Students threaten mass exodus from UPNG as anti-O’Neill tension grows

Students at UPNG's Waigani campus forum debate the nation's politics. Image: Citizen Journalist

Students have threatened a mass withdrawal from the University of Papua New Guinea if the administration does not agree to its demands as anti-government tension grows on tertiary campuses across the nation after a two-week-old standoff.

The students want Prime Minister Peter O’Neill to stand down and allow corruption allegations to be investigated.

In Lae, the University of Technology’s  Student Representative Council (SRC) president David Kelma called on political leaders to respect the Constitution.

The National reported that Kelma had said leaders who continued to break the laws had no respect for the Constitution.

“Our leaders must respect the system, they must respect our laws. When our leaders continually break our laws, there is no justice,” he said.

“If there is no justice, there is no democracy in society.”

Kelma said leaders implicated in any wrong-doing must respect the Constitution and the office they uphold and step down from office.

Dangerous precedent
Manipulating the government systems and laws to stay in power was a dangerous precedent that could have detrimental effects on the future of the country, Kelma added.

In Port Moresby, UPNG’s SRC leadership set two demands on Thursday for the administration to act on within 24 hours.

Student leaders asked the administration to prepare forms for a mass withdrawal of students, and that it refund all tuition fees for the students for the remaining semesters.

Professor Mellam ...
Professor Mellam … faced with student demands. Image: UPNG

One student leader told NBC News the SRC had passed on their demands to the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Albert Mellam, at the Waigani campus forum.

Angry students demanded the school administration explain why it had failed to bring in the PNG Electoral Commission to conduct the referendum to decide on continuing the classes boycott this week.

Professor Mellam addressed the students, telling them that was not possible to bring in the commission because the commissioner was not in the country.

Commission staff said they would not conduct a referendum at the SRC’s request alone and were awaiting a formal request from the administration.

The commission also nullified an earlier referendum at Unitech in Lae, which overwhelmingly backed continued boycott of classes.

Frustrated students
This has frustrated the UPNG students, prompting the threat of a mass withdrawal. The students and are also demanding that the administration facilitate a cash refund of their fees.

A student road block at UPNG's main gate. Image: Citizen Journalist
A student road block at UPNG’s main gate. Image: Citizen Journalist

Meanwhile, the entire Solomon Islands student population attending UPNG have reportedly packed their bags and vacated the Waigani campus.

Up to 60 students sought refuge at the Solomon Islands Chancery at Waigani, fearful that the student unrest might “get out of hand”.

A source at the diplomatic office at Waigani told NBC News the students had fed the campus with their entire belongings.

The source said the country’s Education Attache was housing the students at a hotel in Port Moresby, but did not say if they would be flown out of the country.

Solomon Islands students are co-sponsored by the PNG government to study in the country.

‘Leave politics’
In an editorial earlier in the week, the The National condemned the students for their actions in an editorial headed “Leave politics to the politicians”.

The newspaper noted that the leader who had been at “the forefront of free education” in Papua New Guinea was the Enga Governor. Sir Peter Ipatas, the so-called  “action governor”, had initiated the concept 18 years earlier when he was first elected to Parliament.

“[He] has been responsible for the education of thousands of Engans, many of whom now hold high and influential positions in government and the private sector,” The National said.

“All university students, including those from Enga, who value their education, should take heed of the governor’s call.

“We agree with Ipatas that it is in their long-term interests that students concentrate on their studies and leave politics to the leaders who have been mandated by the people.”

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