SPEECH: VISION OF A BETTER UNIVERSITY OF PAPUA NEW GUINEA

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PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (April 26, 1999 - The National)---This is an edited version of outgoing University of Papua New Guinea Vice-Chancellor Dr Rodney Hills' address at the 44th graduation ceremony on Friday:

I thought that this year, following a brief review of our graduation statistics, I would take a broader look at this University. I am in a particularly privileged position, having no responsibility for what I say in a further three weeks.

But first the graduation statistics. This year we are graduating 593 students of whom 30 percent are female. This is a steady increase in female participation in graduation from 18 percent in 1996 and 23 percent in 1997.

I hope this is real evidence that our attempts to improve the working environment for our female students are actually working. The total number of graduates has also increased from 526 in 1997 so we are seeing signs also that our retention rate is getting better. These are all positive.

First a brief review of 1998 which was a turbulent year. Indeed, it was the most interesting and difficult year I have experienced at UPNG. It was also very revealing about the state of the University and about some of the forces at play which will determine its future.

The most disruptive features of 1998 were the student unrest over the restructure proposals and the staff strike over terms and conditions.

The students you may recall built a barricade outside Luavi Hall in May because they wanted to impress upon us that they disagreed with the restructure proposals. We had to call in the police to disperse the students and clear the roadblock, and the Waigani campus remained tense for several days.

The air became thick with calls for my resignation, although not as thick as has been the case during the last few months. In response to this clear demonstration of student dissatisfaction with our handling of the restructure, we agreed that the students be given several months to study the restructure documents and to put forward a written submission to the Council for consideration.

What amazed and disappointed me was that the student body was never able to produce a written document. Nothing from the students was ever presented to Council.

That the students were unable to organize themselves, analyze their own arguments and produce a written document undermined their credibility and they lost a valuable opportunity to contribute to an important process.

The students' inability to deliver significantly weakened their case in the eyes of most observers and demonstrated to me that most of the proposed reforms were on the right track and that much of the student discontent was fermented by outsiders.

The students could only repeat the arguments they had heard but could not analyze the problem themselves. This demonstrated to me that there was indeed a great deal wrong with the social and educational environment in this University.

The strike by our national academic staff over the "single line salary" demonstrated how emotions had built up over the divided salary structure. Classes were disrupted for two weeks. Even now the key remuneration issue has not been resolved. Although the University has put to Government representatives the framework for a much more efficient and equitable scheme for package remuneration, this has not been accepted within "current government pay policy."

In my view, PNG has an unresolved national problem while it insists on framing academic salaries within a public service framework. Because the system is so inflexible, we continue to overpay poor staff and underpay good staff.

Unless this is resolved, UPNG will become a mediocre institution because all the best people will go. I believe it most important that the single line salary package be adopted at the earliest possible date. I hope the necessary negotiations can be concluded quickly this year.

The beginning of this year has been traumatic. We had to complete the planned changes before the opening of the 1999 academic year and we managed to do so.

However, the difficulties were confounded by savage budget cuts, which were followed by the reversal of the earlier decision that granted the University an additional K4 million for 1999 only.

Because the terms of the additional grant were not made clear, this created confusion in the minds of the students and unnecessarily set them against the University.

In this confused setting, we had a new SRC which had set itself up to reverse the process of change and unthinkingly pursued a campaign oblivious of the needs of the nation.

Unfortunately, this group of student leaders was guided by forces outside the University, which were providing them with misinformation and very poor advice.

When I first came to PNG, I was attracted to the position here because PNG is one of the few developing countries where there was no evidence of direct political intervention in the governance of the University.

That intervention has now been at the invitation of some students should leave the country even more concerned. The events of the last few months have demonstrated an unholy financial and political alliance between some students and politicians. This will cast a long shadow across the capacity of the University to deliver good quality education.

What I find worrying for the future of the University is that student leadership tends either directly or indirectly to fall to those who create a lot of noise, who are frequently under the influence of others outside the University who do not have the interests of the University at heart, and who set a weak intellectual example to their peers.

Given the enormous importance of the SRC to the student body, and its potential to enrich student life, it is a pity it has become an organization more concerned with personal political agendas than with the general good of the student body.

The only way this situation can be rectified is when the silent majority of the students not only begin to understand what is going on, but decide to take action to remedy the situation.

