ALBERT SCHRAM | Extracts
VERONA - If we cannot root out the old mindset associated with corruption, whisper campaigns, tribal fights, political witch hunts and chief killings in Papua New Guinea’s universities, they will fail to produce active citizens and democratic leaders who respect the rule of law.
It had been a combination of a corrupt government and greedy and selfish staff that led to my hasty separation from the University of Technology (UNITECH) in Lae.
Corruption in PNG is systemic and enters into almost every transaction. Students understand that they are the only group in civil society able to force the government to clean up its act and prevent it from completely destroying state institutions by appointing political cronies and ignoring constitutional rights and the rule of law.
The book ‘Why Nations Fail’ published in 2013 by economists Daron Acemoglu and James Robison provides a productive framework for analysing the importance of civil society movements in the context of national development in developing countries.
It turns out that the reasons why states fail is the failure of civil society to fight for the creation of inclusive, democratic institutions to replace the extractive institutions, which only serve a country's elite. Country's do not only fail due to an uncontrollable spiral of violence or civil war.
The implosion of PNG is Australia's worst nightmare. Australia is obsessed by fully controlling and limiting its migration inflow.
Rather than preparing a military response and detailed evacuation plans for PNG, Australia would be wise if it supported civil society in the slow process of creating democratic, effective, rule-based state institutions that are inclusive and provide services for the majority of the population.
Dacemoglu and Richardson’s book describes how economic prosperity depends above all on the inclusiveness of economic and political institutions. Institutions are ‘inclusive’ when many people have a say in political decision-making, as opposed to cases where a small group of people control political institutions and are unwilling to change.
Only a functioning democratic and pluralistic state guarantees the rule of law, and avoids arbitrary application of rules, and politicization of institutions. Inclusive institutions promote economic prosperity because they provide an incentive structure that allows talents and creative ideas to be rewarded, or in other words societies were competences of graduates are valued.
Let's first observe that viable and sustainable societies are not ones frozen in time, but those that adapt to their environment and respect the decisions and preferences of it citizens. We can admire for example the achievements of the Chinese Communist Party in reducing poverty and developing the country, but it comes at the expense of having Xi Jinping proclaim himself as life-time president.
From history we know that when too much power is concentrated in the hands of a small number of people, things will turn sour pretty soon. Or as Lord Acton, a famous 19th century British diplomat said, "Power tends to corrupt, but absolute power corrupts absolutely".
In PNG corruption is systemic. The people engaged in corruption don't do this once, but they keep doing it. This leads to destruction of state institutions, which no longer try to fulfil their mission, but act in a manner to maximise bribe revenue. The costs of corruption are enormous and all infrastructure projects will cost not twice but 10 times as much as would be justifiable.
There are consequences for organisations as well. When you don't accept bribes, you are a threat to those who do. As a consequence, whole organisations, like UNITECH, start to behave like joint criminal enterprises. I never accepted or paid a bribe in my life, so it was clear that I had to fight the system constantly.
Evidently, this corruption means state institutions, including universities, cannot provide the services they are supposed to.
Even in most rural areas in Africa, for example, schools have desks and chairs, but not so in many PNG rural schools. The astonishing fact in PNG is that the elected leaders, often traditional chiefs or bigmen, who extract these bribes, do not feel the need to keep up appearances and give something back to their electorate. In other corrupt countries, the population will not put up with a corrupt leader who does not give back.
Instead PNG’s elected bigmen (there are not women in parliament) siphon off the money and spend it abroad. They are strongly committed to a strong kina which buys them many US or Australian dollars to the detriment of local exporters who gets few kinas for goods quoted in dollars in international markets.
In a recent article in The Guardian, police minister Brian Kramer described the pressures people who stand up against corruption and thievery face in PNG. He said he is sure he will eventually be killed as he takes a strong stand against corruption. The reason is there is a whole economy around corruption, which involves not millions but billions of kina.
Let's hope this won't happen, but Mr Kramer's point is taken. If people can seriously threaten to kill an MP, what can they do with a foreigner who has no strong family alliances in the country?
For corruption to thrive, you always find a buyer (corruptor) and seller (corruptee). The other fundamental ingredients are impunity and tolerance by the general public. You can breed impunity by assuring no indictments are made, or that the police refuse to activate them.
Tolerance is maintained by keeping the general public confused by launching whisper campaigns, and spreading misinformation or slanderous lies. The complicity of the people is required and their silence must be bought or produced by terrorising them.
As a result of corruption, universities and other state institutions do not serve the interests of the citizens but exclusively the interests of the political class. When terrorised citizens dare not speak out, the mafia state is born and keeps itself alive.
