The National

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (Sept. 13) – The issue of university fees has raised its head once again in Papua New Guinea and the usual players are reacting in the time-honored way.

Students are protesting that many students or their parents are in no position to afford fee increases.

And those with the unenviable task of administering tertiary education are adamant that the fee rises are not only justified but crucial.

Student leaders in Papua New Guinea may be surprised to learn that students around the world encounter similar problems to those faced by their counterparts in this country.

There are politicians in PNG who take the opportunity to target the fees here, and maintain that education across the board should be free.

Most of them are members of the Opposition, who can commit themselves to the luxury of such opinions as long as they remain comfortably seated on the Opposition benches.

We doubt that any of them has sat down and realistically calculated the cost of educating one tertiary student over a four years degree course in any faculty at any PNG university.

The national government has spent some K26 million (US$8.1 million) in subsidizing tertiary education at just one PNG university in the past 12 months.

Few developing countries in the world would regard such expenditure as either sustainable or justifiable, and particularly not in a country where there are at least five universities presently operating.

Two of them attract little if any support from the government, and that is instructive.

They are private universities, and they accept the responsibility of raising their own funds to manage their operations.

It seems inevitable that tertiary students will have to accept the responsibility for payment of the bulk of their fees for the foreseeable future.

The cost of supplying free tertiary education to all comers is simply prohibitive.

Were it to be implemented, the quality of such education would be sharply lowered, to the point where the attainment of a tertiary education could become meaningless.

If PNG wishes to have tertiary facilities that are capable of competing with similar bodies overseas, then only the highest standards can be accepted on any PNG campus.

To tolerate ill-qualified or inexperienced academic staff would be a recipe for disaster, and would render a PNG degree virtually worthless on the world market.

And to ignore technological developments taken in the stride of overseas universities would have a similar effect.

We have already heard rumbles from students at two of our premier tertiary institutions, based on the unavailability of computer technology, now an essential adjunct to tertiary studies.

Then there are the less important complaints about messing, accommodation and general living facilities on campus.

How could matters be otherwise?

To feed, provide basic accommodation, water supplies, power and all the other inputs that today’s tertiary students regard as non-negotiable comes at huge expense to the university administrations.

Then there are sporting requirements, meeting halls and recreation facilities, and a host of other extras designed to make a university education the exceptional experience it is intended to be.

Comparisons are invidious.

But there will be many readers who will recall their experiences as poverty-stricken university students in other countries.

It may be that many of our own students do no realize what a battle getting a university education has traditionally been in many supposedly affluent countries.

We do not raise that issue as justification for the present situation in PNG, but simply to make the point that students working at full-time jobs as well as attending full-time lectures were commonplace in many parts of the world – and continue to be in many countries.

We are mindful of the fact that many PNG tertiary students make little effort to generate their own fees, either by obtaining part or full time employment, or by other means.

That attitude is part of the widespread feeling in PNG that the government should pay for a wide range of services for individual citizens.

Many observers would question the desirability of the welfare state, one that coddles its citizens from cradle to grave.

For now, a more mature and less aggressive effort is needed from student leaders to understand the cost realities of tertiary education.

Confrontation rarely produces acceptable results.

September 14, 2004

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