National universities – approach with caution

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.

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.