“The declining quality of university graduates” (edited version in Fiji Times, 24 Oct. 2014).
Declining quality of university graduates
Professor Wadan Narsey
A few weeks ago (FT, 8 Sep 2015) the Minister for Education (Dr Mahendra Reddy) complained, probably with substance, that there are hundreds of civil servants who, despite possessing undergraduate and post-graduate degrees, are “fraught with lack of soft skills, lack of competencies in English proficiencies, unwilling to think outside the box and poor research capabilities”.
My last Saturday article examined why poor quality intakes from secondary schools meant that universities cannot make “silk purses out of sows’ ears”.
But Dr Reddy needs to research and tackle all the many systemic reasons discouraging our universities from producing quality graduates: quality of physical resources; the quality of academic staff, research and publications; and quality of management. Some may never be overcome, and for university quality to deepen, one still needs old Father Time.
Good physical resources
Physically, USP today is a far cry from forty years ago, when our offices were little huts in the middle of cow paddocks, yet produced great quality graduates.
Today, with the help of our traditional donors (Britain, Australia, Canada, NZ and Japan) USP has modern and excellent libraries, computer laboratories, offices and recreation facilities which would be the envy of many Third World countries.
Fiji National University and Fiji University are still struggling to build up their physical resources.
But our universities can tackle the problem of physical resources, over time.
Our universities are infants
Those who criticize our universities usually compare them to the great ones overseas.
But the oldest English speaking university, Oxford, was established more than 800 years ago and it was never spared of intellectual and political controversies.
Renowned Oxford scholar John Locke had to flee the country accused of treason, while John Wesley caused more than a ripple or two with his radical bible readings.
In former British colonies in the South Pacific, Sydney University was established in 1850, 165 years ago while Otago University, my alma mater, was established in 1869, 145 years ago.
In sheer contrast, our university (USP) was established only in 1968, a mere two years before Fiji achieved independence.
Sadly, the colonial masters in Fiji, including CSR, did not want to see an educated “babu” class or even educated commoner indigenous Fijians, who might be “troublesome” to the rulers.
It can therefore be no surprise that a mere 47 years later, USP, Fiji National University and Fiji University, are struggling to build up their quality.
The quality of USP staff
Early in the 1980s, Professor Brij Lal, well-known historian and former USP academic, tried to explain the poor quality of USP academics and why he left USP (Mr Tulsi’s Store, pp.102-3):
“public engagement with the important issues of the day … took over to the point where scholarship became a diversion. Had I remained in Fiji, I too, would be a part-time academic dabbling full-time in politics. regret gnaws at the heart about the missed opportunities to produce enduring, fundamental scholarship”.
Doug Munro, also a former USP academic, relates that Brij Lal “realised, as his complacent colleagues could not, the intellectual shallowness of [USP]”.
But these harsh judgments were made about a university then barely 17 years old and desperately needing good regional and expatriate academics to remain and build its reputation.
Moreover, quality regional staff kept leaving even before the 1987 coup. In my field of economics alone, those departing for greener pastures included Sitiveni Halapua, Siliga Kofe, Ganesh Chand, Satish Chand, and Parmesh Chand, to name just a few.
In other fields, the exodus of good academics included Yadhu Nand Singh (chemistry), Albert Wendt, Satendra Nandan and Subramani (Literature), Ravindra Naidu (soil chemistry), Satish Choy (marine science), Deo Prasad (Built Environment), Dharmendra Sharma and Joseph Ha (mathematics), Padma Lal (marine biology), Sitiveni Ratuva and Alumita Durutalo.
When those successful abroad were pleaded with to apply for senior USP positions, a typical response, disheartening for those of us who remained at USP, was that they would rather be lecturers at XYX (university overseas) than professors at USP.
A few did come back to teach occasionally. But one eminently successful environment economist (and a renowned USP gold medallist), was denied appointment, for political reasons, and I suspect, personal reasons.
