While a doctoral student at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, Ivo Syndicus received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant in 2012 to aid research on “Culture, Development, and Higher Education in Papua New Guinea,” supervised by Dr. Thomas Strong. In 2018 Dr. Syndicus was then awarded an Engaged Anthropology Grant to aid engaged activities on “Experiences and Challenges of University Students in Papua New Guinea: Research Results and Ways Forward.”
In March and April 2019, an Engaged Anthropology Grant enabled me to spend almost six weeks in Papua New Guinea (PNG) to engage a range of audiences about my dissertation research on higher education in PNG. In my PhD dissertation, I describe and analyze various fields of student experiences related to university education, especially at the University of Goroka, such as:
- how university students, but also staff, experience processes of social stratification vis-à-vis kin and sponsors;
- how a cultural politics of difference, drawing on the reification of culture such as sensibilities surrounding exchange and reciprocity, feeds into the construction and consolidation of provincial identities at universities and beyond;
- how forms and styles of leadership in both university management and student politics become contested at university, especially in prolonged student strikes.
Activities to share results and engage with different audiences took place in PNG’s capital Port Moresby, Goroka, and other locations in the PNG highlands. Specific activities in Port Moresby included a seminar at the University of Papua New Guinea facilitated by its Anthropology strand that drew attendance from within and beyond the university, a research colloquium presentation at the National Research Institute, and a presentation with a stronger orientation to relevant policy matters to staff of the Division of Quality Assurance at the PNG Department for Higher Education, Science, Research and Technology.
At the University of Goroka, I gave a talk to the university community facilitated by its Center for Melanesian Studies. This constituted perhaps the most significant event of engagement in terms of presenting my results to many of my previous interlocutors throughout research processes, at the institution where I conducted most of the research and for which its results are most specifically relevant. I also conducted a workshop with postgraduate students at the University of Goroka, organized by the Center for Melanesian Studies and the School of Postgraduate Studies, in which I discussed ethnography as approach to research both in anthropology and beyond, drawing on illustrations from my research.
I also visited and met several of my interlocutors during research and graduates of the University of Goroka in the highland provinces of Simbu and Jiwaka, learning about their current context and reflecting back on experiences during their studies at the University of Goroka.
The presentations at universities in particular led to subsequent meetings and discussions with members of respective university communities and other institutions. At the University of Goroka, I also held a meeting with the university management to provide a briefing about my research results in general, and to discuss questions around student representation and participation in university governance in particular. The presentation of my research results was perceived as timely and welcomed both in view of developments in the university sector in the last years, and broader social processes in PNG and its pathway as a nation of a uniquely rich cultural and linguistic heritage.
A noteworthy area of discussion were legislative changes in relation to university governance through the 2014 Higher Education Act, which provides increased possibilities for ministerial intervention in university affairs. These changes resonated with demands in student strikes especially at the University of Goroka, where students lobbied the government to oust the university council and management through recurrent strikes between 2010 and 2015. Policy reform in 2014 enabled the Minister responsible for Higher Education to dismiss the council and management of the University of Goroka in 2015, and the University of Papua New Guinea faced similar ministerial interventions into its academic governance at the time of my engagement activities. Based on my research, I was able to illustrate how student leaders at the University of Goroka prepared the ground for a sympathetic reception of changes in the Higher Education Act that led to the erosion of autonomous university governance with potentially severe implications for the quality of university education in PNG through political interventions.
This connects to issues with student representation, and the observation that student leaders increasingly tend to foreground their own political ambitions instead of actually seeking to address issues at universities or the national political arena, such as corruption, as they claim. In effect, universities seek to limit the powers of student representatives, which increases students’ frustration and in turn facilitates politically ambitious student leaders to mobilize frustrated students for strikes towards their personal goals. This raises the question how meaningful student representation and participation in university governance could look like, especially from a perspective of opening up more meaningful avenues for student participation rather than their systematic exclusion. This seems acutely relevant in current times as student representative councils remain suspended following student unrests at PNG’s state universities in 2016, creating the conditions in which frustrated students may turn to unelected student leaders to advance their issues without the checks and balances of democratic legitimization, and recognition or accountability within the procedural bureaucracy of universities.
An especially controversial aspect in the constitution of student representative councils is the role of provincial student associations. Provincial student associations are an important avenue for student sociality and mobilization at state universities. There is a widespread concern, however, that they foster a competitive politics based on parochial issues and personal political ambitions rather than adequately representing students in relation to issues of student welfare or academic matters. Some state universities seek to reform student representation to be stronger based on academic programs, for example, although many students insist on provincial associations to remain an integral part of student representative councils. This also connects to broader questions for the direction of nation-building in PNG. The consolidation of provincial identities along increasingly quasi-ethnic lines based on the reification of supposedly bounded cultural characteristics is a phenomenon that invites reflection about the vision of PNG as a nation that is united both in diversity and commonalities beyond provincial and regional boundaries.
The Engaged Anthropology Grant provided, in summary, a unique opportunity to contribute to current debates in relation to the higher education sector and broader social phenomena in PNG today.