The government is working to regain lost ground and improve overall performance

Improving the educational system remains a top priority in Papua New Guinea. The country is committed to the sector both in terms of political will and increasing expenditure, and over time schools have seen great improvements as resource wealth enters the economy and supports the national budget. PNG has already made significant advances in recent years. In particular, the tuition-fee-free education policy was rolled out in a transparent and relatively effective manner, improving access and affordability for many of the country’s rural and poorer citizens. Plans for the sector are still a work in progress, however, as PNG works to reverse years of decline in the system. Despite great efforts and considerable sums being spent, it will take some time before the recovery is in full swing.

Reforms & Language

PNG has a relatively short history in terms of formal education, with missionaries establishing the first schools in the late 19th century. Following years of sporadic development by both the church and government, efforts became more concerted in the lead-up to independence. Vast resources were dedicated to training a skilled workforce for the newly independent country and gross primary enrolment increased, jumping from 50% to 77% between 1970 and 1998, according to the World Bank. The enthusiasm for education, however, met with mixed success. While the country was able to graduate more students, the economy simply did not have enough jobs for them. To deal with this imbalance, the country embarked on a series of reforms in the early 1990s. The aim was to train students to provide them with more practical skills suited to the educational and employment opportunities that actually existed.

National Education

However, following independence the government also worked to redefine education and develop it in a way that would best suit the needs of the country. Reform was as much about establishing a national identity as it was about getting jobs and obtaining useful skills, sparking a long-running debate over language of instruction. Beginning with the first Education Plan for 1976-1980, the country endeavoured to come up with a system of education that was both uniquely Papua New Guinean yet also practical and productive. For years, it vacillated between emphasising the local environment and more standardised models. The following period saw a number of efforts to design a comprehensive plan. The Tololo Committee, convened in 1974 to discuss the country’s educational system prior to independence; the “Philosophy of Education for Papua New Guinea”, a report released in 1986 by Paulias Matane, the governor-general of PNG from 2004-10; and the National Language and Literacy Policy of 1989 all recommended instruction in the local language in the first three years of education. This led to real and significant changes on the ground. In the early 1980s the Viles Tok Ples Skul system, or village vernacular school, was introduced in the North Solomons Province. This was followed by similar programmes in East New Britain (1983) and Enga (1985).

However, instruction in English was already well established in a number of schools and there was significant resistance to any change in the language of instruction. Prior to independence, a large number of expatriate teachers had been brought in and funding was often withdrawn from church and government schools that refused to teach in English. And while control over the educational system moved from Australia to the national government, change took a few years to come. Parliament rejected the 1986 Philosophy of Education Committee’s call for teaching in local languages in the first three years of primary school, while the National Executive Council rejected the recommendation in the first five-year plan (1976-80) for the use of vernacular as the primary language for teaching.

The Curriculum

Another key and ongoing theme in debates over education in PNG is reform of the curriculum. In a previous attempt to improve performance, outcomes-based education (OBE) was implemented in 2008. OBE was never fully accepted and was in fact on its way out in Australia and other more advanced economies when it was first imported into the country. Its student-centric approach, which was believed to be not only better for education in general but also better for the localisation of education in PNG, turned out to be unnecessarily complicated and lacking in structure. It was never fully adopted, nor was it effectively implemented, causing many students to fall further behind. Critics said the combination of OBE and patchwork adoption of local language instruction at the elementary level are at the root of the country’s current educational problems.

Another challenge the sector faced, similar to many other areas, is the general trend toward decentralisation. The 1977 Organic Law on Provincial Government was designed to shift administration to the local level as much as possible. It was another element in the country’s efforts to rid itself of the colonial legacy, while also aiming to improve efficiency in general. Although the thinking behind this move was that increased autonomy for localities would help communities recover some semblance of the pre-colonial independence they had enjoyed, it has had somewhat of a negative impact on education. Small local communities generally do not have the capacity or resources to handle the establishment and management of an educational system, and decentralisation also made it more difficult for the Department of Education (DoE) to act as overall administrator and get accurate information about the situation on the ground.

