Papua New Guinea's economic development puts education system in spotlight

While falling global commodity prices could be a cause for concern in Papua New Guinea (PNG), the government’s latest budget suggests that plans to improve education will remain a priority.

Providing the people of PNG with a cohesive education system has proved a difficult challenge, with long-standing hurdles, such as the country’s geography, now exacerbated by a burgeoning young population and a rapidly developing economy.

Giving details of its new budget on November 19th, the government announced that PGK1.5bn ($560m) would be channelled into education during 2014, up PGK160m ($60m) on last year’s allocation, with a large portion of the funds targeting fee-free tuition and vocational projects.

Money will also be made available for recruiting more teachers, as part of a bid to address staff shortages across the sector. The increased funding supports a government move announced in October to increase teachers’ salaries by 10% from January 2014 through to December 2016.

Rural challenges

The higher budget allocation for the sector follows a decision made by the government last year to redirect PGK1.5bn ($560m) to local authorities for essential services, including education.

The administration hoped that the move to decentralise education would enable local officials to improve standards in areas outside of PNG’s pockets of development, which are frequently overlooked.

But finding a solution is proving far from straightforward. The ripple effects of the nation’s economic development have yet to reach PNG’s rural heartlands, which are home to much of the population.

Providing education in remote areas is also expensive, with the cost per student in rural regions several times more expensive than in urban areas, according to the Department of National Planning and Monitoring. A lack of infrastructure and equipment in education institutions across rural areas adds to the problem.

Growing demand

The education system is also feeling the weight of student demands, which are growing on the back of economic development. Under the government’s fee-subsidy programme, school enrolment has increased from 500,000 in 1992 to 1.3m this year. Estimates put the current student-to-teacher ratio at 40:1. With almost half of PNG’s 7m population below the age of 15, pressure on the system can only increase.

While creating an educational system and curriculum to meet the anticipated demands of PNG’s economy is the long-term goal, additional measures are also under consideration.

In November 2013, Prime Minister Peter O’Neill called for obligatory military national service and skills training from 2015 for all grade 12 graduates unable to find employment. However, questions have been raised about whether the government could realistically implement such a strategy, given that youth unemployment (18-30) stood at 68% in six major centres surveyed by the National Youth Commission this year.

Budget boost

Given the size of the task faced, the government’s response will be incremental, although the budget will provide a major boost to much of the sector, particularly its focus on fee-free education.

Of the PGK1.5bn ($560m) that has been allocated to education, PGK605m ($227m) will be funnelled into free primary and secondary schools, which should benefit students attending some 18,000 institutions, with a further PGK43m ($16.13m) held in trust.

The budget sets aside PGK23m ($8.63m) for educational resources, while PGK11m ($4.13m) will be allocated for exams. A total of PGK414.4m ($155.5m) will be used to refurbish higher education institutions, including PGK192m ($72m) earmarked for infrastructure projects at universities.

Additional funds could provide a significant boost for PNG’s universities and other post-secondary institutions, which have suffered from dwindling resources as a result of years of underinvestment. Universities are also crowded – the University of PNG, one of four public universities, is running at more than 90% capacity.

Overall, the higher education system is simply not large enough at present. There are not enough university places for the number of students graduating from high school each year. In 2012 an estimated 14,000 graduates were looking for a spot, but fewer than 3000 were available at the six major universities.

Overhauling PNG’s education sector will take time, most likely decades, and require close, productive collaboration between government institutions and the private sector. While the hope is that privately run institutions will play a key role in the sector’s development, ensuring facilities are accessible and affordable will be pivotal to success.

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