Magazine article Times Higher Education

Unwillingly Exiled, a Vice-Chancellor Fights to Get Back to Work

Magazine article Times Higher Education

Unwillingly Exiled, a Vice-Chancellor Fights to Get Back to Work

Article excerpt

David Matthews speaks to the Dutch head of a Papua New Guinean university deported last year

Albert Schram is a university leader in exile. He is the vice-chancellor of Papua New Guinea University of Technology (Unitech), but in February 2013 he was deported and has been forced to live in Australia ever since.

Schram has even been declared a "threat to national security" by the country's former higher education minister.

His bizarre tale sheds an extraordinary light on the parlous state of higher education in Papua New Guinea, where, according to Schram, tribal fights erupt on campus, support staff live in slums and scholars are cut off from the wider scholarly community and current research.

But Schram is hopeful that he will return and believes that a series of simple reforms could help to improve the nation's universities, many of which could be carried out without requiring additional funding from the impoverished Pacific country.

Before taking up the vice-chancellor's post in February 2012, Dutch-born Schram worked in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean in sustainable development policy and environmental economics.

When he arrived at Unitech, which is located near Lae in Morobe province and is one of the country's two major state universities, he was faced with an almost insurmountable set of challenges.

The year before Schram arrived, he says, there had been a "huge fight" between two groups of students, who were divided along tribal lines, in which one student died.

In 2012, with tensions once again mounting between the rival tribes, he was told by one of the group's student leaders: "I can't hold my boys any more." According to Schram, campus security officers had to fire their guns into the air to stop another all-out battle.

Fortunately, the leaders of the two tribal groups were able to resolve their differences through dialogue, and the gangs formalised this with a "beautiful" traditional reconciliation dance, he recounts.

Malaria is endemic on campus, Schram explains, although students "seldom" die. When he became vice-chancellor, he instituted monthly sprayings of the site with insecticide to combat the disease. Tuberculosis is also a serious "threat" at the university, he adds.

The university typically experiences 10 to 15 power cuts a day, which plays "havoc" with servers required for internet access, and thus "we don't have reliable broadband on campus", he says. Instead, the university has to resort to a satellite connection to access the web.

"It's really terrible," Schram says, adding with irony that Papua New Guinea is "one of the countries where you're sufficiently 'protected' from the internet".

Partly for this reason, Unitech academics - 5 to 10 per cent of whom are from outside Papua New Guinea - have little access to work already done in their fields, and therefore must conduct "original" research. However, in such a situation, "you risk inventing the wheel many times over", Schram observes.

But even these pursuits can be luxuries for scholars. In Papua New Guinea, Schram says, "universities are understaffed, the teaching loads are high, so there's no time for research".

Salaries for academics are far from competitive, he notes, limiting Unitech's ability to attract even local scholars.

The university's academics are at least lucky enough to have proper housing provided for them by the university. Support staff, however, are paid about $500 (£300) a month, Schram says, and have to live in what he calls "dangerous and unlicensed" slums.

Officially, the government should grant the university about $15,000 a year to educate each student, according to Schram. (About 1,000 science and engineering students graduate from Unitech annually.)

But in reality only about half of this per-student funding is actually received. …

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