By The Numbers

In addition to issues more specific to education, the country faces more general challenges. PNG is relatively poor with a GDP per capita of around $2000 and about 40% of the population living under the poverty line. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, 90% of farms in the country are based on subsistence or semi-subsistence agriculture. With daily concerns centred on harvests, food and manpower, it can be difficult for students to afford school, even when it is free. PNG’s topography and geography also work against a properly functioning educational system. Much of the country is difficult to reach, due to the rugged terrain, thick vegetation and the fact that it is comprised of an estimated 600 islands.

Such logistical difficulties have led to a shortage of basic services in many rural areas, and as a result, teachers are often unwilling to live in remote locations. PNG is also home to more than 800 languages, which can make communication and teaching difficult. Radio Australia reported in 2012 that PNG needs 5000 more teachers and that many instructors are taking two classes at once. The primary student-to-teacher ratio was last reported by the World Bank in 2006 to be 36:1, though in 2011 UNESCO reported that it was as high as 40:1 in the National Capital District (NCD).

The headline literacy rate was 63% in 2012, according to the World Bank. However, there are wide discrepancies between different areas and there has been concern that some figures are being misreported. In September 2011 the PNG Education Advocacy Network released results of a recent study showing literacy rates among citizens aged 15-60 in four provinces – the NCD, Chimbu, Sandaun and Gulf – at around 15%, while the literacy rate in New Ireland Province was around 25%. These rates are substantially lower than previous estimates – for much of the 1990s, for example, PNG’s national literacy rate was reported to be around 52%. In August 2012 James Agigio, manager for research and data analysis at the DoE, said about half of all secondary school students in PNG abandon their studies. According to data from the Australian Agency for International Development, the mean number of years of schooling for adults over 25 is 4.3 years, while expected years of schooling for children is 5.8.

Investment In Education

The government understands the challenges it is facing and is thus investing a good deal in education and working to improve the sector. It is, for example, making efforts to achieve its Millennium Development Goal of universal primary education by 2015 and is putting in the resources to back up its efforts. In the 2014 budget education and health was one of seven key priorities. In 2014 the government plans to spend PGK1.5bn ($609.75m) on education, up from PGK1.34bn ($544.71m) in 2013.

A number of key initiatives are also covered in the budget. The government is providing PGK23m ($9.35m) in order to develop new curriculum materials and PGK605m ($245.9m) for the tuition-fee-free policy. It is estimated that PGK3.5bn ($1.42bn) will be spent over four years on this programme. The Higher Education Institution Recapitalisation programme will receive PGK10m ($4.06m) in 2014, though total outlays in the programme will reach PGK350m ($142.27m) over a four-year period – PGK90m ($36.6m) in 2015, PGK100m ($40.65m) in 2016 and PGK150m ($60.9m) in 2017. Under this programme, a task force will be assembled to prioritise university infrastructure that needs to be built over the next few years. Included in the package are PGK15m ($6.09m) for the construction of law school facilities at the University of PNG and PGK10m ($4.06m) to refurbish the library at the University of Environ- The government is also re-examining the legal underpinnings of tertiary education. In May 2014 Parliament passed the Higher Education General Provisions Act, which will replace the Higher Education Act of 1983, and improve the management and development of tertiary institutions. Specifically, it will set out specific procedures for the approval of new colleges and universities and establish the Department of Higher Education, Research, Science and Technology. The new department is set to take over certain functions of the Higher Education Commission and the Office of Higher Education. According to comments by Prime Minister Peter O’Neill, the new act is a major step forward as it includes mechanisms that ensure the accountability and performance of relevant institutions.

The country is also making a significant push to attract more employees. Teacher salaries and bonus pay are set to increase over the next three years, while foreign teachers are being actively recruited. In late 2013 the government said it was interested in hiring 81 Filipino teachers under a bilateral agreement between the two countries. Educators are needed in a variety of areas, including those with experience teaching physics, biology, architecture, civil and electrical engineering, economics and management. The country is also looking for instructors in vocational subjects.

