SUVA, Fiji (Radio Australia, Jan. 17) - In Fiji, education is set to become the most recent battlefield of a policy fight over affirmative action.

In 2001, the government introduced legislation to favor the funding of indigenous-managed schools, in a bid to narrow the large gap in academic performance between indigenous Fijian and Indo-Fijian students.

But with the policy of affirmative action still in its early days, Fiji's teachers are unable to agree whether the policy is discriminatory, or a lifeline for disadvantaged students.

When Fiji Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase came to power in 2000, he was quick to outline a series of measures designed to address what he viewed as an imbalance between the two communities.

And at the heart of the Social Justice Bill was affirmative action, created to favor indigenous Fijians and Polynesian Rotumans in areas in which they had traditionally been disadvantaged.

In 2001, an education policy was launched, which allocated more funds to schools outside of the state system, run by indigenous Fijians.

The government also set aside additional resources to strengthen training of indigenous Fijian teachers.

Behind the move were official statistics, which reveal Fijian students are less academically successful than their Indo-Fijian counterparts.

However, not everyone believes affirmative action is the best way to address that imbalance.

Agni Singh is the General-Secretary of the mainly Indo-Fijian Fiji Teachers Union. He says that while affirmative action should be employed to address structural differences, the government's current policy is discriminatory.

"The Fiji Teachers Union has always said that affirmative action was provided for in the Fiji constitution of 1997 and we are not against it at all. What we have maintained all along is that affirmative action must target all those groups that need special assistance to catch up with those who are ahead of them," said Singh.

"We have never said indigenous students shouldn't be helped. We have said indigenous students who need assistance must be helped."

"But there are those that are non-indigenous who are just as poor, who go to schools which are just as poor, who are not getting assistance from the government in the same manner, and they're not going to be able to go further in their education, for want of financial assistance."

Radio Australia reports this is a particularly charged debate, not only in Fiji but it happens all over the world. It says that in the United States, ethnically targeted affirmative action quotas were recently banned in California schools, in the belief they might discriminate against students who are not from minority backgrounds.

The difference with Fiji according to the report is that indigenous Fijians, who account for 51 per cent of the population of 800 thousand people, represent a majority, rather than a minority.

Yet particularly in rural areas, students of indigenous-run schools are less likely to continue their studies than students from non-indigenous schools.

Of the around 154 privately run secondary schools in Fiji, only about 50 are run by Fijians.

The remainder, up to 39 per cent of the student population is indigenous Fijian, although those students receive no extra funding under the affirmative action policy.

Tevita Koroi is the President of the Fijian Teachers Association (FTA), an indigenous-based union says FTA is in favor of the affirmative action policy, but feels the government should have moved faster to establish a board and a special Fijian educational unit.

"Most of the Fijian population are rural dwellers, they live in the rural areas, where infrastructure and other resources useful for the promotion of education are scare," said Koroi.

"We see such plans are a way of bridging the gap in Fiji with Fijians and the rest of the ethnic communities. We don't see it as a discriminatory policy, as it has been labeled by some sections of society."

"We see it more as actions to bring some communities to the same level as others, who are mostly urban-dwellers, who have resources and infrastructure which are much more favorable for their growth."

Koroi says they have been assured that government is also putting in place policies for rural education, which will cover all sorts of communities in the rural areas.

January 17, 2003

For additional reports from Radio Australia, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Radio/TV News/Radio Australia.

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