VERONA, Italy - When I was vice chancellor of the Papua New Guinea University of Technology (known as Unitech) from 2012 to 2018, we worked hard to bring it into the 21st century.
The current management and university council, however, seem to be making an effort to bring the university back to its roots in the 1970s, whether intentionally or through sheer ignorance, incompetence or carelessness.
It is a sad tale of regression which forces me to speak out in an effort to reverse this trend.
The current chancellor Jean Kekedo apparently has a great nostalgia for the 1970s and has remarked several times that she wants to go back to those simpler times.
She believes no member of the university staff should travel abroad and that meetings and agreements can be done remotely through video-conferencing.
Of course, for council members and their friends, exceptions are made, but they can travel only to Australia. It is unclear why this is so, but Ms Kekedo also seems to feel she does not need to explain her decisions.
The University Act makes the chancellor the ceremonial head of the university, but Ms Kekedo acts as an executive, accountable only to the government. As a result, the council has lost its independence and become a rubber stamp controlled by Waigani.
The chancellor has also said frequently that the university should not waste money on the dining hall and in providing meals for students, suggesting that it may remain closed next year. Just like when she went to school in colonial times.
The current university management has failed to understand simple commercial realities and continues to accuse the catering contractor of overcharging although there has been no breach of contract conditions.
This same contractor has acted with goodwill and in good faith. For example, at its own expense it rebuilt a temporary mess facility after the old mess burned down in the riots of June 2016. The management this year frittered away funds to rebuild the dining hall so there will be no new mess building any time soon.
Currently, the university owes the contractor for several months service amounting to almost K4 million, making it the largest private creditor. The university management has stubbornly refused to find a solution and is now on a long vacation.
In these post-colonial days, it has become acceptable to insult foreigners and expel them from the country for no reason other than dislike. The recent debacle of my hasty separation from my job and subsequent arrest on false charges by corrupt police in Port Moresby, destroyed the international reputation and credibility of the university which I had worked hard to restore.
As a result, it is now virtually impossible for Unitech to hire qualified academics with a PhD who have had experience working at world class universities. The university is now bottom feeding and only foreign academics with few options are coming to work at the Unitech.
The university model the council seems to have in mind is of an autarchic (self-sufficient) village, not caring about the rest of the world, closed off from it, brandishing a unique knowledge uninformed by recent scientific advance or the ideas of outsiders.
Leaving aside these absurdities, let’s focus on the basic conditions for research, teaching and learning which represent the core mission of any university. Unitech is becoming an example of a unique experiment - not in education but in the replication of ignorance.
The late Chimbu chief Kondom Agaundo's vision of the 1960s is not being realised: he had wanted a well-educated PNG but the current generation of Papua New Guineans are mostly not getting a better education.
As with many developing country universities, when I became Unitech vice chancellor in 2012, students had no access to learning materials, since the library did not contain current or useful books or other literature.
A survey found that over 35,000 books had probably been stolen and never replaced. These were, of course, the most useful books. In 2012, there was no reliable internet and students did not have access to or possess internet enabled devices such as smartphones, tablets or laptops.
In just the few years after 2014, we improved the power supply, established a good internet service and provided students with laptops. This was done without any extra funding or help from the government.
At first, internet access seemed an unsolvable conundrum. PNG had (and still has) no reliable fibre network. In 2014, the president of Divine Word University made me aware of the O3B satellite system.
During leave, I visited O3B headquarters in The Hague and convinced them to take on their first and only university client. We then built an earth station with two tracking satellite dishes, which was opened by then higher education minister Malakai Tabar and went operational on 1 June 2015.
The need to upgrade the internal campus network was immediately evident but, regrettably, this is where things went bad. The newly recruited IT director seemed to have other priorities and his eyes left the ball. A large investment in upgrading the wifi network turned sour and coverage got worse. New investment was needed to address the situation.
Another spoiler attempt came from Huawei, which wanted to provide the routers. The offer however was not transparent. The company made a promise to set up a service centre in Lae, which never materialised. As a consequence, the university wisely stuck with Cisco, which offered good support.
Sharing and exchanging knowledge is multiplying knowledge. Since no country in the world has a monopoly on knowledge or talent, universities from their inception in Italy in the 11th century have always had an open, international outlook. In fact, this is a condition for assuring a vibrant academic learning environment.
During my tenure as Unitech vice chancellor, I was proud to have hosted the first visiting professors in 2016 from India and in 2017 also from Australia and Europe at minimal cost to the university. Many of these visitors stayed for a whole semester and taught both undergraduate and graduate courses.
The failure of management to follow through on arrangements with foreign universities, which in 2018 and 2019 would have sent dozens of visiting scientists a year, means that this type of knowledge exchange has stopped.
The current generation of students do not have post-colonial hang-ups. They just demand better services and qualified and experienced lecturers. The recent actions of the current council and management do little to create an acceptable learning environment or improve the education of students.
The PNG government’s and Unitech council’s hostile actions this year towards me and my colleague vice chancellor John Warren (of the University of Natural Resources and Environment), also forced to flee the country, have now made it virtually impossible to recruit qualified and experienced foreign academics.
Without knowledge exchange and the appointment of strong academic leaders, the external professional accreditation of engineering programs will not occur. Industry support will diminish. This year the annual graduate survey did not take place, showing there is no interest in finding out whether students are employable.
A university has a different mission and requires a different kind of leadership than a village, whose purpose is to provide security and conditions for basic subsistence to its inhabitants.
It is painful to watch how the university council and management are discovering at the expense of students that it is much easier to throw rocks than to use them to build bridges. Let's hope better leadership will soon be restored.