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Mande Chicken battles against Covid impacts

PNG’s exclusive low quality club looms

| Academia Nomad | Edited

PORT MORESBY - PNG’s tertiary institutions are becoming an exclusive club of the few, as the rest are pushed out of the system.

However, with dropping quality, the qualifications will not mean much if there’s no investment.

It’s the same as placing a quota on imported goods. Product prices go up not because of their quality but because of the limited supply.

Limited supply of apples or degrees drives up demand, even if the quality is poor. On the other hand, if supply increases, the only way a product stands out from the competition is for the producers to improve its quality.

How is this relevant to higher education in Papua New Guinea? Over the years, more and more students have been pushed out of the formal education system, especially the higher education sector. But the government has failed to invest in higher education.

If this trend continues, the value of university degrees and certificates will be based on there being fewer degree holders in the market, not because degree holders possess superior skills.

This is the path that selection to PNG universities and other tertiary institutions are taking.

For the 2021 academic year, only 9,000 Grade 12 students out of the 27,000 who sat exams were selected.

Although higher education secretary Jan Czuba places the blame on Covid-19, this is clearly misdirected for two reasons.

First, the high number of students missing out on selection is a recurring problem. Back in 2015, only 4,700 students were selected out of 23,000. Things improved somewhat and in 2019 about 8,600 students were selected.

But large number of students missing out on selection is a trend in PNG. Blaming Covid-19 diverts attention from the main problem in tertiary institutions.

Second, many students didn’t get selected despite meeting the GPA this year. For instance, to study law at UPNG, the country’s only law school, students need a GPA of 3.0. Because the school has only 120 places available, hundreds of students miss out on selection even though they have a GPA of 3.0.

For political science at UPNG, students with GPA of 3.8 missed out even though the actual GPA is 2.7. There are only 30 places. Selection begins with students with a GPA of 4.0.

Some 27, 000 students missed out largely due to limited quotas in universities and colleges. Students who worked through Covid-19 still missed out. That’s a big let down.

Some people in social media are blaming poor student attitudes towards studies as a cause of poor performance and low selection rates. This is true to some extent. However many more students missed out on selection despite meeting the GPA because the tertiary institutions do not have the capability to take them in.

If our tertiary institutions do not have the capacity to accommodate every student that has met the required GPA, placing blame on students is inappropriate.

So that’s kids who missed out on selection. What about the 9, 000 who were selected?

With deteriorating infrastructure and lack of investment in higher education, its quality is not getting any better.

Bad school yearIn fact, the top three universities (UPNG, Unitech and DWU) are ranked 5,047; 5,732; and 11,194 respectively in work university ranking.

University of South Pacific in Fiji is 1,575, whilst Australian National University ranks 24 in the world, and is the best in the region.

In 2009, Professor Ross Garnaut and former PNG prime minister Rabbie Namilu were tasked by the PNG and Australian governments to carry out a study and report on the state of PNG higher education. This is a quote from the report:

“Papua New Guinea’s universities made a significant contribution to the nation in its early years. They can do so again but, right now, the quantity and quality of graduates is far short of what is needed – due to inadequate resources and a range of governance and general service quality issues.”

Nine years later, in 2018, UPNG didn’t select any student from the science foundation year to enter the medical faculty. The reason: none of the students who applied for the Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS) degree met the required GPA of 3.5.

UPNG vice chancellor at the time, Vincent Malibe, said: “We could not lower the bar just to pass those 60 people. We said ‘no’. It’s unethical, we are dealing with lives.”

In 2018, no student met the required GPA for the first time in the university’s history. This was a red light of the diminishing quality of education in one of the main universities in PNG.

If the same requirement as those set by the school of medicine was applied to all fields of study offered by PNG universities, a substantial number of students would be dropped in the first year of study.

The lack of investment in ICT, libraries, infrastructure and essential equipment required of a modern university affects the quality of education in PNG universities.

When quality is lost, the value of the degrees and certificates obtained in PNG universities will be determined by how many students we eliminate out of the system during selection. By eliminating 18,000 students in PNG in 2020, a scarcity is created that drives up the value of the degree the 9,000 students get upon graduation.

What should be done?

There are six performance indicators used by QS World University Ranking:

Academic reputation (40%) – a global survey of more than 94,000 academics

Citations per faculty (20%) – a ‘citation’ is a piece of research referred to within another piece of research

Student-to-faculty ratio (20%) – the number of academic staff employed relative to the number of students enrolled

Employer reputation (10%) – a global survey of close to 45,000 graduate employers

International faculty ratio (5%)

International student ratio (5%)

Some of these indicators are beyond PNG’s immediate reach, but a varied form of three of the criteria can be achieved.

First, expand the capacity of PNG higher education so every student who is eligible is selected and improve conditions to attract more and better academics and instructors.

No student who meets the required GPA should miss out because of limited space (and the consequent quota system). Indicators 2, 5 and 6 can be attained by improving the employment conditions for the lecturers.

Second, invest in infrastructure and modern ICT. Criteria 6 can be achieved by investment in these areas.

Third, upgrade the courses offered. We need to benchmark these against the best in universities in the region in Singapore, Australia and New Zealand. Again, criteria 6 can be achieved by improving the curriculum

Fourth, lecturers must be required to produce a specified minimum amount of research, publications and presentations at conferences. Contract renewal and promotion should strictly be based on these requirements.

Lecturers who rely on outdated information and who have not published in the last three years should be shown the door at the end of their contract. Citations (criteria 2) are not possible unless academics are publishing.

There is much rhetoric about ‘Take Back PNG.’ You don’t do that at the expense of 18,000 kids. And the 9,000 we will rely on to make PNG the so-called richest black Christian nation need a quality education.


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Scott MacWilliam

Great analysis of the current situation, particularly in using international comparisons. For years people have been pointing out the disastrous direction PNG's tertiary education is taking. Beginning in the 1980s, both local politics and internatonal institutions were influential in pushing a ridiculous `primary education is everything' policy. As if primary, secondary and tertiary are not inter-related: primary teachers without university qualifications is a proposition that would be laughed at in most industrial countries. Then instead of revenues from mining etc being used for bringing development, incuding education, private gain meant budgets, including for education are always/invariably subject to revenue shortfalls. The Namaliu-Garnaut report in its focus upon austerity says nothing about why national budgets have to be balanced and minimal allocations made for education rather than providing for constant plunder in the form of slush funds etc..
However I must disagree with your `short-termism' regarding staff employment and other matters under points 3,4 and possibly 5.. Apart from the near impossibility of engaging in research and teaching at international standards with existing facilities, 3 year contracts produce a distinct lack of commitment to the employing insititution. If hiring internationally regarded staff, these short contracts result in first year settling in, second year starting to get to know enough about PNG to be able to taylor courses/classes to local students, and third year looking for the next job. This flows to other areas of the university's operations as well. Staff on short term contracts don't bother recommending for purchase new boooks, journals, and other equipment which may not appear before they have left.
If memory serves me right, even in the 1980s a report produced by a major accounting/consulting firm on teaching at UPNG suggested a 6 year minimum contract. As much as I abhor short-termism and the power this gives to incompetent management the longer term recommendation was a start in the right direction towards employment security for all, including at universities.
I do hope you are influential in the start of producing interntaional standard teaching and research universities in PNG. Good luck-you will need it.

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