Life is a journey of learning

Blog of the Former Vice-Chancellor of the Papua New Guinea University of Technology

Regrettably, this is a story with only very few heroes: the alumni who never betrayed their university, and those graduates, who were taken in by international companies which offer excellent training opportunities, and those we helped to get scholarship abroad.

In my office, we were always ready to provide a letter of recommendation, after checking a student’s disciplinary and academic records. We also made special arrangements with universities in Australia and India for recent graduates students to receive scholarships to do their Masters and PhD. In the past, these were exclusively given to senior Faculty, who consequently would receive their PhD in their late 40s, which is of little use if you want to build up an academic department.

Addressing the Employability Gap

My early conversations in 2012 with prominent UNITECH alumni such as Don Polye (former Minister of Higher Education and Treasurer), Peter Loco (former PNG power CEO) and Ernie Gangloff (first PNG member of major accounting firm), made it quite clear that UNITECH graduates “only looked good on paper”. Don Polye even put professional, international accreditation for UNITECH into his party’s political program. From the outset, these men made an effort to meet me, even when I was in exile, talk with me, convince me, and treated me with the respect my role deserved, looking beyond my personal limitations, or looks. They also engaged directly with the students and staff, supporting the message that UNITECH needed a fundamental overhaul and transformation.

They told me incredible stories. UNITECH graduates would present themselves at job interviews with an impressive list of subjects and grades, but often when queried were unable to answer the simplest questions. Moreover, they had no idea about feasible career paths, and tended to exhibit a huge sense of entitlement and overestimation of their own capacities and value added. After all, the competences of somebody with a mere Bachelor degree are barely sufficient to exercise any profession independently, and nowadays a Masters degree is required.

The impression of insufficient competences of UNITECH graduates was confirmed by conversations with board members or people with access to the boards of, for example, Newcrest – an Australian mining company with 2 operating mines in PNG -, and ExxonMobil, which operates the country’s only LNG project. As is my habit, I reported in detail about the content of all of my  meetings to all members of the management team, and the Registrar as secretary of Council. I thought they understood the potential for obtaining major support from both PNG enterprises, as well as foreign companies. Now I wonder if they ever read my reports, although certainly they did not understand them.

It was sad for me to hear from both these companies Newcrest and ExxonMobil, that often they preferred to hire people straight from high school or directly from the village, rather than UNITECH graduates, who often suffered from an inflated sense of self, and exhibited attitudinal issues. Local entrepreneurs were less diplomatic. One of them asked me publicly: “Vice Chancellor, why is it that your graduates are unable to do anything?” I was so happy to hear these comments, because if you can name the core of the problem you can find the solution. It was clear to me, however, that I had to widen this conversations and in 2015 and 2017 I managed to hold monthly industry breakfasts with UNITECH departmental industrial training coordinators attending.

All these meaningful conversations cannot be held over the phone or skype, and involve building a degree of trust. Alumni are a University’s strongest assets, and their support has been essential for everything we did. When possible they took place in Lae, but at times we had to travel to Cairns, Sydney or Melbourne. Whenever I had meetings outside Lae, I would file a full mission report with the Registrar within 2 weeks after my return. In fact this was one of the conditions for being reimbursed. I tried to impose this discipline on my colleagues, without much success however.

The Deputy Vice Chancellor Ora Renagi was in charge of organizing the alumni with the PR office. In 4 years, he did not manage to set up the association or organize a single event. Only when I had left, did he make an attempt, which however largely failed.

Later, I was criticized for travelling too much, and the Registrar even implied I made things up. In fact 70 out of 254 work days, about 30% which is normal for a Vice Chancellor and little considering that Lae is a remote location. What is more astounding is that Council and government members are so gullible that they believe self-serving lies from envious and selfish senior staff and management.

In 2012, for the first time in years, we had been able to hold the annual Career Fair and Open Day on campus, which are important events to allow recruiters to talk with students, and to increase engagement of the students. In 2013, when I was in forced exile, these events had been discontinued, but upon my return we started them again, and I started to make them more meaningful and effective.

