Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Universities and Knowledge Production

First impression of the article is in Steven's Window, The National newspaper of PNG. 07 Friday 2010, p.5.

Here is what I think universities are and what universities ought to be doing. Universities are institutions where the production of knowledge and dissemination of that knowledge is pursued to achieve understanding and wisdom.

A nation is dependent on a university to supply the manpower it needs to propel forward. Each university is established through an Act of Parliament to carry out its duties and responsibilities. A university endeavors to fulfill the national expectations by being mindful of the objectives it has set for itself to deliver as a corporate entity through high academic achievement and excellence to promote the well-being and progress of the nation. Government universities are institutions operating on public funds to carry out their duties and responsibilities.

In recent times a three men Committee investigating the performance of universities in Papua New Guinea released a report of their findings. The report was damaging to all public universities highlighting key areas where public universities seem to fail. The report suggests that the quality of graduates has dropped to a point where our graduates are viewed as half-baked products of a poor system. Many of us with more than 10 years of teaching feel accused of under performance and under achievement in terms of the graduates we produced.

An independent review of Papua New Guinea’s six universities, as reported in the media made 13 recommendations for the Australian and PNG government to take into account. The reviewers were particularly critical of the public universities, framing them within a blanket generalization as failing to meet the demands of the industry more than the social well-being and progress of the nation. Prudence tells me there is more to this report.

Several questions beg answers from the conscience of the graduates of public universities: Does this mean that national progress happened without the input of universities through their graduates? Does this mean the bureaucracy machinery is still operated by poor quality graduates and half-baked certificate and diploma holders? Does this mean the civil society organizations and service providers have no graduates from our public universities working with them to improve the quality of life and understanding of their rights as free and proud people? Does this mean that the academics with more than 20 years of service in some of the public universities have failed in their duties to produce top quality graduates who now head departments, executive positions in the public and private sector, and who are now also national leaders? Does this mean that the degrees our graduates have are not recognized by universities around the world? How did some of us, most of the national academics teaching at the universities, get our Masters and PhD degrees in prestigious international universities in the world?

The views about universities failing to produce quality graduates is an old sentiment worth paying no consultation fees to individuals with no teaching experience at these public universities in the last 20 years. Many of us live the struggle and difficulties faced every day to deal with uneven ratio between teaching staff and students due to increased number of students every year, unavailability of teaching resources and technology, cramped office spaces with poor ventilation, small prison-like classrooms and offices, poor employment conditions, and unpopular management decisions that dampen the spirits of hardworking academics in some of these public universities.

The issue of output is determined by the condition of the machine itself, to use a metaphor, if I may. If oiled, greased, and checked by the operators, the machine will maintain quality production. The public universities have had little or no development to their physical infrastructure, improvement in teaching and research facilities, and are left to pity themselves against an imperative propelled in the direction of the new kids on the block. Yet, the public universities are the ones who produced the graduates who now teach in these new universities? It makes no sense to argue that the degrees awarded in public universities are associate degrees. What is an associate degree then?

Public universities are by design created to serve the wider or specialized national interests. They must exist and operate to serve the people of Papua New Guinea in two ways. First, stand as higher institutions in Papua New Guinea, for the people to have their children earn a university degree so that they too can participate in national development through their children’s contribution.

Second, public universities exist on the basis of history and the merit of each institution to produce teachers, medical doctor, lawyers, accountants, engineers, and specialists in different fields. In as much as possible they are not to reduplicate their courses and purposes for which they were first established. Duplication and replicas are against the spirit of government funded universities, established under their own original Acts of Parliament. The point is made when public universities find themselves under the spotlight to cut and save costs every year, restructure academic programs, and manage resources and facilities with the knowledge that the national government is not going to increase funding any more than what it already gives.

I have been part of the University of Papua New Guinea for many years. I am proud of UPNG’s long tradition of academic excellence and intellectual foundation set up by the founding professors and administrators of the University of Papua New Guinea in 1963. University of Papua New Guinea adorns its academic credibility as the national university in Papua New Guinea with high academic tradition measured by producing more under-graduate degrees holders who go onto earn Masters, PhDs and other qualifications in prestigious international universities in Australia, New Zealand, USA, Europe, Japan, China, Singapore, and elsewhere. The few who have gone far afield away from traditional training grounds in Australian and New Zealand universities know that the University of Papua New Guinea is the benchmark of academic standard.

Everywhere I go in our country I have not failed to see a UPNG graduate in charge or is part of a team working hard to build PNG.

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