Peter S. Kinjap: PNG needs maturity in political debates and on education

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A poster for People's Democratic Movement leader Paias Wingti's original "free education" policy in Papua New Guinea - but nothing is really "free". - Image: Peter S. Kinjap/PMC

ANALYSIS: By Peter S. Kinjap in Port Moresby

Papua New Guinea has entered the third week of the eight-week election campaign before polling commences next month.

Unlike previous elections, this year’s campaign appears not as noisy as in the past.

Social media has played an important role in the campaign so far with political parties buying Facebook pages to launch their awareness messages.

Almost all the 15 political parties in PNG contesting the election now have a paid Facebook Page.

The ruling People’s National Congress (PNC) has reportedly disseminated a lot of information about its polices and continues running social media ads.

One of the PNC’s major party platforms is the Free Education policy. As the ruling party, it has implemented and PNG has felt its impact since 2012.

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Like any other government policy, the PNC free education policy has its weaknesses. In order to defend this policy, party leader and Prime Minister Peter O’Neill said recently he wanted to make the PNC’s free education policy government policy so that future governments will continue implementing it.

‘Politically suicide’
In what looks like a counter attack, its rival Triumph Heritage Empowerment Party (THE) has issued a “politically suicidal” statement by party leader and Opposition Leader Don Polye saying it would scrap free education instead introduce a “compulsory and subsidised education” as it policy.

Polye went on to say that this policy would be a national policy if THE formed the next government, making it illegal for parents not to send children to school.

Firstly, THE party’s policy would make school compulsory, and secondly parents would need to pay from elementary to grade 12, but not at technical colleges and universities.

THE party wants government to take full responsibility to pay for develop the skills of those in tertiary institutions.

This policy sparked a response from Prime Minister O’Neill condemning the Opposition for developing “reckless policies” that could only set the country back, reverse development and undermine economic growth.

“This is the most reckless Opposition campaign to be seen in elections for a long time,” O’Neill said.

“These Opposition policies would hurt families, would see people miss out on education and have funding decisions taken away from the local level and returned to Waigani bureaucrats.

“How could anyone think that ending free education could be a good thing?

“Under our government, it does not matter if a family is rich or poor, urban or rural, we will make sure all of their children are able to attend school,” O’Neill said.

Some implications
Let us look at some of the implications of THE Party and PNC on their education polices, leaving aside other issues for a while.

Under PNC’s policy, there would be more children going to school because it is free to attend school from elementary to high school and perhaps colleges (some colleges are still paying fees this year at some colleges).

This will see an increase in the grades 8, 10 and 12 dropouts. These dropouts will add to the number of unemployed youths and unskilled laborers. After 10-20 years, there will be an increase in the number of school leavers compared with today.

This is a situation whereby students from well-off families may enroll further in private schools or take further studies abroad but this number is always a minority. PNC’s free education policy creates issues in the long-term but it may look good in a short-term.

THE party’s policy on education will put pressure on poor parents to firstly send their children to school or they be jailed for not sending and to pay their fees in full.

This is a harsh policy by THE party whereby parents would need more counselling on family planning as any child born must be educated by law and they have to meet the cost up to grade 12.

It is tough for parents but in the long-term it will benefit the country largely. Firstly, by concentrating on paying fees for higher education and colleges will ease parents of their financial burden.

Literate population
Secondly, compulsory education would produce a literate population and that is good for a developing country. Today, many young people are not going to school and are roaming the streets — even if it is free to go to school.

But when there is a law to force students to attend school, there will be no children on the street begging as we see today in cities like Port Moresby, Lae and Mount Hagen.

The PNC and THE party’s policies on education have both negative and positive implications.

The term or the phrase “free education policy” is in fact not proper because nothing is free, it would be better to say subsidised fees than to say free education.

Nothing is really free. It is not free to get educated, rather the government is using people’s tax money to subsidise the cost of education.

The full Paias Wingti “free education” policy poster. Image: Peter S. Kinjap/PMC

This confused phrase of free education is a brainchild of the People’s Democratic Movement (PDM)  which led two governments under Paias Wingti and Sir Mekere Mourata as Prime Ministers who implemented this policy.

The policy was fully implemented during Sir Mekere’s term as Prime Minister in 2000.

Before the Bougainville war
Before the Bougainville civil war, tertiary education at the universities and colleges was fully subsided (students were also given monthly allowances) when Panguna mine was in operation.

But after the Bougainville conflict there was a new “user pay” policy so all the benefits of allowances and fully subsidised fees for tertiary studies were withdrawn and students had to pay for university and college education.

This means that Don Polye’s education policy will bring back the glory days prior to the Bougainville conflict when PNG enjoyed a fully subsided education at the tertiary level.

All in all, Peter O’Neill’s education policy is short-lived and may put pressure on the government budget to continue funding as the population increases each year.

Don Polye’s policy may look tough from the start but it is not a new policy in PNG to fully subsidise education at the tertiary studies. The new thing will be compulsory for every child in PNG to attend school.

For a country like PNG, we need a good policy on education and Don Polye’s policy will save Papua New Guinea for the years to come.

Peter O’Neill’s short-lived policy might mean Papua New Guinea would face social and unemployment problems and economic problems as the population increases.

Don Polye’s policy will also have an impact to control the population and I think this is a very good proposal for PNG.

It is my personal guess that Polye’s policy is what PNG needs and it speaks of more maturity than O’Neill’s, which lacks sustainability.

You decide which policy you need at the polls.

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