PORT MORESBY - The newspaper headline late last year said that only 9,000 out of 27,000 Grade 12 leavers would get a place in a tertiary institution.
We’ve all seen headlines like this previously in Papua New Guinea. They happen each year.
Along with a story about the imminent disaster waiting to happen if the government doesn’t do more.
Of course, the journalist and the editor would know well that the PNG education system has severe limitations on the number of Grade 12 leavers the government can accommodate in tertiary institutions.
Quite simply, PNG can’t cope with that strong upward trend: 23,000 in 2015; 27,000 last year. But, like the newspaper story, the trend won’t give us answers. I want to look at what might point us in the right direction.
We really need to contain the blast. But where did the blast come from?
In 2009 elementary schools were introduced to support the Universal Education Plan, which saw elementary schools mushroom all over PNG.
The scene was set to ensure all children had a basic education. The government went further in 2012 and introduced the Tuition Fee Free (TFF) policy, which triggered a huge increase in school enrolments.
At that time, however, it seems no thought was given to accommodate the increase in enrolments at the students moved on to high school and secondary school.
Soon overcrowding in classrooms became a norm and the demand for more qualified teachers and resources put a huge strain on budgets.
Tertiary institutions also soon felt the impact as we continue to observe today.
It still amazes me when, each year, politicians and bureaucrats announce publicly that more than half of school leavers will have to fend for themselves.
Beyond school, there is an empty space for many thousands of our young people.
So whose business is it to make sure this situation is improved?
When I see such statements, I feel angry and bewildered that they highlight the problem but have no answers.
Perhaps these decision-makers should admit that they have failed to increase the number of spaces in tertiary education.
Let me draw a scenario here. Using the 2020 figures, we have 18,000 students right now without an offer of further education to improve their knowledge and skills and make them more job-ready.
I would estimate that around 3,000 would have some way of furthering their education with family resources. That still leaves 15,000 wondering what is next. That’s 55% of school leavers. Where do they go?
The lucky 3,000 have gone on to be privately funded; a very expensive pathway. After all about 80% of our population is rural based and engaged in a subsistence lifestyle. These people can’t afford to fund further education for their children.
This leaves two options for the thousands of school leavers who want to move forward with their education.
One option is to upgrade, through Flexible, Open and Distance Education (FODE) centres. These are always under resourced and have limited capacity.
But many students who put their minds to it and are disciplined and committed are successfully re-absorbed into formal education.
The other option is TVET – the technical vocational education and training system aimed at training a workforce to meet the demands of industry and commerce.
Right now, the problem with this option is that the TVET sector in PNG is stagnant.
In terms of labour mobility, PNG seems not to have gone beyond the idea of fruit picking.
I genuinely can’t understand why our vision in this area is so restricted.
When are we going to see that PNG needs a mechanism to bring this surplus of school leavers to a level where we can export technical skills? We have already shown our capacity to do this in other areas.
The constant stream of many thousands of school leavers each year are prime candidates for technical and vocational training.
We know that everyone cannot enter a tertiary institution. It’s a fact of life. So why aren’t we seeing growth in the TVET sector?
From Day 1, TVET was doomed to be the poor cousin of general education. It started with the way it was promoted - as an afterthought.
It was not given the priority it deserved in terms of policy development and financing.
This mentality never went away. It has filtered into the way education is delivered today, draining the full potential of TVET and relegating it to an unsatisfactory alternative for students without the academic ability to go any further.
It hurts to write this, but it’s the truth.
The education system shows no mercy for these students who are talented but missed out on the main prize of university. That is so wrong.
Not everyone can – or wants to be - a teacher, doctor, lawyer or accountant. There’s plenty of satisfaction – and money – in sales, warehousing, mechanics, heavy equipment operation, plumbing, carpentry and so on.
To the bureaucrats who are setting policy and making plans and thinking about budgets, I hope this point settles in your sub-conscious.
The TVET space in Papua New Guinea has a lot of ground to cover in terms of becoming an effective deliverer of effectively trained people.
Its existing structure is fragmentary and incapable of delivering what is required. Its true potential, which is significant, has been suppressed.
TVET has the potential to absorb a greater number of school leavers. PNG is developing an industrial base that can use the skills it has to offer. And these school leavers deserve the opportunities. So does Papua New Guinea.
It is the responsibility of any government is to ensure these opportunities are realised. If that is not happening, there’s no use complaining about the crime problem in PNG because crime and unemployment go hand in hand.
Every year the youth bomb explodes when young men and women who cannot continue their education are deprived of opportunities like TVET.
And it must be understood that the explosion doesn’t happen just once. It can be protracted over a person’s lifetime.
It becomes a long-term socio-economic problem. We should have figured that out by now.
For now, I leave this with you. How to contain the blast?
Over to you decision makers.
John Kuri is from Sinasina Yongomugl in Simbu and has lived in Port Moresby with his wife and children for many years. He has been head of the mathematics department at Port Moresby Grammar School and, in more recent years, a program manager with the European Union