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Wednesday, 8 January 2014

The Unitech saga: a serious impingement upon academic freedom - Keith Jackson & Friends: PNG ATTITUDE

UNITECH "Europa Haus" IT Building
Original: The Unitech saga: a serious impingement upon academic freedom - Keith Jackson & Friends: PNG ATTITUDE

MONTHS OF CONFUSION about who is responsible for straightening out the management mess at the University of Technology (Unitech) by members of the public, students and staff now extends to Higher Education Minister David Arore, whose 20 December statement on EMTV news regarding the vice chancellor indicated that some basics of Unitech governance need to be explained.

In his television statement, Minister Arore said he had terminated vice chancellor Dr Albert Schram and that a new vice chancellor would be appointed.



The Papua New Guinea University of Technology Act 1986 defines the governance of the institution.

When PNG’s public universities were established they were structured so politicians would not have substantive, direct powers over them. There was a desire to duplicate the management structure of successful universities in Australia and elsewhere.

Without exception outstanding universities function under independent governance bodies that cannot be controlled by the government of the day. This independence has always been a condition necessary for universities being able to develop as places of free and independent thinking, creativity and innovation, as well as advancing civil society through promotion of democratic principles.

This vision is contained within the Unitech Act: “The objects of the University are – (a) the advancement and dissemination of knowledge by teaching, research and otherwise, with particular reference to its practical application; and (b) the provision of liberal and professional education responsive to the needs of Papua New Guinea.”

The governing structure is what gives Unitech the independence necessary to develop into a centre for creativity, innovation, free and independent thinking. Provision (b) above specifically gives Unitech a role of leading in the advancement of civil society, not necessarily restricted to student training.

The Act clearly specifies the Unitech Council as being the legal body with the ultimate power to make all decisions regarding Unitech’s highest managers, including the vice chancellor.

Minister Arore is not a member of the Council, because the Council did not appoint him to that position. Nor does the Act give the higher education ministerial position ex officio membership of the Council.

Thus, the law shows conclusively and clearly that Minister Arore has no authority to appoint or terminate the vice-chancellor, or give other directives with regard to Unitech governance. The best he can do is give advice to the Council, which the Council can take into consideration but is not mandated to follow.

From his remarks on 20 December, it is clear that Minister Arore does not know the law and is not receiving sound legal counsel. This also applies to Prime Minister O’Neill, based on his pronouncements and unilateral decisions made over the past year regarding Unitech and the Schram issue.

The current Unitech council’s stunning silence in the face of Minister Arore’s misguided announcements passively encourages destruction of the separation between the Higher Education Ministry and the Unitech governing bodies that is clearly defined by the Unitech Act.

This is the very basis for a successful university. The decline in UPNG and Unitech that we have witnessed over the past decades is nothing compared to what will occur if the institutions become subservient to government demands.

Furthermore, the council’s current low key approach creates an impression that it does not have much power, which then invites a reduction in the actual power of the council, which is substantial.

The current approach invites further challenges that will erode the university’s independence. As such, the council has a moral obligation to speak out in rebuttal of the Minister, defending its legally prescribed independence.

That it did not do so at its last meeting nor subsequently upon the Minister’s statement creates speculation that political pressure is at work to destroy the ability of the Council to govern independently and responsibly.

If so, it is a sad day for our nation and its universities.

As a body of highly educated members of PNG civil society, the Unitech Council should take their citizen’s responsibilities seriously and not allow themselves to be politically railroaded as is now the case.



COMMENTS:

Thank you for these clarifications. Briefly, here the political interventions, none of them contributing to a solution for UNITECH. During the 12 months I occupied the VC's position directly, direct political interference has been continuous, usually ill-informed and with disastrous effects. When destruction of property took place in April 2012, Council should have been dissolved as per the PNG Higher Education Act. Instead, we got a soft intervention through a mediation team.

As an unintended side-effect, in this period under my leadership we were able to accomplish a lot for UNITECH in little time, both in infrastructure and academic improvements. I was able to put an effective acting management team in place. On 20 Nov 2012, the government finally appointed a new Chancellor and dissolved Council. In January 2013, PM O'Neill visited campus and ordered a second investigation, led by former Judge Sevua. Badly advised he declared Schram is no longer VC, which is incorrect, since I was never legally dismissed. Meanwhile David Arore tried to control Council through his lawyer John Napu, in vain. Just to be sure, I got a new contract with the same terms in March 2013.

On 20 December 2013 we had Arore declaring on national television I should be off the pay roll because I am a threat to national security. Due to incessant interference and attacks from former Council members, we sought legal protection offered by the laws of PNG. Currently, my appointment and employment status is sub judice through Supreme Court Motion SCM1/2013. Any change in my employment status constitutes contempt of court. This is why Arore was so desperate he had to go on national television.

When I come back on campus as VC, we will stop direct political interference, improve processes, and create an organisational culture of performance and learning. We will take measures that will directly benefits staff and students, and save cost while doing this. We will put UNITECH back on track.

Albert Schram

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