Exiled v-c fights to return to Papua New Guinea

Students protest in support of Dutch-born university head Albert Schram, expelled by the government in 2013

March 27, 2014

Picture source: Ronnie Noan

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. “The only solution is that universities run up their debt and that’s what’s been happening,” he adds.

‘Right noises’, but no funding

Students in tribal costumes

Last July, the media reported that David Arore, then minister for higher education, research, science and technology, had pledged an extra $222 million in funding for the country’s university sector.

“The policies are good on paper and the ministers make the right noises in Parliament,” Schram says. But since the announcement, nothing has materialised, he claims.

“My criticism [of the government] is that they are breaking the promises they made to invest in infrastructure. All the vice-chancellors complain about that. Our core grant is way too low,” Schram adds.

Times Higher Education tried to contact the Office of Higher Education in Papua New Guinea for comment, but did not receive a response.

To be fair to the country’s government, Unitech is operating in a desperately poor country where four out of 10 children do not even attend primary school, according to the United Nations’ Human Development Index.

A mere 6.8 per cent of women above the age of 25 have at least a secondary level of education. For men, the proportion – 14.1 per cent – is higher, but hardly encouraging.

But as if all these challenges were not enough, in February last year, Schram says, events took a baffling twist for him.

Returning from Singapore on business, Schram was stopped at the airport in Papua New Guinea and told he would not be allowed into the country. A call to the prime minister’s office by an immigration official confirmed he was barred from entry, Schram says.

He was promptly deported to Brisbane. In March, he attempted to return again, and was again deported. In April, although he did manage to return briefly for a graduation ceremony, his visa was cancelled, and an application for a new one has so far been unsuccessful.

‘Fraud exposure’ said to be a factor

Schram says he has been given no official reason for his expulsion. However, he suspects that an investigation he carried out into Unitech’s infrastructure spending, which according to him “exposed fraud”, is connected to his deportation.

It has not been possible to verify Schram’s account, as the ministry did not answer THE’s questions.

Since then, there has been a struggle within Papua New Guinea over whether Schram should be allowed to return.

After his initial deportation, an investigation was launched by the university into accusations that Schram had falsified details on his CV. The vice-chancellor claims that the investigation found no evidence for the “silly and baseless” accusations.

Arore, who was charged with bribery and graft in March 2013, according to reports in The Australian, seems to have been a particular nemesis for Schram.

In a television interview broadcast last December, Arore directed the university to remove Schram from its payroll. (Schram confirms that he has continued to receive his salary throughout his exile, and he is still listed on the university’s website as vice-chancellor.)

Arore also said that Schram “has become a threat to the national security of this country…because of his presence in this country students are revolting”.

However, Schram has not been present in the country since April 2013, and a number of protests by Unitech students have been in favour of his reinstatement, not against it.

According to the university’s current chancellor, Sir Nagora Bogan, there was a “stand-off” between Schram and the former Unitech council.

This hostile council has now been replaced by the government to “help bring stability and restore governance and prudential controls”, says Bogan. The new council wants to ensure that Schram returns to the university, he tells THE.

Chances of return increased

With Arore no longer in charge of higher education, and the appointment this month of Delilah Gore as his replacement, Schram initially believed that his chances of return had increased.

However, on 13 March, after a number of pro-Schram protests by Unitech students over the previous month, Gore released a statement calling for students to return to their classes. If they did not, she said, a state of emergency would be declared on campus and the 2014 academic year would be cancelled.

After the resolution of legal proceedings around the Schram controversy, she said, the position of vice-chancellor at Unitech would be readvertised and open to all applicants, “including Albert Schram”.

But given that the university council still holds Schram to be the vice-chancellor, this announcement “flies in the face” of respect for “due process and the law”, Schram says.

If he does return, Schram believes that there are a number of reforms the government needs to make urgently, such as stopping “political interference and cronyism” in universities and “barring fly-by-night private universities” from entering the system.

“This is not hard to do: it requires adequate university management, and the political will of the government to carry out its agreed and published higher education policies,” he told Unitech students in an address at the beginning of the academic year in January.

But, in a telling illustration of the dysfunction of the country’s higher education system as clear as any of his arguments, Unitech’s vice-chancellor was obliged to address his students via YouTube from Australia, his exile still not at an end.


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