Ousted university reformer Albert Schram says that he may never return to Papua New Guinea after being allowed to leave the country on bail.
Dr Schram has accused police in the country of a “shakedown” after they pursued “ridiculous” accusations that he had falsified his doctorate to secure the position of vice-chancellor of the Papua New Guinea University of Technology, in the country’s second city of Lae.
In a blog penned from Singapore, en route to Europe, Dr Schram says that his ordeal should serve as a warning to people visiting the country, which is this year hosting the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.
“In a time when Papua New Guinea is looking to attract more tourists and host numerous delegations for APEC meetings, this case is hugely damaging for the country,” he says. “What happened to me can happen to anyone, and it can easily become a shakedown scam for police without scruples.”
Under Dr Schram’s leadership, the university – known as Unitech – last year achieved what it described as the first “clean” auditor general’s report into its accounts in more than two decades. “[We] became one of the handful of state agencies with this distinction,” he blogs.
“This has been my commitment to the Unitech community from the outset.”
A Dutch-born environmental economist, Dr Schram joined Unitech in 2012 but was dismissed and deported in 2013 after falling foul of the university’s governing council. While he was never given official reasons for his treatment, he suspected that it stemmed from his uncovering of fraudulent infrastructure spending.
He returned the following year, with a new university council in place, after staff and students protested and retired judge Mark Sevua found that his employment had been wrongfully terminated.
But attempts to dismiss him became “an almost yearly exercise”, twice premised on the demonstrably false claims that he had forged his PhD.
Australian National University researcher Grant Walton, a specialist in Papua New Guinea corruption, said that the country’s universities were “very political places”. He said that academics and administrative staff sometimes lost their jobs because of internal politics, with courts and investigators increasingly co-opted into these battles.
Dr Walton said that the volatile environment was exacerbating problems in the country’s universities, where academic standards had been slipping for decades and resourcing was challenged by the government’s “tight fiscal position”.
He said that Dr Schram had become the target of a “personal vendetta” after making inroads against these issues. “It sends a signal that if you come in and try to address some of the institutionalised problems, if you step on the wrong toes you will be ousted,” he said.
“A number of academics have come out and said publicly that they are concerned about the types of message that gives – people working there are worried that if they inadvertently annoy somebody, it’s going to be taken to court. They could easily have their passport taken and have to defend themselves against charges that just don’t seem to stack up.”
Dr Schram said that he had decided to give up when the university council again sought his dismissal this year. But police seized his passport in early May when he returned to the country on a tourist visa.
He said that the police had acted illegally in holding on to his passport for a week before they charged him. They had then ignored due process and the presumption of innocence by insisting that he produce his original PhD – overlooking third-party confirmations of its authenticity – and requiring him to fetch the document from the issuing university in Italy.
Last week, he was granted permission to leave the country on surety of 8,000 kina (£1,800) on top of the 2,000 kina bail paid earlier this month. He is required to return by 12 June.
Dr Schram said that the case would inevitably be thrown out. “There will probably be no reason for me to return to the country, if I send the legalised documents and the case proceeds without further diversions.”
Jelta Wong, Papua New Guinea’s police minister, said that he was awaiting the police report on this issue.