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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.

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

As Vice-Chancellor my first responsibility is to uphold the provisions of our current UNITECH Act, in which institutional autonomy and academic freedom are firmly enshrined. I must therefore speak out when these principle are being threatened.

On Thursday 23 October, representatives of the Higher Education Sector met in the Holiday Inn for a 2 day workshop discussing a key piece of new legislation the 2014 Higher Education Act. The process to create this Act started 13 years ago, and seems now to have reached a milestone. The HE Act has already been approved by Parliament 77-0, although not yet published in the official Gazzette. It can therefore not yet be implemented. At the workshop, the draft of the University Governance Manual was also distributed, which has a mandatory nature and allegedly contains the regulation accompanying this Act.

There are many good things in the new HE Act. The Office against Higher Education OHE will be transformed into the Dept. of HE, and will eventually have a sufficient number of staff. Regrettably, the main stakeholders, the Chancellors and the Vice-Chancellors had not previously been consulted in a meaningful manner about the new Higher Education Act or the University Governance Manual. Most of us were presented with the texts on the day itself. Vice-Chancellors tend to resent being ambushed, in particular since there are ample opportunities for consultation through for example an active PNG Vice-Chancellor's committee, and other consultation mechanisms.

Oddly, however, from the experience of the past decades the Government seems to have drawn the conclusion that it needs more powers to appoint political allies into the Councils and Executive. At UNITECH we drew the opposite conclusion, because the last 2 years the government kept interfering mostly in favour of the former Council members, whose track record of lack of oversight and irresponsibility has been amply documented and us free for everybody to read in the report of the investigation led by the late Judge Mark Sevua. Nowhere in the Sevua report does it call for direct appointment of Chancellor or Pro-Chancellor, or approval by NEC of the Vice-Chancellor's appointment.

The Vice-Chancellors, supported by their Chancellors, were unpleasantly surprised to read Art. 109. It says:

Division 2 Papua New Guinea Public Universities
Art. 109 National Executive Council to make or approve certain appointments
(1) The Chancellor and Pro Chancellor of the University shall be appointed by the National Executive Council, on the recommendation of the Minister through the process prescribed in a regulation (this is presumably the University Governance Manual AS).

(2) the National Executive Council shall approve the appointment of all members of the governing body of the University, other than ex oficio members and elected members, on the recommendation of the Minister through the process prescribed in a regulation.

(3) The National Executive Council shall approve the appointment of the Chief Executive Officer of the University, on the recommendation of the Minister through the process prescribed in a regulation.

(4) Appointments and approvals under Subsections (1), (2)) and (3) will be published in the National Gazette.

The proposed amendments of article 109 the Higher Education Act to the UNITECH Act are, for example:

(1) There shall be a Chancellor who shall be appointed by the National Executive Council.

(1) There shall be a Pro-Chancellor who shall be appointed the National Executive Council.

(1) There shall be a Vice-Chancellor who shall be appointed in the manner and for the period prescribed by the Statutes, subject to the approval of the National Executive Council.

Note that there is no reference to any regulation in the proposed amendments to our Act. At the workshop, private universities learned to their dismay among other things there will now be government representatives on their Councils. We also learned that our teaching should now cover the strategies of the government, and devote time to Vision 2050.

So were the experiences of PNG universities of the last decades so terrible as to warrant similar draconian measures? Nowhere in the Independent Review of the PNG University System (the Namaliu-Garnaut Report) does it  call for similar measures. This review focuses mostly on the need to make investments to improve the academic quality before expanding the system further, and the downsizing of the the bloated University Councils.

The Director General of OHE, Prof. David Kavanamur pointed out that the new HE Act is a living piece of legislation, and we should try it for 10-15 years. We fear, however, by then the PNG University system will have collapsed under the weight of political interference by successive Ministers and governments, which in PNG can succeed each other in rapid succession. The last two years, for example, we had 3 Ministers of Higher Education. Instability in the government would therefore be imported into the University Councils, no matter how careful the regulation governing the appointment process is crafted. In all cases, we have yet to see this regulation.

Now, apart from the inappropriate consultation process, what does the international experience teach us about political appointees in Council and the Executive of the Universities? In no university in Australia, New Zealand are the high executives appointed or approved by the government. Apparently, the Australian advisors of OHE belief that what is unacceptable for them, is acceptable for Papua New Guineans. We can only guess to the reasons why.

From the European University Association study on University Autonomy (2009) we learn that of 34 countries in Europe "In some universities in Iceland, Romania, Sweden and in some Swiss Cantons the appointment of the Rector (= Vice-Chancellor) must be confirmed either by the government or the relevant Ministry." (p. 14).

The long term effects of a similar politisation of the University Council and Executive are not positive. Of those 3 countries, only Sweden has a significant number of universities in the THE top 400 (= world class university). Unlike PNG, however Sweden is a case of exceptional social peace and harmony.

Moreover, a government approved Vice-Chancellor is not conducive to maintaining the authority of the office, upholding the provisions of the Act, and maintaining peace and harmony on campus. At UNITECH, after the battle in favour of the Vice-Chancellor and against the government which continued to support the former, unaccountable and irresponsible Council, we fear that this provision will merely create more unrest.

Regarding external members to the University Council, including appointed Chancellors and Pro-Chancellors, we read: "They are either controlled by the university itself (for instance in Denmark, Finland, France and Portugal), or by a higher authority such as the Ministry of Education (as is the case in the Czech Republic, Estonia, Iceland, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland)." (p. 13) Again none of these countries except the Netherlands have a significant number of world class universities. The Netherlands, however, is a case of exceptional peace and harmony at universities to the the institutionalization of student and staff participation in governance, and effective consultation mechanisms.

In sum, I continue to reiterate that Art. 109 should be amended through the democratic process, so that we do not throw out the baby of the Higher Education Act with the bathwater of political interference. The last thing we need is more political interference after over 2 years of the prolonged governance crisis at UNITECH, and prolonged succession issues, and failure to progress with Council reform at both UPNG and UNITECH.

We will not forget that the UNITECH crisis caused largely by wrong-headed interference in Council matters, and the state's inability to use existing democratic mechanisms and tools already provided by consolidated legislation. We can also not forget how it took 5 weeks of boycott by the students this year to make the government see the light, and facilitate a solution to the issue of Council's legitimacy and the unlawful deportation of the Vice-Chancellor. The then Minister's first reaction was a "final warning", and a threat to send an armed task force into campus to deal with the students. Who sends armed men to face students, who are peacefully and legitimately expressing their opinions?

1 comment:

  1. Stay tuned, this week most Vice=Chancellors and Chancellors of PNG universities will meet with the Minister to express their concerns.


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