The Hero
Cash-craving relatives shun death traditions

School leavers: Containing the blast

John Kuri and family
John Kuri and daughters. "It still amazes me when each year politicians and bureaucrats announce that more than half of school leavers will have to fend for themselves"


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?

Here’s why.

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 


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Paul Oates

If there's something I've learnt in life Philip KM, it's that it's easy to say something and not as easy to actually do something.

One of the many things I used to look for if selecting management staff was evidence of or potential evidence of a person being what was known as a 'self starter'.

That's someone who actually makes things happen as opposed to merely saying something should happen.

I understand how easy it would seem to some that a person like myself in apparently totally different circumstances, might seem pontifical and possibly insensitive to the huge challenges that stand in the way of PNG people in achieving change.

However any recognised change in a society had to first start with someone convincing others to change and then leading others to effect the desired change.

Changing a society is one of the hardest changes ever attempted by some humans as cultural habits are very hard to break.

People who worked or work in PNG will understand this factor very well or should understand it without actually drawing attention to it.

Experienced kiaps and other officials like teachers and agricultural officers were agents of change that worked directly with the people of rural PNG at the village level.

Much of this practical knowledge was simply thrown away at and not long after 1975 in a desperate rush to effect change for change's sake.

The ability to understand how to effect change in PNG was therefore lightly dismissed by those who didn't understand what a valuable commodity they were dealing with.

The old Grimm's fairy tale about the goose that laid the golden egg is a classic example of what actually happened.

In the story, the owner of the goose who kept laying golden eggs decided to kill the bird and find out by dissecting the corpse where the gold was coming from. Understandingly, that put a stop to any further golden eggs being produced.

It's one thing to be ethnocentric. It's another to be able to understand what new ideas and concepts are practical and then learn how they work.

PNG has a pronounced disconnection between what needs to be done and what is actually done. Overcoming this disconnection is the biggest hurdle.

Politicians mostly slough off responsibility by using taxpayer funds to hire consultants and so called expertise who promise to get things done but usually fail miserably as those who hold the purse strings don't actually know how the problems can be overcome.

If you don't know how to fix a problem, how can you manage it successfully? If you can't or won't be responsible for measuring any results, how can you be responsible and held accountable?

Over many years I and others I know have offered to help those in PNG who want help in getting something done.

I've spent many hours trying to offer suggestions and writing detailed papers about how problem could be overcome and offered constructive suggestions to various people in positions of responsibility in PNG. A terrible silence results.

If I was being considered bumptious, untactful or unwanted, I could at least be told to 'go away'. Yet even that sort of feedback never comes.

Partly that could be due to PNG's wonderful culture of not wanting to give offence. Yet for those who offer unpaid experience on a purely voluntary basis, this apparent rejection of help is very hard to understand.

PNG has some very talented and intelligent people who could use all the help they could get to improve the lot of their people.

Can someone please tell me what is the cause of what seems like a clear and obvious disconnection with potential solutions?

Philip Fitzpatrick

Prior to independence, and afterwards I guess, students leaving school mostly wanted to work in an office. Not many wanted to be carpenters and plumbers.

I guess that's still the same judging by Philip's comment: "We cannot force them into TVET schools and other lower schools just to feel inferior and useless. Some of them just don't want to go."

How you make an attitudinal change to counter that view is an interesting question.

Tradies in Australia are some of the best paid workers in the country. Some of them earn better money than doctors and teachers.

Maybe that's the incentive that needs to be stressed.

Philip Kai Morre

We are dealing with a time bomb that will explode and create anarchy.

The youth population is increasing because we do not have population and family planning.

Furthermore, school leavers are building up frustrations because they are not many colleges and universities to attend.

Most of them got the required GPA to be selected for courses but they are told there are not enough places.

We cannot forced them into TVET schools and other lower schools just to feel inferior and useless. Some of them just don't want to go.

One of the options for Grade 12 school leavers is to directly apply to police training college, the defence academy and other disciplinary forces.

The government should increase the numbers in line with population growth and the magnitude of increase law and order problems.

Police college should be a three year diploma course and recruits should know a bit of everything including human rights, the criminal justice system, law, ethics and psychology.

It's time to upgrade training and our police force must be fully trained to deal with problems effectively.

Paul Oates

Education is the great conundrum of the modern human race. It should be the great leveler of opportunity as everyone in a society should be able to start their lives on an equal footing.

We all know that isn’t true in practice however. Some children with parents who are better off get to go to better schools and have better opportunities.

Yet the problem of what an education system prepares young people for, is the essence of the imbroglio. Like Phil, when I first read this article, I immediately thought of how those in the Indo Pacific region over the last 70 years since World War 2 have progressed by first having cheap labour and then built their economies up to the point that the majority of their population has become wealthy and relatively well off. When I was a child, made in Japan did not refer to something of quality. Then that identity brand evolved into quality.

Japan, Korea, Malaysia, China, Bangladesh, India, etc. have become the source of consumer products produced by industries that require those with a basic education to produce mass consumer products. Yet it doesn’t take a secondary education to operate a so-called sweat shop sewing machine, turning out cheap clothes and electrical equipment, for those in countries better off to clamour for.

Basic Education should be a right that every child should receive. Yet the question of where to from there becomes an obvious question?

