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Thursday, 1 June 2017

How to transform a University of Technology

(Article Published in #191 (August 2017) Bulletin of the Association of Commonwealth Universities)

The Papua New Guinea University of Technology (PNGUoT or UNITECH) was modeled on similar institutes or universities of technology set up all over the commonwealth during the 20th century. Many of these Universities have not developed further, have completely run-down infrastructure, and produce substandard graduates. Many of these Universities are now decrepit, their curriculum sclerotic, and their operations have atrophied. How to transform them into functional institutions producing employable graduates is a major challenge.

With graduate from Simbu province
The PNGUoT is a case in point. In 1965 in colonial times, the PNGUoT was founded as an Institute by an Act of the House of Assembly, and in 1969 the 220 Ha the campus in Lae (Papua New Guinea) was opened by the Paul Hasluck, the Governor General of Australia. It was set up on a grand scale for about 3,000 students, which coincidentally is its current student population. The country became independent in 1975, but in the subsequent 36 years the state did not invest any funding in maintaining, expanding, refurbishing or building new academic buildings or infrastructure.

When I arrived on the campus of the PNGUoT for the first time in June 2011, I could see there was something fundamentally amiss: all campus roads were riddled with potholes, there was barely any usable internet, the staff restaurant had been closed for years, there was no ATM, the library had no recent books, there were no projectors in the classrooms, there were no IT systems to support University operations, PCs were old and operating without UPS or virus protection, etc. Moreover, students were often standing outside under the trees in groups, because classes were cancelled whenever there was a power cut, and there were many power cuts every day. Unsurprisingly, later clear evidence of fraud and mismanagement of funds was identified.

Later, I found out the Registrar who was also PVC Administration was running the University in an arbitrary fashion, since the Vice Chancellor was hardly ever there, preferring to stay in a hotel in the capital. The principle of shared governance and decision-making through committees had been abandoned. The Vice Chancellor had a closed door policy, isolating himself from staff and students, and was manipulated by gate keepers.

Much has changed now. With support of the new University Council and the hard work of a management team chosen by myself, we have been able to lead several transformative initiatives. From the start, we put basic command and control technology in place: we connected all heads of department to email and internet through a mobile phone closed user group. We repaired the roads, reopened the staff restaurant, had ATMs installed, built 23 new staff houses so as to be able to hire fully qualified Faculty. Most departments have a website now, and an informative video.

With the new management team we achieved a second communications revolution. In 2014, we started to build a new website, which is now coming close to completion. We have been able to provide broad band internet through a campus wide wifi network and through the O3b satellite system. We are the first university in the world to use this system, which is the only option for us due to decrepit national network infrastructure and our remote location. We started to provide laptops with Ubuntu open source operating system for all the incoming 1st years students, so that all teaching materials can be distributed electronically rather than through unreadable photocopies. Lecturers have started to use Google Classroom and Moodle as learning management systems. We received some infrastructure funding most years, but many investments we made by achieving internal savings.

Our approach can be summarized in four elements (GASB):
  1. Governance
  2. Accounts
  3. Strategy Implementation
  4. Building Blocks
1- You can not run a university if Council keeps interfering in management affairs, and if you don't have a good understanding between the Chancellor and Vice Chancellor. In addition, an honest Bursar and internal Auditor, a University lawyer, and a competent Human Resources person are required. Most of my first term was devoted to re-appointing Sir Nagora Bogan the legitimate Chancellor, who subsequently reconstituted a new legitimate Council for the University, and appointed essential officers. Sir Nagora had been appointed in 2007, but was kept from chairing the Council by frivolous court action.

In the process of dismissing the University Council, the former Chancellor and Pro-Chancellor unsuccessfully tried to dismiss me after barely two months, and when unsuccessful, were able to keep my out of the country for over a year making all kinds of baseless allegations in my regard. After a class boycott of five weeks in 2014, however, I was able to come back to my office on 4 April, one day after the legitimate Council of the University has been convened by the new Chancellor. This episode was dubbed by the press the “UNITECH saga” and Times Higher Education devoted an article to it in 2013.

Sir Nagora, the new Chancellor was keen on separating management matters from Council matters. He also successfully kept politicians out of the Council and the management, and increased the role of the private sector in Council. He focused the University's attention on its primary mission of producing highly employable graduates or competent entrepreneurs. Finally, Council started to hold management accountable, and I became the first Vice Chancellor to have a performance review. The management team has individual Key Performance Indicators and are held accountable each year.

