Who gives PNG how much?
Is greed natural? Is O'Neill real?

How PNG universities lost their ethics

In 2014, after an exhaustive official inquiry, Dr Schram was allowed to return to PNG and his university. But corrupt politicians and administrators engineered phony charges against Schram in 2018, forcing him to leave PNG

| Extracts | Read the full address to the University of Verona here

VERONA - In all five developing countries where I have lived, no citizen believes the main purpose of the government of the day is serving the country's citizens.

In many developing countries, university lecturers will not speak up or be active democratic citizens, however, since they know this would mean they lose their jobs. It is therefore the students who will speak up.

When, like me, you spent the major part of your career as an academic or university executive in developing countries, at some point you are bound to end up in the middle of student protests.

Sometimes these protests are led by high school students, sometimes by university students. Social activism by students in these countries, in particular in the capitals, is still tremendously significant, because other civil society organisations are often weak or successfully suppressed by the government.

The public universities in Papua New Guinea were founded in colonial times - in 1965 the University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG) and in 1967 the PNG University of Technology (PNGUoT) - based on the Australian model of far reaching university autonomy, and principles of dual and shared governance.

Students were included both on the university board or council, as well as the senate or academic board. These principles were embodied in the university acts, which make the universities statutory bodies.

PNG became independent from Australia in 1975 after which most Australian students and faculty quickly left, never to come back. In 2012, when I joined PNGUoT as the first European vice chancellor (rector magnificus), the Somare government had just undertaken an independent review of the university system.

Around the same time, ExxonMobil made its largest foreign investment in an LNG plant in the country and the government was widely expected to invest some of the revenues in its decrepit and faltering health and education systems, including the universities.

The review report made an extensive analysis of the weaknesses and challenges for the universities. After incorporating feedback from the national rectors’ conference, it was adopted as government policy. It contained two key recommendations: reduce the size of councils from over 30 members to less than 16, and streamline governance; and deal with academic quality issues first, before increasing the number of students.

These recommendations seemed sensible, and served as guidance for my actions. As vice chancellor, I was not obliged to carry them out, but in general I was expected to carry out government policy.

Regrettably, in 2012 – after a period of political chaos - Peter O'Neill formed a government. His government was never legitimate, and never felt bound by the law.

The problems for the higher education sector started soon afterwards, and it was clear that O'Neill had no intention of carrying out the recommendations of the review. He could not understand how universities could be independent while the government paid most of their costs and he wanted to appoint university councils and management.

The higher education minister at the time was thoroughly corrupt. He was in the habit of calling foreign lecturers and asking them for money, threatening to cancel their visas if they did not oblige.

He called me, asking me essentially to revert my full salary to him, which I refused. As a result of my unaccommodating attitude, on 8 March 2013 I was refused re-entry into the country and effectively deported. A bit earlier, the minister had fired the whole PNGUoT council.

In order to address the impasse, the government ordered a former supreme court judge, the late Mark Sevua, to undertake an official investigation into the council of th PNGUoT, as well as my appointment as vice chancellor.

This investigation was thorough, and took over four months to complete, However the Sevua Report did not produce the results the government expected. The former university council was exposed as corrupt and ineffective while my appointment was judged as legitimate, based on my academic credentials and career as a university executive in Europe.

As a result, a new university council was formed, and I was ordered to return to PNG fulfil my duties.

The pressure from PNGUoT students through their students' representative council had been continuous and took the form of three separate class boycotts totalling 19 weeks. When I returned on 4 April 2014, the students saw this as a great victory. It was the first time a civil society organisation had been able to reverse a government decision.

While I was in exile in Australia from March 2013 to April 2014, O'Neill managed to establish a true kleptocracy in PNG. He politicised all state agencies, and stealing from the state coffers reached a vast level. Meanwhile economic growth in the non-resource, real sector declined and a new higher education act abolished university autonomy.

I immediately spoke out against the act, but my PNG colleagues were less sure. In 2016, university students at UPNG and PNGUoT started a protest movement asking O'Neill to submit himself to the courts to be interrogated. Several serious and credible allegations had surfaced involving him in grand corruption and theft.

On 8 June 2016, the student protests boiled over and led to a major incident when police fired hundreds of live rounds at peacefully protesting UPNG students. The PNG universities were world news for a moment, and then everybody lost interest.

On the PNGUoT campus, we were able to contain the situation, but in the aftermath there was fighting among student groups and several university buildings and cars were destroyed. As a result of these riots, the university councils decided to suspend student representative councils, in the case of the PNGUoT permanently. In this manner, I lost my strongest support base.

In 2017, eagerly succumbing to pressure from the government, my university council decided I had to be pushed out again – and in 2018 I was, closely followed by another expatriate vice-chancellor.

The move in 2018 to push out two foreign vice chancellors was clearly orchestrated by O'Neill and some of his ministers, who had all been personally frustrated by their inability to buy admission to universities for family members and to do corrupt real estate or construction deals involving university land.

Like me, the other expatriate vice chancellor, John Warren, was also threatened with arrest, but managed to flee the country in time. I was less lucky and in June 2018 I was arrested. Although there was no primary evidence, I was indicted.

Fortunately, I managed to get permission from the court to return home and, in January 2019, the case was finally thrown out because the accusers failed to provide any primary and credible evidence. Regrettably, this happened after I had lost my job and all my savings in fighting the case to stay out of jail.

These high profile vice chancellor persecution cases were a small part of the battle for university autonomy and for transparent and accountable university governance. But in the end the students who had fought so hard lost out. Now the politically-appointed, and thoroughly politicised university administrations could not care less about the students' plight.

At a personal level, the student leaders at UPNG and PNGUoT were excluded from jobs and to this day most remain self-employed. This story has no Hollywood ending.


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Ruben Dau,

The whole appointments system should be reviewed and a fresh investigation commenced based on this very sensitible article to verify if there is any truth to it.

Prime minister James Marape and his team should act on this if he is very serious about taking back PNG from these dogs.

Dr Albert Schram

Thanks for publishing this summary. When Peter O'Neill stole the 2017 election, the "educated" classes at the PNG universities assumed he would stay on until 2022 and beyond. This was when they cut their deals, and their moral bankruptcy showed.

They did not foresee the parliamentary revolution in May 2019 which dethroned Peter O'Neill. In a way, however, their bets may still pay off, since Peter O'Neill's people are now managing or sitting in the boards of state agencies.

Let's hope the new government restructures the whole state apparatus, as it is supposed to do after this week's concessional loan from Australia, and gets rid of this deadwood.

Otherwise these people are going to continue to screw things up in the coming decades, and the citizens will continue to suffer from lack of education, health and other state services.

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