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Where ‘removing the foreigner’ is preferred to embracing change

John Warren (2)
John Warren - 'In developing countries, working in the higher education sector as an individual is a high-risk game'

JOHN WARREN | Times Higher Education | Extract

LONDON - There are no doubt some people who will regard the very idea of a Westerner running a university in the developing world as a form of neo-colonialism.

But having recently returned from being the vice-chancellor of a small university in Papua New Guinea – a country previously ruled by the UK, Germany and Australia – my concerns are not so much that I left a poisonous long-term legacy as that my legacy of introducing basic quality assurance will not endure at all.

Landing such a position is hard enough. They are not always openly advertised. All too frequently, senior management positions are political appointments, with any thought of an overseas appointment being headed off by anti-immigration rhetoric.

If you nevertheless receive a warm welcome, that warmth is unlikely to endure long.

Chief executives are not employed to be everyone’s friend. They are paid to make difficult decisions, which frequently involve treading on a few toes. The more broken the institution, the more squashed toes there will be.

In the developed world, university leaders are compensated (many would argue over-compensated) for the risks and stresses associated with taking difficult decisions. But those taking on the job in the developing world will probably experience a drop in real income. Fortunately, money is not everyone’s main motivator.

But while dealing with corruption and incompetence will be appreciated by the majority, it is inevitable that those caught abusing their positions feel rather differently, and can retaliate. If these people are politically well connected and the legal system imperfect, it is unwise to overlook the threat they pose.

Most expatriates working in developing countries do so under the protection of a larger organisation, typically a branch of government or charity. Those of us working in the higher education sector generally do so as individuals. This is a high-risk game. Legal costs can be exorbitant and large debts can be accrued rapidly.

When I feared being arrested, my wife and I felt obliged to flee Papua New Guinea under cover of darkness – or “under the duvet of evening”, as one journalist recently wrote. Translation and retranslation gave our story the flavour of Chinese whispers (‘Expatriate v-c and wife flee Papua fearing for their lives’, News, 30 August).

My fear was heightened by the fact that Italian-Dutch academic Albert Schram had been detained and prevented from leaving Papua New Guinea a few months earlier, after his attempts to root out corruption at another local university resulted in false counterclaims that he had forged his PhD. He fled the country after being released on bail.

Too often, it seems that ‘removing the foreigner’ is preferred to embracing necessary change. So I would probably not recommend this option to others unless they had a very thick skin and were very confident of having reliable legal protection.

What if, instead of working directly for a university in a developing country, senior Western academics pushed instead to establish satellite campuses of their own institutions in these countries?

The problem is that such campuses are primarily seen as business opportunities rather than as ways of promoting development. This is why they are usually located in countries already well along the development road.

It doesn’t have to be this way, but satellite campuses are complex and expensive undertakings that often fail. Which Western university’s governing council would embrace a high-risk, low-return plan for an outpost in Papua New Guinea?

An alternative would be for Western universities to offer master’s degrees and even PhD programs via distance learning. Unfortunately, market forces apply here, too, and such offerings also tend to be expensive and not always well targeted at true need.

As for efforts to train senior managers in developing countries, running a training course or two, or offering short-term exchanges, will just provide another travel opportunity for “big men” in such countries (and, indeed, for their Western counterparts).

Prestigious institutions would do better to offer long-term twinning agreements, whereby senior managers moved in both directions and worked alongside colleagues in the sister establishments. This would require significant funding support, and an appreciation that the benefits are likely to accrue in the longer term. But it would be worth it.

There is a considerable pool of highly talented people in developing countries who are deserving of much better educational opportunities than the current failed systems are able to provide. Western universities should not allow pride, prejudice or anything else to prevent them from doing a great deal more to ensure that those needs are met.

John Warren was vice-chancellor of the Papua New Guinea University of Natural Resources and Environment from 2016 to 2018. He would like to thank Albert Schram for comments on a draft of this article

Comments

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Garry Roche

Having been previously involved for about 15 years in university administration in PNG (at Divine Word University), I am commenting as a private individual on the extract of John Warren’s item from Times Higher Education.

As John Warren points out, most expatriates working in developing countries do so under the protection of a larger organisation. However, in his case and that of Albert Schram they were there as individuals and had little or no support system within the country.

My experience at DWU was that it was a definite advantage for expatriate administrators to have had several years previous experience in the country prior to assuming administrative positions.

If I remember correctly the former vice-chancellor of UPNG, Professor Ross Hynes, had traversed the highlands while completing his doctoral studies (on the Nothofagus tree) before being appointed as vice-chancellor.

The current deputy president of Divine Word University is expatriate Dr Pamela Norman (formerly also known as Pamela Ellis) who, prior to coming to the Madang DWU campus, had taught in various schools in Maprik, Hagen, Enga, Manus, Goroka etc. (The current president of DWU is Dr Cecilia Nembou, who is from Manus).

Several other expatriate staff who have been in lecturing and administrative roles also have had years of experience in the country before assuming their present roles. When there are expatriate staff who are completely new to the country then there are enough of ‘old-hands’ who can advise them.

I am not being critical in any way of either John Warren or Albert Schram. They landed in almost impossible situations. They both had courage.

Some of us were lucky enough to have more solid support systems behind us. Maybe our failing was that we did not do enough to challenge the system.

At the same time, having known many university staff, I believe that there are enough PNG academics with the integrity required to run universities. It is a question of identifying them and offering them the necessary support.

PS, There was an interesting item on UPNG by Kela Kapkora Sil Bolkin back in 2015. See asopa.typepad.com/asopa_people/2015/02/demolition-by-ignorance-at-the-university-of-papua-new-guinea.html

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