Rolling Back The Curriculum

In 2011 the government said it would be doing away with OBE and going back to the previous system, as well as reintroducing English as the language of instruction at the primary level. However, Luke Taita, the acting secretary for education, later said in early 2013 that while English will be the official language of instruction, local languages can be used to supplement to English instruction if children are having difficulty understanding certain concepts. While the process of actually scrapping the older programme has been complicated by the need for a thorough review of curriculum and the logistics involved with such as task, English was already starting to replace local languages in schools as of early 2013. Educators have argued that the overall process can be accelerated by continuing to use current textbooks while reverting to the previous Objective Base Education model. The transformation has the full backing of O’Neill, who told the local press that he would like to scrap the OBE curriculum as quickly as possible.

One of the biggest challenges the government has faced has been in the implementation of a tuition-feefree policy. Free education has been tried many times before, the first time being in 1982. However, it has proven difficult to implement as increased enrolment has strained the system and disputes have broken out between the centre and provinces about the utilisation of funds. There is also confusion about the exact use of funds being provided for the programme, and technical issues often prevent efficient distribution.

To a great extent, the current programme is better designed than those in the past and funding has been significant. In 2014 PGK605m ($245.9m) was allocated for the tuition-fee-free policy. The mechanics of the new initiative are also much improved as money is sent directly from the national government to schools, and institutions’ bank account numbers are published in the local paper along with the total sent. By following this process, leakage is prevented along the way and citizens at the local level can know exactly how much money has been wired to their school. In February 2014 the government approved PGK200m ($81.3m) to be paid out to 8419 schools. The programme has been hailed as a great success in many respects, as it has not only increased access to education but also helped alleviate the burden of poverty on families. “It has had a tremendous effect: definitely putting money back in parents’ pockets,” said Kerry Main Pagau, a World Bank senior human development specialist for PNG.

Addressing Costs

The programme does have its share of problems and the government will have to iron out some wrinkles in the year ahead. A number of schools do not have official bank accounts, and as such are not receiving the money that should be paid to them under the programme. According to Michael Tapo, the secretary of education, 5200 schools would not be receiving funds in early 2014 for failing to comply with requirements, such as supplying the necessary information (though non-compliant school may be able to receive their funding in the second half of the year).

In some cases, technical issues are preventing the transfer of funds, as in the case of accounts that are inactive. In other cases, the schools have not included the right data with their submission, such as school census forms, or seem to have exaggerated the number of students they have enrolled.

However, even under the best of circumstances what the country is trying to accomplish would lead to problems. With the sector having gone unchecked for so long bottlenecks are bound to result. UNICEF noted that that government’s programmes have resulted in an increase in the number of students, although this may strain an already overstretched system and potentially lead to overcrowding. The question of costs is ever present, and even if the idea is to allow children to go to school without paying tuition, certain fees are still charged. According the DoE, a school can charge for uniforms, lunches and transport. They can also charge so-called project fees, which cover projects that have been approved by the relevant provincial education board. But there is increasing concern that these bills are prevalent and substantial, and the government is trying to curb excessive fees. In January 2014 Tapo told local press that any schools charging more than PGK200 ($81) for project fees will “be held accountable”.


The sector is undergoing a major transformation. From primary to higher education, the government is taking the rights steps and, more importantly, investing in getting the sector moving in the right direction. Education in PNG will always be a challenge and the country faces an uphill battle in trying to regain lost ground in terms of enrolment and literacy, but it seems the government is committed to making positive changes. If the government can realise and properly manage its goals, the benchmarks are sure to improve and the country could enter a virtuous circle of gains, whereby better outcomes encourage more effort on the part of the government, parents and students, leading to continued improvements in performance.


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The Report: Papua New Guinea 2014

Health & Education chapter from The Report: Papua New Guinea 2014

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