By Dr. Joseph Ketan

The University of Papua New Guinea is easily the leading tertiary institution in this country in terms of the considerable number of graduates it has produced in the last 50 years. UPNG graduates have consistently dominated the public service, the biggest employer in the country, for many years. Some great Pacific Islanders, like the prominent lawyer and former Pacific Fisheries boss Transform Aqorau, have also benefited from education at UPNG. Professor Ted Wolfers, Professor John Lynch, and Dr Bruce Yeates are among the expatriates who have obtained their PhDs from UPNG.

Significantly, the integrity of the academic programs at UPNG is on par with similar programs offered by other universities around the world, which means that a good Honours degree in the sciences or the social sciences would get you into a postgraduate program at a recognized university in the UK, US, Australia or NZ. A UPNG degree can also get you a teaching job in any university or employment in any organization in the world.

All universities compete for excellence in order to attract students and dollars. Reputation is what counts. The reputation of a university depends, principally, on quality output in research, publication, and teaching. The first two depend on the recruitment and retention of good academics. The third is dependent on both the quality of lecturers and the aptitude of students.

Most lecturers at UPNG conduct fieldwork at least once a year to update their own knowledge in order to teach effectively. Nearly half of them make an attempt to publish papers. Only a handful has published books. The situation at PAU, UOG and DWU is not good. Apart from producing teaching modules, lecturers at these minor universities do not publish and, therefore, cannot be taken seriously as academics, even though many of them have promoted themselves to professorial levels.

Generally, lecturers at all universities do a good job in teaching. They do well in the preparation and delivery of programs, assessment of students. A distinct lack of a reading culture in high schools and universities, however, prevents students (and teachers) from realizing their full potential.

In the 1970s and 1980s, with only four national high schools, the two national universities (UPNG and UNITECH) received the cream of the national education system. Students who came through the national high school system benefited significantly from a superior public education system, based on core subjects with a clear emphasis on literacy and numeracy skills. Most of the teachers in those days were expatriates from English speaking countries (the UK, Australia, NZ, and Canada).

The top-up system and the now discredited OBE system have produced a mixture of good and bad students. The cream of the education system might still be rising, but it is now coming through with impurities. Clearly, there are many second-rate students entering universities with fantastic grades that do not match their academic capabilities. An aptitude test might be needed to weed out the riff raffs. Our dysfunctional education system has been churning out thousands of mediocre students with woeful language skills annually. Plagiarism is now a widespread problem. In essays, smart phones and the internet are being used by students to copy the work of other people, often word for word, paragraph by paragraph, without acknowledging the source. Library research, reading, and writing skills seem to have been replaced by the copy-and-paste method of passing courses at universities these days. Among the good students are the lazy, deceitful, and corrupt ones getting out of universities and into the workforce – with their devious habits!

Crime and violence on campuses is a worrying sign. Sexual harassment of female students, theft of property, and other criminal behavior at universities indicate that we now have criminals masquerading as students. After graduating from university, some of these criminals will enter the workforce – with their felonious habits!

Despite the apparent problems at our national universities and colleges, UPNG has the greatest potential to become a genuinely premier university in the Asia Pacific Region. In the words of long-term UPNG lecturer, Dr Linus Digim’Rina, UPNG is the place to launch a rocket. I think I know what my friend from Kiriwina meant. UPNG has the core academic prerequisites for excellence. It has a tradition of academic distinction. With a bit of strategic planning, visionary leadership and good governance, we can turn this place into a great university.

The conditions are right. Key people in government, the public service, and in financial organizations are graduates of the University of Papua New Guinea. Government officers at the Department of National Planning and bankers dealing with project proposals were trained at UPNG. The UPNG Council is headed by Mr Robert Igara, a distinguished public servant, and a decent man who is widely respected for his exceptional intellectual capacity. The Vice Chancellor, Professor Frank Griffin, is a man of high integrity, with a reputation for academic excellence. They form a formidable team. Together, Mr Igara and Professor Griffin can turn UPNG around. They need all the support they can get from within UPNG as well as from outside. There are some outstanding academics and competent admin staff at UPNG. All decent men and women at UPNG must now work with the UPNG Council and Administration to convert this sadly struggling institution into a real world class university. Let’s convert potential into reality!

Prime Minister James Marape obtained a MBA from UPNG. This institution is his as much as it is ours. I think this prime minister will not ignore the plight of the university. He will come to the rescue of UPNG if Mr Igara and Professor Griffin were to put a proposal to his government. Such a proposal should contain a plan for the future of this university. The proposal should contain (a) short-term, (b) medium-term and (c) long-term plans, with itemized costing, for infrastructure development, staff recruitment and training, and academic program strengthening.

Issues that require immediate attention include: security (both emotional and physical) for staff and students, as well as for visitors; living conditions of staff and students; the quality of food for students; and better employment conditions for staff (better pay rates under a single salary structure for national and expatriate staff).

In the medium and long term, the objective of the UPNG Council and Administration ought to be on viability and strengthening of academic programs. Some thought should be given to the idea of converting the UPNG land adjacent to Morata into real estate to make money. UPNG could build apartments and office complex, supermarkets, bookshops, conference centres, recreation centres, motels, guest houses, restaurants, beer gardens, pubs, gymnasiums, and other social and recreational facilities for students, staff and for the public.

The quality of the academic programs can be strengthened by a careful recruitment program. The best candidates to recruit are, first, world recognized academics to provide leadership and to lift the game and, second, academics who have just completed their PhD programs. Both categories of academics tend to read widely and are well-versed with the key debates in the literature in their respective disciplines. This recruitment drive ought to be accompanied by a retrenchment program aimed at getting rid of the old and broken furniture at UPNG. There are lecturers and professors at UPNG who have yet to publish books in their fields. They should be sent packing forthwith.

Jointly run programs and partnerships between local and international universities is the way to go in future. UPNG has a good partnership with the Australian National University in research and teaching. This partnership has yielded good results in the past and must therefore be continued across disciplinary fields.

The current behvaioural problems at UPNG are the cumulative result of societal decay, failing national educational system, poor governance and corruption of state institutions at all levels. We have allowed our universities to become corrupted by thugs and their children with money, so we need to work hard to get rid of corrupt thugs in our institutions. We have neglected our education system, which is collapsing, along with the national health system. We have reached crisis point in both health and education.

We still have many good students at UPNG. It is the few who are giving our premier university a bad name.

Let’s work with Mr Igara and his team to restore order to that university. It is the only genuinely reputable one we have in the country. The others (PAU, DWU and UOG) are still growing. All suffer from teething problems, but we need to have confidence in the future of our universities.