The failure of USP to attract and retain quality academics is understandable. International universities offer incomparably better teaching conditions, research funding and publication opportunities, and most importantly for those with young families, much higher salaries, often double that of USP scales, and higher standards of living in education and health, which Fiji can never offer.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Britain, Australia and NZ had special salary supplementation schemes to fund their own expatriate staff, who then received virtually twice the salaries of regional academics with similar expatriate qualifications doing the same job, causing us much unhappiness.
The problem of Fiji universities not being able to pay internationally competitive salaries will not go away.
The regional Ministers of Education need to request their Ministers of Finance for special funding to attract and retain genuine international quality university staff.
Many quality academics are disheartened and leave when they find that mediocre academics are promoted above them, indeed appointed as Deans of the various faculties, not on the basis of merit (few qualify to be professors) but on personal “loyalty” to vice chancellors, often disguised and demanded as “loyalty to the institution”.
Many academics are disheartened when they find that staff associations will not back the call for academic freedom, or will not protest when university management curtails the academic freedom of their staff and students, because they the staff association executives have become lap-dogs of the university management.
The negative role of management
It is a tragedy when university managements themselves undermine university quality.
Universities can enter into a numbers game with competitors, what Dr Reddy correctly calls “a race to the bottom”. They will accept lower quality students in as many courses as they can mount, even if other institutions are adequately covering the same subject areas.
A university management can crudely fund departments according to numbers of students enrolled, giving a financial incentive for departments to pass as many as possible, regardless of declining academic standards.
Continuity of quality management depends heavily on appointing and retaining quality regional managers at the highest levels. But at one university, once the vice chancellor was appointed after arguing that “it was time that a regional VC” be appointed, he himself thereafter refused to appoint capable regionals as deputies.
Instead, he appointed a steady stream of expatriates, most departing prematurely, some in dubious circumstances at high cost to the university, never revealed in the annual reports.
A dictatorial university management can unfairly force senior staff to leave for political and personal reasons.
Only recently, a most senior staff left after he was kept suspended for six month (damaging his professional reputation among his peers, even though he was on full pay) purely on allegations about his performance. Not only did an internal committee find the allegations to be without substance, but the same university management shamelessly continued to use him to complete the regional projects he had been working on.
Good universities are renowned the world over for robust debate and engagement with civil society (read the poem by John Masefield and Rabindra Tagore).
But one university continues to freely censor academic freedom of both staff and students, making a mockery of its own Vision and Mission statements which claim to value “independent critical thinking… (and) deep respect for truth and intellectual integrity”.
Many public questions directed at this university’s Vice Chancellor and successive Chairpersons of its University Council, are not responded to, despite proud boasts of good governance, academic freedom and transparency.
University Council members and members of their various important committees (like the Finance and Investment Committee) enjoy their biennial jaunts to council meetings and their elevated positions, but never raise their voices regarding the many public complaints about USP management and financial mismanagement of taxpayers’ funds.
The dictatorial power of the university can become so strong that academics and administrators dare not question the vice chancellor at either the Senate, or at Council.
The Minister for Education, who is currently revealing the gross misuse of taxpayer funds allocated to primary and secondary schools, must also demand that universities reveal to the taxpayers, the full financial costs of expelling senior staff before their contracts had expired.
Research and publications
The quality of a university depends critically on its research and publications.
But a university management can refuse to recognize publications in its own journals, preferring to reward academic staff for overseas publications which may bring no benefit to the Pacific people whatsoever. This was a battle that Professor Jayaraman once had to fight (and win) at USP.
The university’s own journals may remain mediocre because staff are financially rewarded if they publish abroad. USP’s own flagship Journal of Pacific Studies almost died a few years ago because USP staff were contributing to a competing and flourishing Fiji journal.
University managers can refuse to give credit to local public media writings, however educative and influential, even derogatively referring to them as “journalistic articles not worthy of professors” (my personal experience).
While good universities (like Harvard and Monash) give exposure on their websites and publications to the work of academics and research students, a university management may give itself much higher exposure, as can be verified by quantitatively analyzing the contents of the USP Website, USP monthly Bulletin and USP Annual Reports for the last few years, with earlier periods.
