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Private schools, the State and Religion: being fair to both sides. Fiji Sun, 28 February 2013.


Private schools, the State and Religion: being fair to both sides. Fiji Sun28 February 2013.

Professor Wadan Narsey

Fiji’s private education authorities (Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Chinese, Gujarati etc) are one of the great success stories of Fiji’s development, which Fiji needs to publicly acknowledge and celebrate.

We may be a Third World country economically, but our education system continues to ensure that our graduates can reasonably compete with the students of developed countries like Australia, NZ and US, on a fraction of their budgets.

In the last few years, however, there have been four controversies (three open and one hidden) which have badly affected the morale of our private education authorities.

The three open controversies have been over the “school zoning” effort by the Ministry of Education,  the imposition of uniform funding rules on schools, and the recent one regarding student’s participation in religious rituals.

The fourth and largely hidden controversy has been over the independence of private managing authorities to appoint school principals, deputies, Heads of Departments, and even teachers .

In all of these four controversies, there appear to be convincing arguments on both sides- great material for the TV series, Boston Legal.

Unfortunately, none of these four controversies have been resolved amicably and sensibly, as needs to happen, through rational transparent dialogue between the Ministry of Education and the private education authorities.

Instead, an emotional public have generated a lot of heat but little light, in Letters to the Editor and radio talk-back shows.

To put the opposing views into perspective, look at three important trends in Fiji’s education system.

The first is that the vast majority of students in Fiji are taught in schools managed by private education authorities, and seen by the public to be of better quality than the government managed schools.

Second, there is a profound decline in the numbers of Indo-Fijian school children, forcing their education authorities to become far more multiracial than before.

Third, government now funds the bulk of the salary and non-salary costs of private schools.

Private authorities are top tier

Ministry of Education annual reports show that some 95% of Fiji’s primary and secondary students are taught by private education authorities.

What has never been published, however, is that by most objective criteria (national examination pass rates, grades received, or the overall quality of education broadly defined), the private schools are perceived to be of higher quality than government schools (although Natabua, Labasa College and ACS are also in the top tier).

Undoubtedly, the quality of the management of private school authorities has to be a major explanatory factor.  They would say “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”- don’t interfere with their school management.

The demographic changes

The public are pretty much aware from the latest 2007 Census that Indo-Fijians, once above 50% of the population, are now down to below 37%.

What the public are less aware of is the extent to which the balance has swung even further at the lower primary school age, because of the impact of the emigration and much lower fertility rates of Indo-Fijians, .

The graph shows roughly the number of places required at Class 1 for the different ethnic groups from 1986, projected to 2023.


Six year olds
1986 1996 2007 2013 2023
iTaukei 8370 9679 10335 11158 11744
Indo-F 8184 6550 4228 4596 2944

From a high of around 8184 in 1986, the number of Indo-Fijians of age 6 declined to around 4596 this year, and will decline even further to 2944 in ten years time (while indigenous Fijian numbers have kept rising).

Putting it crudely, if all Indo-Fijian children of age 6 were to be taught by only Indo-Fijian education authorities, then of the 8184 places already provided in 1986, only 4596 places would be needed today, ie making way for 3588 places (or 44% of the original) for children of other races.

By 2023 (ten years time) some 5240 places (or 64%) of the original Indo-Fijian places, would be filled by other races and Indo-Fijians will be only one in five of class 1 enrolments.

This trend will apply to all other age groups over time.

If Indo-Fijian education authorities wish to remain open to serve their communities, then they MUST admit children of other ethnic groups and religions, as they are indeed already doing (colleges like “Indian College” needed a name change already given that iTaukei were more than 80% of the enrolment).

It is to the great credit of the Indo-Fijian education authorities (like Sanatan Dharam, Arya Samaj, Sangam, Muslim, Gujarat etc), that there has been no attempt (not that I am aware of) to impose their own religious beliefs or practices on the students of other races and religions attending their schools.

Can they reasonably expect reciprocal policies by other religious groups?

Government is main funder

What is also not published by the Ministry of Education is the proportion of schools’ costs which are paid for by the tax-payers through the Ministry of Education.

First, most of teachers’ salaries and non-salary costs paid for by governments and tax-payers to the extent that while private education authorities have built the schools, more than 80% of their funding comes from tax-payers via the Ministry of Education.

Tax-payers also fund all the Ministry of Education’s work in curriculum development and national assessment schemes without which the private education authorities could not operate.

Last but not least, it is the tax-payers who continue to fund the bulk of teacher training, which keeps replenishing the stock of trained teachers, perpetually being gutted by emigration.

Should “he who pays the piper call the tune”?

Is Government justified in “interfering”?

