Expected to benefit dramatically from rapidly rising government revenues, the education sector is experiencing a number of new developments as the state works to improve enrolment rates and the quality of instruction at the country’s schools and universities. Indeed, education is a cornerstone of Vision 2050, Papua New Guinea’s overarching long-term economic development plan. Over the coming decade the state aims to improve access to public education for the large rural population, upgrade education infrastructure throughout the country and invest heavily in higher education, among other things.

BUMPY ROAD AHEAD: The government faces a number of challenges in upgrading the education system. The quality of education in public schools and universities has dropped significantly in the past three decades, due largely to declining funding and a dearth of welltrained teachers. Basic education enrolment and completion rates remain low by international standards. Literacy rates, meanwhile, have dropped substantially over the past two decades, from around 52% in the early 1990s to an estimated 15-25% in 2011, according to a recent survey by the PNG Education Advocacy Network (PEAN), a local non-governmental organisation (NGO). PNG’s higher education facilities have suffered from falling finances in recent years as well. According to a May 2010 report on the tertiary segment, state spending on public universities has dropped to around 7% of what it was at independence in 1975.

Despite the challenges, many are optimistic. PNG posted GDP growth of nearly 9% in 2011 and the country is expected to benefit from a jump in revenues from 2014, when ExxonMobil’s PNG liquefied natural gas (LNG) project begins production. A high percentage of this new income is expected to be put towards the government’s education development initiatives, already begun. In 2009 the government announced that public school students in grades 1-10 would no longer be required to pay school fees, which have been seen as a major deterrent to enrolment rates in recent years.

A UNIQUE HISTORY: Prior to independence in 1975, PNG’s formal education sector was largely undeveloped. In the decade leading up to self-governance, PNG’s nascent government worked closely with Australian advisors to set up a higher education system and formalise national basic and secondary education programmes. The University of PNG (UPNG) and the PNG University of Technology (Unitech) in Lae developed rapidly beginning in the 1960s. Students from UPNG’s first graduating class of 1970 became leaders in the new government. Given their rapid development at the time, UPNG and Unitech were widely viewed as a promising signal of the young nation’s priorities. According to Ross Garnaut, an Australian university professor that co-authored the May 2010 “PNG Universities Review” report, the creation of a higher education segment in PNG in the 1960s was the result of “a compressed programme”. UPNG in particular, according to Garnaut, “was a very richly resourced university. Very expensive, but very productive.” In the decades since they were founded, PNG’s universities (and many other educational institutions) have suffered from dwindling resources as a result of years of underinvestment. “There is no such thing as free education,” Ross A Hynes, the vicechancellor of UPNG, told OBG. “Somebody has to pay.”

Until the mid-1970s basic education in PNG consisted of the colonial administration education system and a far-reaching network of independent church-operated schools and community networks. In the early 1970s the government launched the country’s first national basic education system. By 1973, when PNG became self-governing, the system boasted total enrolment of around 254,000 students.

ORGANISATION & REGULATION: The Department of Education (DoE) oversees the operation of all elementary, primary and secondary schools in the country, in addition to a handful of technical colleges and other educational institutions, like the Kokoda Track Foundation, which offers education, health and community service programmes. The Office of Higher Education (OHE), established by the Higher Education Act in 1983, oversees the university system. As of mid-May 2012 the OHE had licensed six universities and two training institutes.

The sector also benefits from the involvement of a handful of NGOs and major multinational aid organisations. PEAN, which was formed in 2003, is a nationwide coalition of civil society groups with a mandate to provide and act on evidence-based education research in PNG. The group primarily comprises religious organisations, including the Adventist Development and Relief Agency and the PNG Bible Translation Association, in addition to the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), the PNG Teachers Association and the PNG Trust. Religious groups are very active throughout the sector; according to PNG’s Vision 2050 document, church-operated schools account for up to 40% of total schools in PNG. Other organisations involved in education include AusAID, the Australian government’s foreign aid agency, UNICEF, UNESCO and the World Bank. AusAID supports a wide array of government and private sector education projects under the PNG-Australia Partnership for Development.

BY THE NUMBERS: One of the primary challenges facing the education sector is a lack of reliable, up-to-date statistics. “Until recently we have not released many statistics,” said James Agigo, the head of policy, planning and research at the DoE. “However, we are planning to begin publishing indicators on a more regular basis before the end of 2012, largely in response to requests from international aid groups.”