As a result of corruption, universities do not serve the students or produce employable graduates. Universities start to act as joint criminal enterprises, and genuine academics and professionals will likely be expelled because their very existence is a threat for all the others.
None of the facts mentioned here are new or unknown. The students know a lot too. We must not forget they are someone’s son or daughter and pick up a lot of information through extensive family and tribal networks. Not all details are correct, but they get the big picture right.
Anger about the fantastic levels of corruption in the government of Peter O'Neill, its lack of respect for the rule of law and general mismanagement formed the root cause of UNITECH students' dissatisfaction.
In 2012, when I came in as vice chancellor, I noticed that all contracts with suppliers were biased against the university. It was well known that senior academic staff used the funds they extracted from the university to run their mostly unsuccessful political campaigns. These strong suspicions were later confirmed by the exhaustive Sevua Investigation and should have been referred to the police.
In my first year, I had to cancel all contracts and find new suppliers.
Later after my return from exile in 2014 following the failure of the first attempt to get rid of me, I had to set up processes to assure contracts were honest and did not contain padding for kickbacks.
One of the most effective measures was to lower the financial mandates of the heads of departments and colleges so overpriced quotes for supplies could be stopped. In this manner, from 2015 onwards, I achieved millions of kina in savings, which we spent on spend on teaching resources for students and staff.
The old regime had completely dismantled the committee system which gave staff a voice. Our University Act directed us to observe the principle of shared governance that required decisions to be made collegially in numerous committees of council and the academic board.
When the Old Regime resurged and I was later compelled to permanently depart PNG in 2018, the conclusion was inescapable. I had been used to clean up the corrupt mess at UNITECH, which had turned into a cult-like criminal enterprise, then the university council threw me under the bus.
It is clear that as an outsider, and professional university administrator, I came with many new ideas and initiatives. My hope was that even if 15 out of 20 failed, there would be five successful changes which benefit the students and the university at large.
This would slowly transform the organisational culture from that of a small sect into that of a true university. By creating a structure and improving processes, culture would change. It was not to be. It felt so much safer to go back to the ways things always were done.
Today we see a shameful spectacle of some childish members of an unreformed council, gossiping and at odds with themselves, in the end finding it easier to destroy the universities than to build them up.
They don't have to bear the burden of presenting fake degrees of pretend universities when seeking employment. The politicisation of the universities is at the clear expense of the students.
Of course, students feel cheated. Professional accreditation is progressing too slowly, and the laboratories and computers are not operational.
The many annual protests against government corruption or institutional failings engage the student body and provide an excellent opportunity for students to learn about active citizenship.
Traditionally student movements were seen as the providing a leadership role to other civil society actors, and in PNG always provided this leadership until the O'Neill government shut it down in 2016 with the full cooperation from university councils and management.
Now who is left in PNG as custodians of democratic values?
My calculation in 2014, however, had been contingent on the assumption that my leadership team was committed to putting the university on a financially sustainable footing, assuring its graduates were employable and creating a rules-based, mission-focused organisation. I was wrong.
The senior management team played along with me for a while as they found it convenient, because the circumstances of my return with massive support from the students had scared them.
But when they were able to suspend the student representative council indefinitely, they saw their chance and were able to go back to their mediocre, customary and comfortable situation, where a small group obtained all the benefits while the large majority, and in particular the students, got none.
Instead they have run down the campus again, refusing to assure broadband internet connections, to deliver wholesome food in the dining hall, to provide adequate campus services or to undertake the monthly fumigation against malaria. Examinations and graduations are held in a tent. We are back to square one.
Nobody who has taught or studied at a world class university wants to work in such a place. The transformation I was pushing is necessary. The current management will never deliver it.
As vice-chancellor I knew very well I was not part of the student movement. But I had learned to manage student groups, having worked for more than 20 years as an academic and professor in Latin America and Europe.
By creating a student-centred university, where rules are respected, and expectations met, I would have broken the boycott culture and there would be no need any longer for annual student demonstrations. Without transformation, of course there will be revolution again.
My career will continue, but sadly most UNITECH graduates' professional careers will never take off. They will be hired as technicians but never as engineers. We could have made UNITECH fly, instead it is driving right back into the swamp of favouritism, elitism and corruption.
If UNITECH students want their representation back through the Students Representative Council, there is no time to waste. They will have to demand elections, take action and formulate their demands on the basis of the existing University Act.
From world history we learn that inclusive institutions are not given on a platter but have to be struggled and fought for.
While I hope the fight this time will be smart and non-violent, it is inevitable. Although fighting against seemingly impossible odds, PNG and the universities can still be changed for the better.