Given their level of funding, it is not surprising  that the Ministry of Education should feel that they have a legitimate right to determine school policies in a number of critical areas and they have tried.


Undoubtedly, students are inefficiently crisscrossing all over the country to attend schools of their choice, leaving closer schools relatively empty.

MoE tried to tackle this by zoning rules, forcing students to attend the schools nearest to their place of residence.

This drew the ire of religious or cultural authority schools who legitimately point out that they built their schools for their own communities, through their own community effort and it was unreasonable to ask their students to attend other schools, while they opened up to students of other denominations.

The MoE realized quietly that this policy had far more weaknesses.

How could they apply it to their own government schools like QVS, RKS, ACS, Natabua and Labasa College?

Would such a policy tend to condemn students from poor areas to concentrate in particular schools, while students from rich areas would end up concentrated at their own schools, creating a kind of “apartheid”?

How could government interfere with the freedom of choice of parents and students?

The public have no idea what exactly has happened to this “zoning” policy.

Uniform school fees

No doubt a response to the reality that some schools were extremely well endowed with funds because of higher fees being charged while others were deprived, the MoE decided to restrict the fees to a limit, at one stage about $90 per student per year.

Many better off schools saw this as totally unreasonable in that they could not provide the quality education that they and the parents wished, at such low fees.

Some school management toyed with the idea of becoming totally independent of government- but realized that they would end up penalizing the poorer students from their own community while serving rich families of all communities.

There was also a totally unintended impact of this restriction.  With a low limit set, schools were prevented from accumulating the larger amounts necessary to endow the school with adequate facilities and equipment, that could be enjoyed by all, rich and poor students alike.

The school would tend to end up with poor facilities for all the student (rich and poor), while the rich students would still enjoy better quality of education through their own private higher expenditure at home or elsewhere.


Religious rituals

The public have been very energized over a parent’s request that her daughter should not have to attend a Catholic mass at the Catholic school she was enrolled in. This rule was strange indeed.

The Marist Brothers Schools I attended never forced any non-Catholic students to take part in Catholic rituals such as the Mass.

Non-Catholics were simply encouraged into an alternative class discussing good morals and ethics, or their academic studies.

Readers might like to read the excellent history of the centenary of Marist Brothers in Fiji, compiled by Brother Fergus, which documents thoroughly, how the early Marist Brothers struggled to provide education to non-Catholics and non-whites in Fiji.

Often they had to go against the wishes of the colonial government, and sometimes, even against the views of the Catholic Church itself, and sometimes at great personal cost.

[My review of the book (]) suggested that historians should write down the histories of the nuns in Fiji as well as that of all the private education authorities who have contributed so much to Fiji.]

Note in relation to the current crisis that if the Ministry of Education were to succeed with its school zoning policies, then there will be many students who have to attend schools of denominations other than their own.

Given Fiji’s support of a secular state, Government, as the funding authority, can reasonably request school authorities to not insist that all students must attend their religious rituals.

The education authorities, including the Catholics, might wish to engage in national dialogue and come to some agreement about common generally acceptable rules, that do not impose any one’s religious beliefs on others simply because of the school they attend.

School appointments

The MoE naturally feels that it they are paying the salaries, they should be able to appoint principals, deputy principals, heads of subjects, or even specialist teachers. Often, unfortunately, this is driven by teachers’ union or MoE HQ politics.

School managements however believe that the success of their schools, depends on their ability to hire staff they are comfortable with, who share their values, and who will implement their policies.

Some school managements have been bluntly told by MoE that if they insist on making the appointments, then they must pay the full salary of the staff concerned- quite an onerous burden.

Yet MoE cannot interfere with the core management right to appoint key staff who are expected to implement the authority’s school management policies.

One would think that a compromise is easily possible where the MoE and education authorities agree on an “appointment premium” (say 20% of the salary) which is paid by whoever (the MoE or the school management) wishes to decide the appointment (while the other 80% is paid by MoE).

Such a compromise would allow schools to weigh up in a more nuanced way, how much their choice of staff appointment is worth to them.


A national conference of school authorities.

Annually, school principals and school teachers have very useful conferences at which they discuss  issues affecting them.

To my knowledge, there has never been an annual conference of only school management authorities, focusing only on their management issues.

One of the Fiji universities might wish to organize such a national conference and include on the agenda, the four controversies discussed in this article.

While at it, they may as well tackle as another controversy that has disappeared from view: should the MoE reverse its policy decision to abolish national exams?

There wasn’t any great public debate about that either, was there? Readers may read my take on it two years ago:

Yet this issue may be just as important for the long term quality of Fiji’s education system AND a “bread and butter” issue for Fiji families, as “what rules to set for political parties” or “how the Fiji Parliament is to be elected” about which there is so much hooh hah currently.

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