Exclusive Club but low quality? Trend in PNG tertiary institutions


PNG’s tertiary institutions are becoming an exclusive club of the few, as the rest are pushed out of the system. However, with a dropping quality, the qualification will not mean much if there’s no investment. It’s the same as placing a limit (quota) on imported goods. Prices of products go up not because of the quality of the products, but because of the limited quantity or supply.

Limited supply of any product, be it apples or degrees drives up demand for the product. Even if the quality is poor. On the other hand, if supply increases, the only way a product stands out of the competition is for the producers to innovate to improve the quality of the product.

How is this relevant to higher education in PNG? Over the years, more and more students have been pushed out of the formal education system, especially the higher education sector. But the government fails to invest in higher education. If this trend continues, in the long run, the value of university degrees and certificates will be based on the fact that there are few degree holders in the market, and not because the degree holders possess superior skills than others. 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 were selected. Though Higher Education Secretary Jan Czuba blames those on COVID-19, this blame is clearly misplaced 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 the 23, 000. Things somewhat improved and in 2019 about 8, 597 students were selected whilst the rest missed out. Large number of students missing out on selection is a trend in PNG, so blaming COVID-19 diverts attention from the main problem in the tertiary institutions of PNG.

Second, many students didn’t get selected despite meeting the GPA this year. For instance, to study law at the University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG), the only law school in PNG, students need a GPA of 3.0. But because the school has only 120 spaces available, hundreds of students miss out on selection with 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 spaces. Selection begins with students with GPA of 4.0, and the quota is usually full before the advertised GPA is reached. A substantial number of students missed out due to the quota system in universities and colleges. The students worked hard despite havoc caused by COVID-19 and still missed out. That’s a big let down.

Others on social media are blaming poor student attitudes towards studies as a result of poor performance and low selection. This is true to some extent. However, many students missed out on selection despite meeting the GPA because the tertiary institutions do not have the capacity to take them in. The poor performance by students should be a subject of debate only after every eligible student was selected, and extra space left. But if our tertiary institutions do not have the capacity to accommodate students who meet the required GPA, placing blame on students is also another misplaced blame.

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

With deteriorating infrastructure and lack of investment in higher education, the quality of education in PNG is not getting any better. In fact, the top three universities in PNG (UPNG, Unitech, and DWU) are ranked 5, 047; 5, 732; and 11, 194 respectively in world university ranking. University of South Pacific in Fiji is 5, 000 places higher than DWU on 1, 575, whilst Australian National University ranks 24th in the world, as the best in the region. Our universities rank very low, our infrastructure is poor, which adversely affects the quality of higher education in PNG.

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, the University of Papua New Guinea didn’t select any student from the Science Foundation Year to the Medical Faculty. The reason was: none of the students from the foundation year who applied for the Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS) 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.”

This is how it works: for any science field offered by UPNG, you apply as a Science Foundation Year (SFY) student. You then apply to get into different specialized fields, including School of Medicine. But to get into the School of Medicine you need a cumulative GPA of 3.5 or higher in the first year of study as a SFY student (first year). In 2018, no student met the required GPA for the first time in the university’s history. This was a red sign pointing to the diminishing quality of education in one of the main universities in PNG. We didn’t take notice. We still haven’t taken notice yet.

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

The lack of investment in ICT, library, 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. If you keep eliminating 18, 000 students in PNG, you will create a scarcity, and 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 to measure university rankings (QS World University Ranking). They are as follows:

  1. Academic reputation (40%) – a global survey of more than 94,000 academics
  2. Citations per faculty (20%) – a ‘citation’ means a piece of research being referred to (cited) within another piece of research.
  3. Student-to-faculty ratio (20%) – the number of academic staff employed relative to the number of students enrolled
  4. Employer reputation (10%) – a global survey of close to 45,000 graduate employers
  5. International faculty ratio (5%)
  6. 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 that every student who is eligible is selected, and improve conditions of academics 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 ICT: invest into infrastructure and modern ICT for our universities and colleges. Criteria 6 can be achieved by investment in these areas.

Third, upgrade the courses/subjects offered. We need to benchmark the courses offered in our universities with the best in the region. Look at Singapore, Australia and New Zealand universities, and benchmark (upgrade) our courses. Again, criteria 6 can be achieved by improving curriculum.

Fourth, a lecturer that is employed must be required to conduct a specified minimum number of researches, publications and present papers at conferences. Contract renewals and promotions should strictly be based on these three requirements. Those who rely on outdated information, never published in the last three years should be shown the door at the end of their contract. Lecturers must be teaching current and relevant content, and that comes from research. Citations (criteria 2) is not possible unless academics start publishing.

Finally, there is a very flawed argument advanced by critics of mass education that we produce too many graduates who do not have jobs. Three reasons why there should be more students selected to universities:

1. We need an educated population. Our adult average education is four years, the lowest in the region and comparable to that of sub-Saharan Africa. We are among the least literate countries in the world, and we cannot be excluding more and more students. Being the least literate is not a record to be proud of, and yet we work hard at maintaining that record by excluding 18, 000 in 2020!

2. More students would create competition and make students work harder. Because the only way a graduate would stand out among masses of people with the same qualification is to be the best. It’s the same as flooding a market with three brands of phones: Samsung, Huawei, and iPhone. To have a competitive edge in the market, these brands must constantly engage in innovation. Competition among these three brands for market share will drive innovation, giving customers the choice to select among three great brands. If you only allow one brand into the market by restricting the other two, that brand will have no incentive to innovate because it is the only option available (monopoly). The same applies to the quota system used in selections in the long run.

3. Education is not always about getting employed. Education has other benefits: you will sell your land cheap to foreigners because you were not educated. That’s a real possibility. The quality of your health is intrinsically linked with the information you are exposed to, information you have greater exposure to if you were educated. The chances that your children may do well in life is improved if you’re educated. We need an education population regardless of whether there are enough jobs.

There is so 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 quality education.