When the Prime Minister visited this University some weeks ago he asked me not to say unkind things about his children. I listened bemused to that comment because I did not understand why he would expect me to say any such unkind things.

Most of the students here are good, sensible, intelligent and hard working, disappointed at the actions of a minority and interested in protecting the good name of the University and its academic reputation. Why should I want to criticize them?

Even the small numbers who have chosen to criticize me are using words and arguments that I recognize as being fed to them by their advisers outside. I have enjoyed working with the students here and will be sorry to lose contact with them.

I should like to make a few general observations about the state of this University and look to the future. UPNG still faces many problems and they require being addressed.

Among these issues are budget stability and policy direction. If dwindling budgets are a sign that PNG has too many tertiary institutions then fewer institutions should be properly supported.

Current policy directions proliferate too many underfunded universities and the quality of their graduates will get worse. Sometimes I worry that in another 10 years, PNG will be producing no good quality graduates. Where will the educated leadership for the country come from then?

Of even greater concern is the changing quality in the school system. This University is enrolling fewer and fewer students from the national high schools. The growing intake is from urban schools and from overseas schools.

The expansion of the school system in PNG has been at the expense of quality, and this is a direction that the country may come to regret. The current policy of increasing access is very commendable if there are sufficient funds and resources to support it.

All the evidence is that the resources are not there, so both quantity and quality will suffer in the long run. This is a bleak picture for the schools and therefore a bleak one for the Universities.

Let me look on the bright side.

I have had the privilege of working with some excellent staff here. The executive team at UPNG has, over the last two years, worked as a coherent unit with a strong sense of direction.

The teaching and administrative staff here do a very difficult job in very trying circumstances.

We have had some major positive developments.

Our vision to bring information technology to all the students is nearly complete. We have built four computer laboratories since my arrival, and the Internet is now available to all staff and students.

During the last six months, security on this campus has improved more significantly than I would have dared hope. Pro-active patrolling has given the initiative back to the University and the rate of security incidents involving outsiders has dropped away to an almost insignificant level.

The social environment among our students has also become very much better, in part a result of improved security, but also because we have encouraged better personal and professional communication among our very varied student body.

Harassment of female students to our knowledge has significantly diminished and I hope that innovations such as the relevant components of the new Enrichment Program together with the UNFPA funded Peer Educators, will allow these gains to be further consolidated.

A university may be an intimidating environment for new students, but it need not be a place to be frightened of.

Sometimes I am asked what I expect UPNG to be like in 10 years time. Let me give you a few pointers.

I should like to see the new structure consolidated and improved. I believe the new structure will provide a basis for life-long learning for graduates and, when students have got used to it, they will enjoy it.

Our long tail of poor students, hanging on because of our current weak progression rules, will have disappeared and the University will be a much more vibrant academic institution.

The stronger progression rules under new bylaws will enhance quality control. I hope also that UPNG will have developed a much stronger research culture than it has at present.

Staff should be spending more time extending and supporting our good students. The political interests of staff and students will be on national issues and not focused on internal matters.

Students in 10 years should look back in horror at the anti-social behavior of some of their predecessors. Male and female students should be mutually supportive and be able to have friendships which cross many social boundaries.

I hope the SRC in 10 years time will be a responsible student organization and that it will aim to work for the good of the student body as a whole.

To achieve this goal students participating in SRC elections will need to be more aware and more responsible.

In 10 years times, student fees will be the main source of income for the University. Students will be paying tuition fees of between K3,000 and K6,000 each year instead of the current K500.

This will make the students more responsible and will provide greater community ownership over the University. Student accommodations will be accounted for separately and I hope the residences will be run by private contractors.

I suspect that students numbers will be as high as 10,000 and many of these will live off the campuses because I hope OHE will have decided to pay Natschol (National Tertiary Scholarship Scheme) direct to students so that they can make their own accommodation choices. UPNG will have a much larger number of privately sponsored students.

I hope the staff will remain international. I do not think it will be healthy for UPNG to have only national staff but this balance can only be achieved if salary scales are adopted which will allow appropriate staff profiles to develop at all levels.

I hope this will have been achieved by more enlightened national pay policies developed by our cousins in Waigani.

If these aspirations are achieved, UPNG will be a very happy place and the country will benefit enormously from its presence. I do not see why the present staff cannot achieve these goals and I hope they do.

I certainly look forward to coming back sometime before 2010 because I would like to see the faces of the satisfied graduates who would emerge from the new UPNG.

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