A gullible public may even believe daily TV advertisements that a university believes in improving academic excellence, even if the facts in its 2014 Annual Report shows that the numbers of books, book chapters and academic articles published, are trending downwards, or are stagnant at best.
The public might also note that this university’s Annual Reports are glossier and glossier focusing on the covers, while the intellectual content has become less and less.
It is accepted that the international image of a university also depends on foreign academics fully and fairly acknowledging the publications of local academics, in print or on the web.
Yet foreign academic experts on the Pacific, both expatriates and former regionals, frequently fail to acknowledge the work of local authors in their references, even if they are read assiduously.
Such unethical practice by students would be called “plagiarism” and duly punished. But senior professors overseas can get away with this unethical practice undermining USP, once aptly described by Dr Tupeni Baba as “academic buccaneering”.
The declining quality of USP students
Even twenty years ago when I was USP’s Director of Planning and Development, my research found that the best secondary students were not coming to USP but being sent overseas by donor scholarship programs or well-off parents wanting their children to emigrate. Can Dr Reddy please tell us what are the facts today?
Then, when these relatively lower quality batch of students come to USP, there is no quality control on grades given out by departments.
Some more rigorous departments (such as in Science, Mathematics, Accounting and Economics) have high failure rates (of around 30%) because of their attempt to maintain standards, while A and B grades are restricted to a mere 10% of the students.
Some departments pass virtually everyone while giving more than 50% of the students A or B grades which then “qualifies” them on GPA averages, to go on to post graduate degrees.
Some subjects with very few employment opportunities would be forced to enrol mostly mediocre secondary students who could not get into more desirable subject areas, and some of these would eventually be awarded their subject “Gold Medals.”
The Minister for Education must commission a research project to report on the relative quality of secondary students entering the various Fiji tertiary institutions (and those going abroad), those enrolling in the different subject areas, and those proceeding to the higher levels and then graduating.
Dr Reddy should commission an independent external review of the minor and major theses produced by our post-graduates for the last forty years, in the various disciplines, and determine rigorously the percentages classifiable as Good, Average, and Poor.
I can assure you, the public will be in for a shock.
Of course, USP qualifications are accredited in Australian and NZ universities, and of course, a few USP graduates have done extremely well abroad. But one swallow does not make a summer.
It certainly does not justify the frequent boasts by university managers that our universities are internationally competitive or that they are producing better and better quality graduates with all the “graduate attributes” that universities claim on their mission and vision statements (which Dr Reddy ridicules).
But there is also little doubt that the quality of USP graduates is declining. I can personally vouch that my second and third year economics students of twenty five years ago, like Ganesh Chand, Biman Prasad, Aisake Eke, Hala Hingaano could do better research and report writing than many with masters degrees today, who Dr Reddy complains about.
But there is a fundamental statistical explanation of declining average quality. In the 1970s and 1980s, the proportion of secondary school graduates making it to university was much smaller and hence naturally of better quality.
Today, with far more tertiary scholarships and loans easily available, and a deliberate weakening of entry requirements, there is a much larger proportion of Year 12 secondary graduates making it to university.
But the Minister for Education recently dropped the public bombshell that according to raw marks, only 20% of Year 12 science students would have passed, while scaling miraculously increased the pass rate to 60%.
The Minister for Education refuses to release the recent report on scaling, or other reports on examination results (some of which data I have analyzed for 2010, on a confidential basis for AusAID).
USP management also refuses publish any of the many independent consultancy reports for the last eight years, while even the earlier ones have all disappeared from its website.
One question is: does the current Fiji Minister for Education have the political will to tackle the “intellectual shallowness” of our universities?
Note however, that university quality is not determined by Ministers of Education, however influential they may be. Far more important is what the intelligent public demands of their universities and ensure that their representatives on the university council are diligent, accountable and transparent.
The ultimate question is: will the apathetic Fiji public get the university they deserve?