The principle of dual governance and the independence of the Academic Board is now again respected. The independent AB has been able to achieve important academic quality improvements, changing the culture from “trust me” to “show me” concerning teaching. Rather than one quality Czar, we chose to have an Academic Quality Assessment Team, which performs internal academic audits each semester. After 2 years over 50% of subjects now have auditable subject files. With the support of ExxonMobil these audits will be followed through with external assessors.

2- The accounts of the University were a mess, and the Bursary was populated by people who created the problem in the first place, but had no idea of how to take corrective measures. The first step was to appoint an internal auditor, and a competent deputy Bursar. Council started hiring a new Bursar. In addition, we engaged a financial consultant who during the transition period prepared all financial reports. While in 2012, the last available audited account was from 2006 and received an adverse opinion, in 2017 we have caught up with our accounts and the 2014 account received only a mildly qualification.

3- Anyone can formulate a vision or produce a glossy strategy booklet. The vision thing is the easy bit. The two key concepts in our strategy process were to keep it simple, and to see strategy as learning. If you can't say what your strategy is in a few sentences, you will be unable to implement it. “Bad strategy” or waffle must be avoided. A good strategy is a game plan, it communicates how the organization can be successful in a new environment. For our University, it means first leveraging our geographical proximity to the main industries and the port, and developing close and warm relationships so as to continuously receive feedback on our programs.

Secondly, we want to develop unique IT capabilities and apply technology in all our mission critical processes: operations, teaching, research, and outreach. We introduced new IT systems for payroll and human resource management, and are considering options for open source university management system such as

Thirdly, it means that the expansion of the University on the main campus had to be guided by a Master Plan. In addition, we opened the first provincial satellite campus on 7 April 2017. The Master Plan was approved in November 2015, and includes a Uni-City smart city development in the South of the campus, an Innovation Hub, Great Hall, Sport Centre, and a Dining Hall in the academic core, and office and residential development in the North of the Campus. The Master Plan also assures there will be level playing field for all companies who wish to participate in a tender.

4- Building blocks means that first basic facilities need to be provided, such as library facilities, modern functional lecture halls, and campus wide internet through Wifi. This is a major struggle, because of a difficult operating environment, and not having the right managers and staff on board.

Secondly, a framework for academic quality improvement was established through an institutional audit done by the Department of Higher Education in 2014. The University's commitment , and our commitment to obtain international accreditation for all engineering programs by 2019 has been guiding academic quality improvement and the introduction of a competence based curriculum. The ingroup/outgroup boundaries must be explicitly defined. With good students and good Faculty, good learning will be take place. Therefore, clear criteria for appointment and promotion of academics must be established, then student selection must be based on merit only.

Thirdly, sensible human resource policies were streamlined and implemented. Academics are now appointed based on publication points and years of teaching experience. While hiring qualified academics on the international market, we consistently increased the number of graduates and staff doing higher degrees abroad to more than a dozen per year. We made arrangements for tuition waivers with universities in Australia and New Zealand, and have tapped into various scholarship programs offered by Australia, New Zealand, China, India, Japan, Korea and the European Union. Students are now selected on basis of academic merit and potential only. In 2016, we were able to have an independent organization (Australian Council for Educational Research ACER in Melbourne) submit all our candidates to STAT-P a standardized aptitude test. We saw immediate effects in terms of the self-confidence of the first year students, and absence of stragglers. Thirdly, all executives, managers and all support staff are being trained in the basics of financial and administrative procedures. This last building block must not be underestimated. When transforming a university, the executives usually trained as academics can not afford the luxury of focusing exclusively on academic matters but must all be versed in principles of good administration.

A lot was achieved by the PNGUoT in the last 5 years, but we still struggle with structurally insufficient funding, and attempts at interference by politicians. A new higher education act passed in 2014, for example, envisages the direct appointment of the Chancellor and Pro Chancellor by the government, and requires its approval of the Vice Chancellor's appointment. Evidently, this erodes institutional autonomy and academic independence. With strong strategic leadership by Council and a committed management team, and ample support from industry, however, we are confident the transformation of the only University of Technology in the South Pacific will be achieved before the end of my final term in 2020.

  1. "University reform in Papua New Guinea: the Unitech experience", Lecture by Albert Schram, at Australian National University, Crawford School of Public Policy, 18 May 2016.
  2. "Moving on from PNG’s UNITECH Saga: an interview with Albert Schram" May 9, 2016, by Albert Schram, Grant Walton.
  3. "Ousted Vice-Chancellor Returns to His Post" October 21, 2014, Scholars at Risk.
  4. "Exiled From Papua New Guinea", March 27, 2014, Inside Higher Education.
  5. "Exiled v-c fights to return to Papua New Guinea", March 27, 2014, David Matthews for Times Higher Education.


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