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Thursday, 23 October 2014

Throwing away the baby of higher education reform with the bathwater of political interference

Executive Summary

As expressed earlier now over 3 months ago during the Ministerial visit to our UNITECH campus, in our view the Minister of Higher Education should repeal and amend Art. 109 of the proposed new Higher Education Act, which calls for direct or indirect appointments by the National Executive Council (= the Government of PNG) of University Council members and executives. Our University community is now greatly concerned about this issue, and is waiting for an answer.

The large majority of PNG Vice-Chancellors and Chancellors strongly belief that implementing Art. 109 will lead to further politisation of the University Councils, and possibly the eventual collapse of PNG's fragile higher education system.

Article 109 is fundamentally flawed, futile, and unnecessary since the government has enough powers in Council through government appointed members and MPs, through the Public Finance Management Act, and through the Emergency Act. It can intervene in University Councils in cases of emergency, when this is necessary.

Implementing article Art. 109 would have catastrophic long-term effects on the university system by increasing politisation of university governance. The inherent instability of the  political process would be imported into the University. Not a single university in New Zealand, Australia has directly appointed Chancellors, Pro-Chancellors or Vice Chancellors. Anyone suggesting as much in a University Council would be booted out immediately.

Of 34 European countries only 2 countries with world class university systems have this provision (The Netherlands, Sweden), but these are cases of stable consensus democracies with exceptional social harmony.

Finally, the use of "consequential amendments" of the Higher Education Acts to the individual University Acts will be challenged in court. In addition, a case can be made that the Higher Education Act possibly violates constitutional rights. As Martin Luther King said "One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws" when they violate fundamental principles. Finally, the lack of meaningful consultation with the universities, and the surreptitious ways in was introduced in Parliament, arguably violate due process and natural justice. Regrettably, similar court actions would likely preclude any further reform of the governance system of PNG universities.

It is therefore wise if the Minister of Higher Education repeal and amend Art. 109 and bring this before Parliament as soon as possible. By stating this we are not rebelling, but working with the government, and saving it from making yet another grave mistake.

We are speaking up about this issue, not because we want to annoy anyone or cause trouble, but because as Vice-Chancellors we are duty bound to uphold the provisions of our University Act. In all University Acts in PNG (except DWU) the principles of Council autonomy and academic freedom are firmly established and deeply enshrined. We have no choice therefore but to behave in accordance with the principles of our current University Act.

POSTSCRIPT: The Higher Education Act was published in the National Gacette in December 2014, but without the governance manual and regulations, to which it refers. Implementation therefore remains problematic.