new Chancellor plus 4 Interim Council members with a specific mandate. This was later confirmed by the full cabinet in NEC Decision 124/2012 of 20 November 2012. We now must implement this government decision and start the process of the revision of the Act, and the establishment of a permanent Council within 1 year. 

Regarding the university funding issue, the University of the South Pacific in Fiji, for example, shows how with a comparable government grant, through transparent financial management, sufficient external resources can be attracted to sustain good quality education, on a well-kept campus with  modern facilities. 

Creating a sustainable model for funding universities in PNG and achieving the necessary quality and capacity improvements is entirely feasible. External resources will be available when we get our house in order. Last year, for example, with UPNG we were able to attract Erasmus Mundus CARPIMS II mobility funding which allows our staff and students to spend periods abroad for their learning and professional development.
The recommendations of the Namaliu-Garnaut Report are quite sensible, and will guide PNG universities to implement effective strategies, and fulfil the promise contained in their mission statements. Now we must implement them. Today, I hope to be allowed to return to the country to play a role in this exiting and entirely achievable project. When the results will be there for everyone to see the discontent will soon end, never to return.



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