Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Education, Headlines

SOUTH PACIFIC: In Cash Crunch, Education Gets Axed First

Kalinga Seneviratne

PORT VILA, Vanuatu, Apr 30 1997 (IPS) - A rapidly growing population, economic slowdown and strict conditionalities for new loans from international lenders have hit the fragile budgets of South Pacific island nations, severely affecting areas like education.

Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands are already having difficulty accomodating large numbers of children seeking to enter secondary schools from primary schools. Fiji, which traditionally has a good education system, is feeling the pinch as well.

Obed Massing, president of the Vanuatu Teachers’ Union, blames the World Bank-IMF structural adjustment policy and priorities pushed by the Manila-based Asian Development Bank (AsDB) in the Pacific for cuts in national education budgets.

Officials at the AsDB who work in the Bank’s social lending division deny that they have forced cuts in education spending. They say the Bank has in fact tried to convince developing member states from the Asia-Pacific to invest heavily in human capital by borrowing more for education and health.

Even so, the Vanuatu government cut this year’s education budget from 9.5 million dollars to 6.3 million and sacked more than 180 temporary school teachers around the country.

“We believe its a policy adopted from the World Bank’s structural adjustment programmes,” Massing told IPS. “At a time when the population is growing, we can’t see the point in government laying off teachers.”

“The government can only provide room in secondary schools for 30 to 40 percent of students who pass the year six (final year of primary school) exam. Lots of students have to go back to their villages and that’s the end of their education,” he added.

John Liu, secretary to the Vanuatu ministry of education, argues that these students are not really school dropouts. “They have passed year six but don’t have a place to go to in year seven upwards…we are working with our donor agencies to build more room in secondary schools for them,” he said.

Liu also says that building rooms by itself won’t solve the crisis and because of budget cuts, it will always be a problem for his ministry to find the money to run these schools.

“School dropout problem is particularly acute all over Melanesia,” says Savenaca Siwatibau, director of the Port Vila- based Pacific Operations Centre of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP).

Siwatibau says the root cause is the region’s high population growth. In Vanuatu, for instance, out of 120 children aged six only 20 will have the chance to get into primary school. Out of the other 100, only 20 will get into year seven and only five have any chance of ultimately getting into tertiary education.

“The problem in these countries is how do you address the needs of these 80 who fail to go beyond sixth form, when a bulk of educational resources cater to those five who ultimately go through the system,” says Siwatibau.

Tupeni Baba of the Department of Education at the University of South Pacific in Suva disagrees: “The World Bank and educationists from Australia and the U.N. want a literate population in the Pacific that can be useful in a globalised economy, not critical thinkers.”

“What we need in the Pacific are thinkers, apart from those who can read and write” he adds.

For Malia Tafili, youth development officer of the New Caledonia-based South Pacific Commission, the problem with education in the Pacific Island countries is that their teachers are not properly trained to function in their own cultures.

She argues both the teaching methods used and the way schools are built have not taken into account the traditional cultural practices of the islanders.

“Our people are not those who read. We are not brought up to read,” she explains. “We have to develop more our oral tradition as a way of learning, of course not leaving aside the written system.”

Tafili says much of the education budget is spent on building classrooms, when in most Pacific Island countries there exist traditional meeting houses and many of the parish churches have large halls that can be used for schooling.

“If we try to use these facilities then we will not be facing these huge problems,” she says.

A United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report into poverty in Fiji released in March noted that about 30 percent of students have left school by class eight (second year of secondary school). Since most of them come from poor communities, poverty continues from one generation to the next.

Pratap Chand, general secretary of the Fiji Teachers Federation, agrees that Fiji is facing a similar situation to others in the South Pacific. “A quarter of our school age children drop out before they are 14 years old,” he says.

“As a result child labour is becoming very noticeable. In cities you see them washing cars, repairing tires, shining shoes in markets and as street boys.”

Chand says the government has cut the education budget in recent years from 20 percent to 17 percent of the total budget and the private education system now takes the major share of the education burden in Fiji.

In PNG a 1996 study done by the Australian aid agency, AusAid, found that only one percent of age-eligible students enter grade 11 and only 36 percent of primary school leavers gain a place in secondary schools. Yet, in 1996, the PNG education budget was cut from 84 million dollars to 41 million dollars.

PNG was forced to accept a World Bank structural adjustment programme in 1995, amid a severe economic crisis. By that time, the government had already abolished free education. From 1995 onwards, universities were no longer free.

Deveni Temu, a former PNG school teacher, says this has put a heavy burden on parents: “We have no money to pay for our children’s education.”

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