PNG students quite rightly wonder what their endeavours in the classroom and potentially at secondary and possibly tertiary education establishments might make the effort all worthwhile.

40 years ago, I was told that Australia would end up having a workforce basically employed in the Service industry. I couldn’t then believe it. We then had a manufacturing industry and produced products that were exported. Into that situation came the promise of overseas cheap labour and pressure for domestic wages growth. Today we are looking at trying to regenerate our industrial base, given that we need to be more self sufficient in the obvious difficult time ahead.

Now the recent pandemic has revealed our workforce is focussed on exactly what a huge number of our citizens are employed doing. ‘The Service Industry’. Coffee ‘Baristas’ and ‘Fast Food’ outlets seem to have mushroomed overnight. In the US, a large percentage of new dwellings don’t even have a kitchen included. Cooking seems to have gone by the board as those who may have once enjoyed sitting around the family table at night now look forward to gobbling food and swigging bottled drinks as they operate an electronic game or communicate endlessly on social media.

As one recent cartoon put it, Mum yells at the youngsters, ‘Go wash your thumbs, dinners ready’.

PNG needs to look at where it wants to be in 10 years time. The local education system should be training young people for that world. Yet the biggest factor that will affect PNG people is not what employment will be available in the near future or how many jobs will be available. Roughly 50% of PNG population is under 19 years of age. They are fast approaching a time when they will also want to have a family.

Available food production and water resources are finite unless broad scale food production is used. That will impact hugely on village resources and local culture. Food production methods will have to change and water availability will have to be improved. These issues will require thinkers and planners. They will require efficient managers and supervisors. Medical services will need to be improved and located where they are needed.

Intelligent planning is now required. Educationists need to gather together now and start planning tomorrow’s education system that will need funding and facilities.

Political leaders need to be held accountable for their decisions today that will affect tomorrow’s young adults. Therein lies the rub.

If ever PNG needs community leaders, it needs them to start organising now.

Philip Fitzpatrick

PNG should be in a prime position to attract manufacturing and industry because of cheap labour costs. That is what ultimately led to the emergence of China as a super power (and the demise in manufacturing in the USA and other western nations).

Back before independence there was a vibrant, albeit small, manufacturing base in PNG. Around the early 1970s we were buying good quality clothing manufactured in PNG for instance.

I think employing people locally is a better idea than training them up and then watching them head overseas, possibly not to come back.

What is scaring manufacturers from setting up in PNG is the law and order problem and the extremely high insurance costs - again a government failure.

John Kuri

Phillip, you have raised a valid point that if the government should upskill at least a third of the grade 12 school leavers each year , we would have many skilled youth on the streets. In a way , this should also induce the government to create more employment opportunities, which is of course one of its prime responsibilities.

Bernard Corden

Bertrand and Dora Russell in 'Source Book in the Philosophy of Education':

"What is considered in education is hardly ever the boy or the girl, the young man or the young woman, but almost always in some form, the maintenance of the existing order.

"When the individual is considered, it is almost exclusively with a view to worldly success - making money or achieving a good position.....

"Almost all education has a political motive: It aims at strengthening some group, national or religious, or even social, in the the competitions with other groups.

"It is this motive in the main which determines the subjects taught, the knowledge offered, and the knowledge withheld, and also decides what mental habits the pupils are expected to acquire."

Ivan Illich in 'Deschooling Society':

"Many students, especially those who are poor, intuitively know what the schools do for them. They school them to confuse process and substance. Once these become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is, the better are the results; or, escalation leads to success.

The pupil is thereby schooled to to confuse teaching and learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new. His imagination is schooled to accept service in place of value.

"Medical treatment is mistaken for health care, social work for the improvement of community life, police protection for safety, military poise for national security, the rat race for productive work.

"Health, learning, dignity, independence and creative endeavour are defined as little more than the performance of the institutions which claim to serve these ends."

The following are also worth reading:

'Pedagogy of the Oppressed' by Paulo Freire:

'Intelligence in the Flesh' by Guy Claxton

'Do Schools Kill Creativity' - TEDTalk by the late Sir Ken Robinson is worth watching:

Philip Fitzpatrick

Something similar happens in Australia John. Our vocational training systems have been gutted by the current federal government. Instead they've been tinkering with the tertiary system trying to direct students away from humanities and into what they call 'job ready' courses in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (stem).

They are trying to do this by manipulating course fees, making the humanities more expensive and the stem subjects cheaper. To put it mildly it hasn't worked. The universities, which now run on business principles, are encouraging students to take humanities subjects because they get bigger fees.

I think your idea of bolstering vocational training is a good one but you still run the danger of ending up with a lot of unemployable trades people if the industrial base doesn't also grow fast enough in PNG or the demand from overseas isn't there.

You cite fruit picking as an example of exported labour but that is only occurring in Australia because Australians refuse to do that sort of hard labour, low paid work. Instead they prefer to go into the trades, which is where you are hoping trained Papua New Guineans might also go. They would, in effect, be competing with Australian workers, which may not be a good thing. I expect it would be the same in other countries.

The key, therefore, seems to be getting the Papua New Guinea government to put resources into developing the countries' industrial and manufacturing base. This would be tackling the problem from the other end so you end up with a two pronged approach.

An active industrial and manufacturing base would create a demand for skilled workers to which the education system can respond rather than trying to create the change all by itself..

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