Interview: Joe Williams Lalie
What is the significance of the recently introduced free universal education system?
JOE WILLIAMS LALIE: Education has to be at the core of the national agenda if we are going to keep progressing as a nation. The introduction of a free education policy is a positive development, but actions have to follow the announcements. Even though allocations to the sector have increased substantially in the 2014 national budget, it continues to be a very low percentage of spending per capita, compared to more developed economies. At the moment the government seems to be focusing on scholarships and the elimination of school fees, but if classrooms continue to lack desks, if schools have no water and sanitation facilities, and if teachers continue to be paid below international standards, it will be difficult to see the improvements that everybody is expecting now.
Consistent investments have to be directed to human and physical infrastructure to bridge the gap in the education sector. The system will have to support the rapid increase in enrolment, despite having limited capacity in the years to come – not only in the National Capital District, but also in remote areas where students are more vulnerable. Also it remains to be seen how the government will be able to sustain the effort over the long term, as similar attempts in the past lost track along the way. One positive development of a free education policy will certainly be the increased ratio of female to male students, which is already on the rise in Papua New Guinea.
What role can private education play within the context of a changing economy?
LALIE: Nowadays, we should be looking at PNG as a global player, not as an isolated country in the South Pacific. Our intelligentsia will have to be prepared to compete on the global stage and that is where private institutions can still make a difference. For the past 37 years we have been educating thousands of professionals who have landed key positions in sectors nationwide, and I doubt that public schools alone could have provided the same level of qualification. In the past private education was perceived as something exclusively designed for the elites, as inequalities and bias had characterised the sector in the beginning, but this perception is changing.
The fact that a variety of courses are offered by private institutions, including vocational training, is a testament to the drive to reach the wider population. As the influx of resource wealth trickles into the national economy, families will be in a position to make choices about the futures of their children, starting with their education, and private education affordability has changed dramatically in recent years.
What legislation would you like to see introduced that would enable PNG’s public education to better meet the needs of its fast growing economy?
LALIE: The government is in the process of forming a department of higher education and it will be more than just an office. This is the way to go, as far as we are concerned, as the sector needs research to guide the government in its decisions. A path needs to be identified from primary to tertiary education, and this can be achieved only through proper planning.
Every year there are 18,000 students that come out of secondary schools, which have proliferated recently, but only a small percentage of these students continue to the university level. A limited number of universities are available and the government can sponsor a maximum of 4000-5000 students each year. The higher education system is simply not large enough to accommodate them all, and we should be concerned about this because many students will not be able to find employment after graduating from secondary school, or may seek opportunities abroad. The country should focus on expanding technical and vocational institutions in order to fill the education gap. This could help ensure that PNG’s education and labour force needs are met as the economy expands.
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