In particular, the ongoing conversations with ExxonMobil were promising, with Newcrest focusing more on the Lae National Polytechnic, setting up a process of academic improvement in which we took active part. From the outset, it was made clear to us that if we implemented true academic improvements leading to professional accreditation of our programs, and got our finances in order, ExxonMobil could go a long way in supporting UNITECH. In fact, until in 2017 we obtained an unqualified audit of our accounts from the Auditor General’s office, they supported the University mostly in kind, by giving a large GenSet to deal with the persistent power problems, a large server, countless computers and laptops, laboratory equipment etc. I was very grateful for this support.

Most importantly concerning the employability of graduates, we were able to set up the “Industrial Advisory Board” (IAB) with participation of all major foreign and national industries. This was part of the accreditation process for the engineering programs as per the Washington Accords. I was also able to ensure the advice and cooperation of the experienced Dean of Engineering of James Cook University at the time, who is an old friend of mine from my days at the University of Utrecht.

International professional accreditation is the key process driving the transformation of UNITECH and the delivery of a modern, competence focused curriculum. Today, it is simply not good enough when the Vice Chancellor prounces around saying his University’s programs are “world class”. International accreditation assures that an independent body visits the university, interviews all stakeholders, including students, and assesses the progams against international standards. It is distinct from “provisional accreditation” which is based on a promise by the University to do better.

Though I continued to monitor progress, I delegated this responsibility for professional accreditations to Dr. Augustine Moshi, the Pro Vice Chancellor Academic. In 2017, however, the members of the IAB made me aware there was insufficient progress, and therefore suggested I intervene. Dr. Moshi had made a hash of things, and believed that sending polite emails to the departments would actually change things on the ground. After complaints by several IAB members about Dr. Moshi lack of commitment and execution skills, I established some hard deadlines at the IAB meeting, but regrettably before those dates were reached, I had already been pushed out. The best chance to achieve even professional accreditation of one or more engineering programs had thus been lost.

In this members of my management team resembled the incompetent generals of the First World War, who send communications from a safe place dozens of miles behind the trenches, never understanding what was really going on. I tried to make them more aware by instituting a ‘walk around’ schedule for them, but this did not change their mindsets. When our executive team coach pointed out after 2 years that the members of my management team had not achieved a single of the objectives they set for themselves in their key performance areas, I should have replaced them with capable people. Regrettably it was too late, and they had already set up a whisper campaign against me with the Chancellor and Council members in a blatant attempt to mask their own incompetence.

In order to achieve the overall transformation of the University, a strong focus on the reform of the University Council and restructuring of the university’s personnel, as well as on outcomes of academic improvement programs had to be kept. As to this first goal, I must admit with hindsight that we failed. The main reason was that the members of the management team and senior staff, who said they were committed to this transformation, found it too foreign to their beliefs, and too hard and so simply gave up. You cannot drive the transformation of a University into a modern, rule-based organization, if you cling to an mediocrity mindset based on “this is how we do things around here”.

As to the latter, many academic improvements were effectively implemented, although today the focus has shifted again, and the interests of the administrative staff and Faculty members again prevails upon those of the students. The University Council in 2017 instead of asking for accountability, chose the side of mediocrity and the status quo.

Chancellor Kekedo’s Mediocrity Mindset

The current Chancellor, Jean Kekedo, is the main exponent of the mediocrity mindset, and well known for her ignorance, bias, and spite. She always portrays herself as a victim, and complains how she is being treated.

She has been in cahoots with Ralph Saule, the former disgraced Pro Chancellor, who was the one who paid the police offers to harass me, and even sent his bodyguards waving their guns after my vehicle in Port Moresby. Even after all false allegations were thrown out by the courts for lack of evidence, she has refused to apologize or eliminate all the baseless accusations as published on the internet. A real class act.

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