Update on the Pacific Update

This item was first published in the Vanuatu Daily Post on June 30th, 2017.

Last week I joined a whole bunch of people at the USP campus in Suva for the annual ‘Pacific Update’.

It is a conference that is convened by USP, the Asian Development Bank and the Development Policy Centre at the Australian National University (full disclosure: I am a Visiting Fellow to the Development Policy Centre but have no role in organising the Pacific Update).

Up until a few years ago it was held in Canberra but for the last few times it has been held in Suva. 

This makes it a much better conference for a number of reasons. One of the main ones is that no-one from the Pacific wants to go to Canberra in June. But, more importantly, it means that the content is much more home grown in nature, with presentations from academics, policy makers, people working in regional organisations, and members of civil society.

Another big improvement to the Pacific Update is that it has become much more focused on policy (development and implementation) in recent years.

This gives it a much wider appeal than previously when its focus was on updates about Pacific island economies.

So, for this year the conference used 3 themes to guide the selection of papers and the composition of panels.

They were: enhancing connectivity (e.g. regional cooperation, trade, infrastructure and ICT), blue-green economy (including but not limited to climate change and disaster resilience), and labour mobility, job creation, and labour market developments.

Vanuatu was very well represented at the conference last week. Anna Naupa presented with her colleague Devika Raj of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat on work that is ongoing looking at how regional financing can be made more effective.

Linda Kenni was part of a group that shared the findings of research they are doing about localisation of disaster response in the Pacific.

Fremden Yanhambath responded to the call for papers and presented on the work done by TVET to reform the way skills based training is delivered in Vanuatu. A conference like this provides a great opportunity for people to come together and share ideas.

It creates a space where people who work in government can find out more about what academics are researching and how that might be useful to them. Private sector participants have an opportunity to put forward their concerns and interests to add to the knowledge and understanding of policy makers.

There are a couple of things that would improve this conference for the future.

The first is that now it has got out of Canberra it needs to not get stuck in Suva. Before the Pacific Update came along, ANU would convene country updates in the relevant countries, i.e. the Vanuatu Update was held in Vanuatu.

Both USP and the ADB have vested interests in increasing their visibility in Pacific island countries other than Fiji.

Making the Pacific Update more mobile is a great way of doing this.

I would recommend that the Pacific Update is convened in Suva every second year and that it should be held in a different country in the alternate years.

This will allow for a wider range of people to take part and ensure that the content does not become overly dominated by Fiji concerns.

It will also build a wider awareness of the Pacific Update in several countries.

This will hopefully lead to more people responding to the call for papers each year or following the conference via live stream if they are not able to attend in person.

The conference organisers continue to do a good job in ensuring that we hear from a wide range of presenters and that there is a good mix of academic and practice-based material.

And there is more that can be done to ensure that this diversity is increased each year.

The annual call for papers is a key tool for letting people know about the conference and inviting them to take part. This needs to be circulated more widely and more often.

There needs to be a particular focus on getting the call for papers into local media (including social media) in Pacific island countries.

There is also scope for providing pre-conference support for people who may have little or no experience

in presenting at conferences but who are keen to give it a go.

This could be a website that collects together good resources about how to prepare a presentation and a chat forum where people can ask questions about what to expect.

Conferences are not the only way of facilitating discussions about important policy concerns and they may not be the best.

But the Pacific Update is good at what it does and deserves continuing and increased support.


National universities – approach with caution

This item was first published in the Vanuatu Daily Post on May 5th, 2017

I was in a discussion with a colleague the other day in which mention was made of the Solomon Islands National University, usually called SINU (formerly the Solomon Islands College of Higher Education).

As always happens, I felt my heart sink. I am a great believer in university education. Some of the most actively engaged and most promising students I have taught are Solomon Islanders. But I cannot convince myself that SINU is the best way to provide educational opportunities for the best and brightest in Solomon Islands.

And the same goes for Vanuatu, where the topic of having a national university often comes up. Yes, our young people need opportunities to access tertiary education. But building a national university is not necessarily the answer.

I can understand where this thinking comes from. We have a young population and there are only so many scholarships available for study at overseas institutions. It’s more expensive to study overseas than if you can stay in your own country.

The University of the South Pacific has contributed to pressure for national universities. Although it is a regional university, the majority of its resources are in Fiji.

Twelve member countries own USP but one of them receives a much greater benefit than all of the others. In Vanuatu, we have Emalus Campus, which provides face to face and distance education. Compared to many other USP facilities in the region, ours is actually well served. But even a relatively brief visit to Laucala Campus in Suva should lead to questions being asked about why the resources in Fiji are so much better than those anywhere else in the region. After many years of negotiation, USP recently agreed to upgrade the University centre in Honiara to a campus.

This may have been partly a response to the establishment of SINU by the government of Solomon Islands. In which case it could well be too little, too late.

So, there is definitely more that USP can and should do to serve the whole of the region, which is its mandate. And there is scope for national governments (who are represented on the University’s council) to lobby for more and better services at national level in all of the member countries. A government’s ability to lobby effectively is increased when it is up to date with its financial contributions to the organisation, including payment of students’ fees. Sometimes this is not the case for all of the member countries of USP.

The key issue about university education is that it is (or should be) about quality, not quantity. The best and brightest students deserve and need access to an institution that delivers education to the highest possible standards.

Which makes universities very expensive things indeed. The bricks and mortar are only one small part of the equation. And the chances are that getting a building set up and putting a sign on it that says ‘University’ is possibly the easiest thing to achieve.

But that is only part of the picture. Lecture theatres need to be furnished, science laboratories need to be equipped, and libraries need books and subscriptions to journals. Technical services (electricity, water, air-conditioning, internet) are no longer optional and there needs to be a budget to pay for all of them.

And then you will need staff. A university is only as good as the academic staff it can attract and retain. And an academic programme needs good support staff to look after HR, procurement, payroll and so on. Good people with appropriate qualifications and experience expect (quite rightly) to be appropriately remunerated.

All of these require one thing. And that is a line (or possibly several lines) in the national budget. Not just this year, every year. And that means that governments need to generate the revenue to pay for all of these things. They may have to introduce or increase taxes. They will almost certainly have to charge fees. Is our society’s desire for educational opportunities for our children sufficiently strong that we are prepared to pay for it?

There is political mileage to be made of promising a national university so we should expect to hear more of it from our political leaders. When it comes up in discussion, there are some very important questions to be asked. We owe it to the future generations of our country to be prepared to ask them of ourselves and those who seek to represent us.

Photo credit: The British Mountaineering Council