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Opinion

Equality for All Higher Education Needs Reform

Equality for All  Higher Education Needs Reform
July 03
20:50 2017

There is a wide body of research which provides evidence regarding the positive role of higher education in social, economic, environmental and health and wellbeing outcomes.

Research by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and other international organisations suggest that the impact of higher education on individuals, society, and the general community is significant.

At a national level, university education attainment has a correlation with high economic productivity.

A country with a large proportion of citizens with higher education qualifications is capable of tackling contemporary challenges such as poverty, health and wellbeing,and most importantly the creation of a civilised society where individuals irrespective of social class, religion, gender, and ethnic diversity have freedom to advocate their voices.

At an individual level, the ripple effect of tertiary education attainment is significant.

A person who is first in the family to complete University education has significant chances of changing her or his life and of their family.

Through education, the person is able to get a job which will in turn result in better outcomes for the family such as housing, access to various needs and wants, and the ability to educate their children.

Research shows that the chances of a person completing a University degree is significantly higher if their parents completed University education compared to those that are first in the family to attend University.

Through the Ministry of Education and foreign aid, Fiji has witnessed many reforms in primary and secondary education.

Policies related to school funding, renewal of the curriculum, assessments, workforce succession, and infrastructural development are some of the key changes.

I have long argued that higher education is an area that the government has ignored.

The current and previous governments have never initiated a review of higher education to assess whether it meets the needs of Fiji and other neighbouring countries in the Pacific Islands and beyond.

Academic peers, university administrators, and the government may argue against the rationale of the review and why it is urgently needed.

In this article, I am outlining why a higher education review is needed to ensure that our universities are providing qualifications that are comparable to the developed countries.

 

Global Ranking and Reputation: Students, parents, and other stakeholders are increasingly using ranking as a measure of quality.

Universities that are ranked high have better chances of securing funding, attracting the best researchers and scholars, and attracting students from across the globe.

Graduates from reputable universities have better chances of securing senior roles in the public and private sectors beyond Fiji.

So far, no University from Fiji has made it to the top 800 in various world university rankings.

Emerging countries in Asia such as Thailand, Taiwan, Indonesia, Jordan, the Philippines and others are making good progress.

Our long-standing University of South Pacific (USP) that was established in 1968 does not seem to aspire to be in the ladder.

 

Research, discovery and innovation: University reputation is not based on the number of students, staff, faculties, courses, and buildings or campuses.

The reputation of a university is based on the quality of research and its impact on a society.

Through research, we are able to bring new knowledge that will influence innovation in policy and practice. For example, through research on rise in diabetes in the Pacific Islands, we could come up with possible solutions that will save many lives.

Unfortunately, research is not a vocabulary in some universities in Fiji or an issue of strategic discussions in established universities.

The Government has also failed to provide funding with explicit focus on national priorities.

In developed countries, governments have established independent organisations to manage all aspects of grants.

National priorities are identified and researchers apply for grants.

Large and small grants are provided to attract and develop early career researchers. Fiji is at a huge risk by not allocating funding for research.

Without research our policies and reforms lack evidence.

Likewise, lack of research in areas such as medicine, public health, technology, climate change, and other areas means that we will rely on other countries to solve our problems.

We must have the capacity to undertake research and develop the next generation of young researchers who can engage in inquiry and take ownership of our own problems.

 

Academic quality and standard: There is evidence to suggest that the standard of University education is declining.

Employers who are recruiting graduates on an annual basis are able to attest to my strong views on this matter.

After completing three to five years of degree courses, many graduates lack basic written communication skills.

Evidence suggests that many graduates who complete three to five years of a degree programme in the English language are unable to write a simple report.

There is clear evidence that some universities that have recently gained a University title are attracting students with very low marks to study for qualifications in professions such as teacher education and other areas.

It is also becoming very clear now that medical schools are also failing. The high number of failures in hospitals questions the role of universities in the training and education of doctors and allied health professionals.

It is also becoming very clear that our degrees are not comparable to those in neighbouring countries.

Graduates that have completed degrees in teacher education and nursing are unable to get accreditation to practice in Australia and New Zealand.

They have to undertake a few more years of further studies.

Graduates who complete trade certificates in areas such as electrical, work panel beating, plumbing and other areas are successful. However their qualifications are not recognised when applying to migrate.

They have to undertake similar courses for a few years to be able to practice in overseas.

 

Academic workforce: There are signs that Fiji is at a huge risk of not being able to develop the next generation of young academics graduates.

We have some very bright kids coming out of school education. However there are no incentives for them to undertake PhD programme on scholarship.

Likewise, we have mature age people in the workforce who have the potential to be future leaders. However we have no strategies to identify talents and develop them for the future.

We have significant gaps in gender equality in academic roles.

For example, the USP only has less than two per cent of female academics at Professor and Associate Professor levels.

We have the Fiji National University (FNU) that remunerates Professors with almost half the salary compared to USP. There is clear evidence to suggest that academic freedom has been intruded in institutions.

Many prominent academics who played a key role in shaping policies and reforms have been pressured by senior University leaders to depart.

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