| Extract from 'Life is a Journey of Learning'
VERONA, ITALY – In 2014, the government of Peter O’Neill passed the Higher Education Act, took control of Papua New Guinea’s universities and began to interfere heavily in university affairs.
In 2016, I had undergone the first ever performance review for a vice chancellor in PNG.
My mandate was renewed, but little did I know I would be the last independently appointed vice chancellor in the proud history of the country’s university system. The government was now in charge.
On 8 June 2016, in order to drive the message home, the O’Neill government allowed hundreds of live rounds to be fired at peacefully demonstrating student on the UPNG campus.
They were demanding O'Neill submit himself to the courts. (Even today, deposed and disgraced, he is still refusing to do that.)
As a result of this incident, in which it was fortunate that nobody was killed, student representative councils throughout the country were suspended and the government began to intervene more comprehensively in appointments to university councils and management.
When O’Neill came to power in 2012, an increased investment in higher education from LNG revenue was announced in the world press but never materialised.
O'Neill and his mates preferred to waste taxpayers ‘money on white elephant projects and vanity events in Port Moresby.
Soon it became clear that the universities were not going to be fully funded by the O’Neill government: they would typically receive only half of what they needed based on the government's own estimate of costs.
But even of that slashed amount, much less would be transferred to the universities. And they would occur only with great delay.
For this reason, at Unitech, our budget strategy was based on tapping other sources of funding.
The game plan centred around three main themes: converting digital divide into digital advantage; building successful industry partnerships; and broadening academic partnerships.
The intended outcome was to wean the university off dependency on government funding by diversifying sources of revenue
Like any other university, to execute this three-pronged strategy we had to engage with partners worldwide, since PNG is a small and remote country.
As a result of this strategy, the university would gain a degree of autonomy, and also independently engage in signing agreements with foreign partners.
O'Neill strongly disliked both aspects and the success of the strategy internally caused the revolt of envious colleagues, which eventually allowed O'Neill to push me out.
The same happened with the other foreign vice chancellor, who was pursuing similar strategic objectives.
And so, in PNG’s universities, comfortable navel-gazing has replaced successful engagement with external stakeholders in industry and academia.
After all, for these people, the status and perks that come with the job is all that matters, not what they actually do or achieve.
Consumed by their preoccupation with status and trying to hold on to their position (or pass it on to their children), they forget about the most important thing for a university: to provide a positive learning experience for its students and produce employable, work-ready graduates.