According AusAID estimates, in 2009 63% of the school-aged population (ages 6-18) in PNG were enrolled in public education institutions, up from 52% in 2007. In 2009 56% of enrolled students completed grade eight, up from 45% in 2007. According to estimates from the DoE, 59% of the country’s school-aged population was enrolled in a formal education programme in 2009, and the DoE expects this number to rise substantially in the coming years as a result of the recent cancellation of school fees. “We hope to achieve an enrolment rate of 100% by 2014,” said Agigo. The DoE estimates that the retention rate in the public education system reached 76% in 2010, up from only 56% in 2003. According to the Vision 2050 long-term planning document, which was released in September 2009, over 50% of students drop out of school by the end of grade eight, and around 70% leave by grade 11. Around 12,000 students graduate from grade 12 each year, according to the planning document.

The DoE operates three technical colleges, three business colleges and one polytechnic institute. In recent years some 800 students have enrolled in these institutions on an annual basis, which is equal to only around 7% of total secondary school graduates, according to data from the Vision 2050 plan. In total, around 2500 students are enrolled in the colleges and polytechnic institute, which represents just 13% of total tertiary enrolment. The government plans to boost enrolment at existing programmes in the coming years and build new technical and business colleges. Current enrolment at PNG’s six universities is about 10,000, according to the Vision 2050 document; roughly 2000 students graduate from university annually. In line with Vision 2050, the government aims to boost university enrolment and graduation rates by 50% by 2020.

SPREADING THE WORD: A high portion of PNG’s population is illiterate. In September 2011 PEAN released results of a recent study showing literacy rates among citizens aged 15-60 in four provinces – the National Capital District, 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 general, women perform less well than their male counterparts in most areas of educational achievement, and this frustrates social advancement. According to Vision 2050, female students make up approximately 40% of the combined gross enrolment rates at all levels of the public education system, but women make up only 30% of the country’s total workforce. Addressing gender disparity throughout the education system is now a key area of focus (see analysis).

BASIC EDUCATION: PNG’s basic education system includes elementary schooling (ages 6-9) and primary schooling (ages 9-15). The government does not currently operate pre-elementary education, though UNICEF oversees a network of community-supported early-childhood care and development centres throughout the country. According to the most recent comprehensive collection of data published by the DoE, in 2008 PNG was home to 5908 elementary schools and 3549 primary schools. Total enrolment at the elementary and primary levels reached 1.14m students for the year. The DoE maintains special education resource centres in 21 provinces and is working to expand support for disabled students throughout the public school system. “The centres currently cater to fewer than 10,000 students with disabilities,” said Jennifer Tamarua, the superintendent of inclusive education at the DoE. “We are in the process of expanding the special education system in an effort to reach more people.”

After grade 10, students can continue their education at a number of secondary institutions, including basic provincial secondary schools, national high schools or vocational education centres. In 2008 PNG had 208 provincial secondary schools with 94,192 students; 99 vocational centres with 19,661 enrolled; and just six national high schools, with total enrolment of 2764. In general, the national high school system attracts the top students and prepares them for further training, either in PNG’s higher education system or abroad. According to the “PNG Universities Review”, the national high school system is currently “badly run down”, and would benefit from increased investment.

The DoE also oversees the Flexible, Open and Distance Education (FODE) initiative for school-aged citizens that cannot commute to a public school, which includes a substantial percentage of the rural population. The FODE programme has correspondence-based equivalency courses for grades 6-12 and a number of technical and vocational courses (see analysis).

In addition to the public education system, in 2008 PNG had 16 private primary schools and two private secondary schools, with a total enrolment of 5925 students. The private system primarily consists of religious schools, which are widely viewed as higher quality than public institutions. “Catholic schools offer better programmes than most public schools,” said Lyn Bae, an education officer with UNICEF in PNG. “They do great work in many remote areas in the country.”

HIGHER EDUCATION: In addition to UPNG and Unitech, PNG is home to two other public universities (the University of Goroka and the University of Natural Resources and Environment) and two private religious institutions (Pacific Adventist University and Divine Word University). However, declining funding levels have left PNG’s public universities lacking in many areas compared to international standards. According to the “PNG Universities Review”, a pass degree from a public PNG-based university is equivalent to an associate’s degree from an Australian university. The government has drafted a rehabilitation plan in response to the review, and it is expected to be funded primarily by the Australian government, which has a long history of supporting education initiatives in PNG. The review calls for Australia to commit up to $29.3m annually to the project.

The DoE operates the National Polytechnic Institute (NPI) and six technical and business colleges. These vocational institutions are to see more funding in the coming years as demand for highly skilled workers grows. “All of our graduates find good jobs quickly,” said Jayasundara Banda, the assistant secretary of technical vocational education and training at the DoE. “We are planning to expand our programmes in the coming years in order to keep up with growing demand.”

