Saturday, November 10, 2012

How PNG's education system can learn from the US experience

“Reform,” “Improved Performance,” “Addressing Weaknesses” -- all are terms common to recent discussions of business enterprises in Papua New Guinea, but they may as well also pertain to education. In her post below, VALERIE HARRIS addresses ways in which the Papua New Guinea government and education ministers may be able to use the U.S. example of higher education, the good and the bad, in order to build a system that is stronger than ever before. Ms. Harris is an education expert who writes predominantly for, a site for students considering graduate work over the Internet. As more students in US get masters degrees, PNG should look to learn from that system’s successes and failures in education

Education experts have praised recent increases in higher education enrollment at American schools. However, many have also noted that a large number of college graduates are finding work in employment sectors other than the one in which they studied -- if they are finding work at all.
According to a recent report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 40 percent of American adults between the ages of 25 and 64 had at least a bachelor’s degree. In international terms, this places the U.S. fourth in post-secondary degree attainment after Canada (48 percent), Japan and New Zealand (both 41 percent). However, the Council of Graduate Schools recently released a report indicating that first-time enrollments in master’s programs dropped 2 percent between 2010 and 2011. 

New female enrollees fell 2 percent in that time, while male enrollees dipped 2 percent. Despite increases in areas like Ph.D. enrollment and the number of international students enrolled in graduate programs, CGS President Debra W. Stewart told Chronicle that current trends should be seen as negative. “It's a matter of serious concern that we are losing enrollment almost across the board for U.S. students," she said. "It's time we reaffirm our commitment to graduate education and avoid accelerating these trends.”

Other troubling statistics reflect uneven job prospects for newly graduated students. USA Today contributor Chuck Raasch wrote in June 2012 that the unemployment for college graduates over the age of 25 sits at 9.4 percent, while 19.1 percent are forced to accept positions for which they are overqualified. The article noted that 35 percent of students held jobs that were completely unrelated or only somewhat related to their major field of study; in comparison, 39 percent had jobs that were closely related to their collegiate studies.

As American colleges and universities seek to increase enrollments and enable graduates to find work after earning their degrees, developing nations are carefully following results in the U.S. in order to implement successful educational reforms of their own. Papua New Guinea, a nation that has initiated widespread educational reform since 1993, is one of these. Provisions of the initial reform (1993-2004) included: 460,000 children enrolled at elementary schools; 14,000 teachers employed at elementary schools; equal educational access for male and female students; 100 percent transition from elementary to primary school; and access to at least nine years of basic education for all students.

Papua New Guinea has experimented with various means of financing educational opportunities. In the 1980s, the national government instituted a “free” education policy that relieved parents of paying school fees by transferring the burden to provincial governments. However, provincial leaders complained about the huge costs they were now forced to shoulder. In 1982, free schooling was replaced with a more comprehensive policy that allowed schools to charge student fees, but exempted low-income families from paying them and created a subsidy program for poor children at all educational levels. But this program was largely ineffective, primarily due to mismanagement of the subsidies at the district level. A ministerial report stated that the curriculum, basic educational materials, physical conditions of schools and teacher morale all suffered under the so-called “reforms.” In 1992, a “user pay policy” replaced the pre-existing subsidy program, but schools complained that the original problem had resurfaced: families could not pay the school fees, and students were forced to drop out.

The subsidy program was reintroduced in 1996, and has remained in place ever since. Numerous logistical issues have been reported as a result of these subsidies, particularly in rural communities where acquisition of even basic school supplies require air travel and many schools do not so much as have bank accounts. In addition, many schools have only remained open due to parent support in lieu of cashable subsidies. In 2012, Pacific Islands Report noted that more than 6,000 children at 42 schools in the country’s remote Ambunti-Dreikikir District were forced to abandon their classes when the subsidies failed to reach them. And despite the series of reforms, the state of education in Papua New Guinea has remained relatively poor. According to Nationmaster, the country’s government spends a paltry 2.3 percent of its GDP on education, a figure that ranks 120th out of the world’s 132 independent nations. In addition, only 21.1 percent of all students are enrolled in secondary education, the average student only completes 6.1 years of the compulsory nine years of education, and the average classroom serves more than 35 students.

Rather than awarding subsidies at the district level, Papua New Guinea could improve enrollments and retention rates by offering scholarships for low-income students similar to Pell Grants and other federal financial aid offered in the United States. Similar programs could be also implemented for high school students who wish to attend college, but are unable to afford the tuition costs. Scholarships from private donors and non-profit organizations, monetary awards for schools with a positive educational track record and a nationwide emphasis on the value of education – all measures that have proven successful in the U.S. – could also be applied in Papua New Guinea.

By studying the successes and failures of American education, Papua New Guinea could greatly benefit thousands of children who, like many students in the U.S., dream of completing their education and earning a college degree. Today, countries throughout the developing world are urged to closely watch American educators in order to determine what to do – and what not to do – in terms of educating young people.

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