The National

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (The National, March 22) - Any attempt to have our State-funded universities controlled by the government of the day is to be deplored.

Nor is it the answer to the disturbances and disruptions that have come to characterize the two largest universities in the country, and to a lesser extent two others.

Higher Education Minister David Basua is reported to have said that in the case of Unitech, "the students wanted me to intervene but I couldn’t. I had no power."

The power Mr. Basua is referring to is not spelt out in the reports available of his submission for legislative changes to the Higher Education Act.

University governing councils have the power to summon police onto a campus, should they deem the situation sufficiently serious. It would be a serious matter indeed if politicians had unspecified and far-reaching powers to react to the demands of students.

Students do not control universities, any more than workers control factories. Control is and should remain firmly in the hands of the appointed and elected members of the university governing councils. That is the crux of the problem.

The membership of some university councils is clearly less than satisfactory. Serving academics in PNG will be fully aware that universities can be breeding grounds for ill-disguised racism, for petty jealousies and for a kind of isolation that divorces academic staff from external realities.

There have been political appointments to some university councils, and the back room power plays and jockeying for favors at some universities put the political wheeler-dealers to shame.

The situation at Unitech has apparently been made worse by perceived inequalities in salaries. Our understanding of the situation is that salary levels are determined according to the duties expected and the experience gained by appointees.

Market allowances and a host of other extras that are added for those who come from other countries appear to be the source of many problems.

This is a problem as old as our independent nation and indeed older, back to the final years of the territorial era.

Universities in PNG recognize the need to have a proportion of academic staff recruited from overseas. This is not a case of slavish and misplaced respect for foreigners; it is recognition that at this stage of our development we have yet to produce enough of the top-ranking academic staff that our rapidly growing tertiary sector must have.

We do not want to run third grade universities, thinly staffed with inappropriate appointees, regardless of their country of origin. If we accept that solution, then the degrees awarded will count for little or nothing on the world scene, one that is becoming more crowded with graduates each year.

And if it is essential to attract a proportion of our university staff from overseas, then they must be paid a salary and offered conditions that will attract and retain them for the length of their contracts.

Should we then offer our PNG academics similar terms of employment? The answer is dictated by economics.

No university in PNG could afford to do so, and no government could afford to fund any university that took that road.

The sure answer cannot happen overnight. That is to upgrade the standards of our degree courses and establish in-country post-graduate courses in all major disciplines. And we need to ensure that as many gifted undergraduates access them as the country can afford.

For this to happen, the whole administration of higher education needs to be restructured. The system as it stands is understood by virtually nobody and is expressed in a hodge-podge of clauses and sub-clauses that defies interpretation.

We suggest that is the path to take, first to address as far as possible the legitimate complaints of academic staff and second to make the process of getting a tertiary education simpler and more accessible.

At the same time, the issue of TESAS and HECAS and subsidized tertiary education in general is long overdue for a comprehensive overhaul.

Those are the major problems, and addressing them with an open mind would be a step towards greater harmony on campus.

Condemning the nation’s tertiary sector to operate under the ever-changing directions of politicians, risks the final destruction of PNG university credibility.

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