DEVELOPMENT PLANS: The government is working to implement a series of education reforms under the umbrella of Vision 2050. The first pillar (of seven in total) is devoted to improving human capital development, including education. Long-term plans involve a number of ambitious goals, including boosting the national literacy rate among citizens over 15 years of age to 100%; expanding the public school system at all levels; establishing a national curriculum, assessment and monitoring authority to ensure high standards; improving the teacher-student ratio to 1:30; increasing the use of information and communications technology (ICT) in the education system; and developing public-private partnerships with leading international organisations in an effort to boost local expertise, among others.

The long-term education targets described in Vision 2050 will be implemented via a series of shorter-term national education initiatives. The second National Education Plan (NEP), which was launched in 2005 and runs through 2014, picked up where the first NEP ( 1995-2004) left off, with a focus on improving infrastructure and increasing enrolment rates. In general, the NEPs have not resulted in much improvement on the ground, largely as a result of a lack of funding and oversight. With this in mind, in December 2009 the government launched the Universal Basic Education Plan (UBEP), a blueprint for education development for the period 2010-19. Under the UBEP – which is supported by UNICEF – the state plans to increase enrolment and retention rates throughout the country, with the longterm goal of ensuring that all school-aged children complete at least nine years of basic education.

SCHOLARLY PURSUITS: At the university level, the government is working to implement a series of reforms laid out in the “PNG Universities Review”. According to the review, “the quantity and quality of graduates [from PNG’s universities] is far short of what is needed – due to inadequate resources and a range of governance and general service quality issues.” The review includes a variety of broad recommendations for reforming the higher education segment, including boosting funding on a steadily increasing basis over the next 10 years in an effort to slowly rehabilitate the university system; reforming and expanding PNG’s national high schools to improve the calibre of students applying to higher education institutions; reorganising the OHE; boosting funding and training opportunities for staff; and investing heavily in ICT, research and quality control, among other areas. The report also recommends turning the University of Goroka, located in PNG’s highlands, into a second UPNG campus; and folding the University of Natural Resources and Environment into Unitech.

The state has already made forward progress on a handful of these ambitious goals. Most recently, in early 2009 the government announced a plan to completely abolish school fees for students enrolled in grades 1-10 and to heavily subsidise fees (up to 75%) for students in grades 11-12. “Fees have been a major factor in impeding access to education,” said Agigo. Prior to the implementation of the plan, families were required to pay an annual fee of around PGK100 ($47.60) for primary school and up to PGK1000 ($476) for later years. “The new plan has already had a noticeable impact on enrolment and retention rates,” Agigo said. Indeed, according to Agigo’s estimates, retention rates throughout the public education system increased to 76% in 2010, up from 56% in 2003. According to some projections the rate could hit 90% by the end of 2012.

CHALLENGES: While the government’s ambitious, farreaching development plans for the sector look good on paper, carrying them out within budget and on schedule will require steadfast commitment at all levels of government. The question of funding remains a serious issue, for example. While government revenues are expected to jump substantially in the coming years as a result of the LNG project, the state has yet to put in place a detailed, comprehensive spending plan for the coming decade. Education is expected to be a major beneficiary of state spending for years to come, but the specifics of higher budgets have yet to be hashed out.

To boost both the quality and scope of the education system, the government plans to invest heavily in teaching staff. PNG faces a substantial shortage of qualified teachers. “Around 30% of the teachers in PNG are completely untrained,” Banda told OBG. According to the most recent statistics from the DoE, in 2008 there were nine teachers colleges in PNG, with a total enrolment of 4927 students. Improving upon and expanding teacher education is a key part of the Vision 2050 and UBEP initiatives. The government has already made progress in this area. “In 2011 there were 46,000 teachers working in PNG,” said Agigo. “This is a big jump on 2003, when we had just 21,000 teachers.” According to Agigo, the DoE plans to add another 1000 teachers to the national workforce before the end of 2012.

OUTLOOK: Provided the government follows through with its ambitious development plans, the education sector in PNG looks set to improve. While schools and universities face a number of challenges in the coming years, an apparent commitment at the DoE and other players to bringing about long-term, sustainable change bodes well for progress. The sector is expected to benefit from greater government expenditure. In addition to rapidly rising revenues from large-scale energy projects, the country’s educators will benefit from the support – both financial and otherwise – of a wide variety of national governments (including Australia, New Zealand and China, among others), regional education groups and international NGOs. With these varied resources in mind, and taking into account the state’s recent progress on school fees, teacher training and development planning, the education sector should continue to improve for the foreseeable future.