Economics at the University of Papua New Guinea, 2015

Written by Michael Cornish

University of PNGI am currently a lecturer in economics at the University of Papua New Guinea, paid for by the Australian aid program.

My role is not only to teach, but to develop the relationship between the University’s School of Business Administration and the Australian National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy – a partnership to improve the teaching of economics in Papua New Guinea – and to collaborate on research. It is also my role to aid the UPNG Economics Division in any way I can to meet the many and various challenges that we together face.

And there are many challenges. Until recently, the permanent staff of the Economics Division was down to one lecturing, full-time tutor who heroically held the discipline together with the sheer grit and quiet acquiescence to reality that is so common in the country. Now we are up to five full-time staff – myself, an Australian volunteer, a senior lecturer from India, and two Papua New Guinean lecturers.

The durable concrete-block buildings that John Langmore wrote of are still there, if a bit blackened and stained by tropical damp. By Western standards, the facilities are poor and very run-down. Power outages are also a haphazard if common occurrence – just the other day, instead of lecturing in the dark, the class and I moved out to the Haus Win (an open-air pergola) where the students clustered closely on concrete benches just to hear me speak on the challenges in international trade that face Papua New Guinea. Most of the textbooks in the library are from the 1960s to the 1990s, partly because the more modern textbooks are not often returned, and partly through a fear that any new purchases will simply meet a similar fate. The internet connection is better than it was, but still slow and sporadic.

Reading this list, it might seem that there is little hope, but that is completely the wrong conclusion. The opposite is true, because the students are as keen as mustard; willing and hungry to learn. Their educational backgrounds are obviously not as strong as those enjoyed by their Australian counterparts, and they have to negotiate all the usual challenges of students in poor, developing countries. While some are from middle class Port Moresby families, few – if any – are rich by developed-country standards, and many struggle to pay their fees and living expenses. Most of those who have made it this far are both bright and engaged.

The students also have a strong sense of national spirit. The great majority of my students want to work for the national government or provincial-level governments when they graduate so that they can serve their people.

And the country certainly needs them. Papua New Guinea, like Australia, benefited greatly from the resources boom, and, just like Australia, is now seeing the boom dwindle before its eyes. The government budget is under increasing pressure, and the economic problems facing the country are becoming more complicated and complex. The country needs top quality economists, and the University of Papua New Guinea is still the only place in the country where you can get an economics degree.

While there is a long way to go, the economics faculty and the School of Business Administration, within which economics sits, are on a reform path. With more teachers, the economics division is less reliant on casual teachers. We are improving access to textbooks, and we are recommencing research and outreach, including through the now-revived PNG Update.

I am greatly thankful for the opportunity to work at the University of Papua New Guinea to improve the state of economics, and to contribute to the knowledge of the country’s future economists. It is an honour and a pleasure, and I only hope that I can live up to the task.

This is the second of a two-part series on UPNG economics, then and now.

Michael Cornish is a Visiting Fellow at the Development Policy Centre, Lecturer in Economics at the University of Papua New Guinea, and Coordinator of the ANU Crawford-UPNG SBA partnership.

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Michael Cornish

Michael Cornish is currently working as the Senior Policy Adviser to the Member for the Australian Federal electorate of Mayo, Ms Rebekha Sharkie. Previously he was a Visiting Fellow at the Development Policy Centre, Lecturer in Economics at the University of Papua New Guinea, and Coordinator of the ANU Crawford-UPNG SBA partnership.

6 Comments

  • Hi Michael
    It is fantastic to read about the important job you are doing in PNG. I can see you are still the same caring, change driver and well informed individual I once met in my Uni days in Adelaide. I am sure you are inspiring many lives through your passion and deep knowledge whilst contributing to their capacity development.
    Perhaps you would like to circulate amongst your students this information about Awards Scholarships available for PNG citizens to study in Australia, in case this may assist those top economists in their academic formation:

    Endeavour Scholarship and Fellowships
    Australia Awards Pacific Scholarships (AAPS)
    Other Australia Awards categories

    These programs are funded by the Australian government with the aim of promoting cultural, educational and research linkages with those eligible countries.

    Keep on the great work Michael.
    Andreina

  • Hi Michael, I taught the 3rd-year macro course at UPNG between 2009 and 2011 and also assisted with 3rd-year micro. I could see the Economics Division deteriorating as successive heads of division were recruited to other positions and other lecturers also got jobs elsewhere. It was troubling to observe so it’s great to hear that you and the other staff are reviving an important part of the university. If my experiences (or lecture notes) might be of any use, please get in touch. (The DevPolicy folks should be able to dig out my email address for you.)

    cheers,
    Harry

    • I am Mel Ruma, currently doing Gr 11 at Sogeri NHS. I wish to become a top economist in the upcoming years. Thanks for helping me to know the job of economist in our nation.

  • Michael, I am glad to read about the positive input that you and others are putting into the economic division of UPNG. I can recall during my time as a fourth year student (in 2008) it was a very challenging with lack of focus on quantitative economic analysis. Although we had lecturers who took us for econometrics and cost benefit analysis, many of us students found that the lectures lacked a lot of depth. Subsequently, most of us ended up graduating without much satisfaction, doubting our ability to perform rigorous CBA and regression analysis.

    Seeing the deterioration in the quality of teaching within the division in 2007, some of us students undertook the effort to revive the dormant “Economics Student Society” as our attempt to rectify the problems plaguing the division. Frankly, we lacked the numbers when it came to staff so we decided to use the numbers offered by the students to negotiate for reforms. So when I was elected the President of the Society (in 2007) my executives and I set out to strengthen the student body to lobby for changes to purposely improve student-lecturer welfare.

    One of our biggest accomplishments was the successful attempt to reinstate the Bachelor of Economics degree program which was due to be shelved as part of UPNG’s administration reforms. Our argument was that if the degree was shelved it could have a severe impact on the “marketability” of economics students on the job market, given that the degree program was one of the pioneering programs in UPNG. We were also able to publish the first newsletter (ESS NEWSLETTER) and we worked with the incoming executives of 2008 to introduce an “Economics Day” which was supposed to have coincided with the “UPNG Economic Update”. We were also planning to introduce an intern program within the division to allow 3rd year economic students to be attached with relevant government departments, research institutions and private sector entities to provide a practical environment for the students to apply their theoretical economic knowledge. However, we ran out of time and could not do this.

    I am sure that these sorts of initiatives will one way or another contribute to reviving and strengthening the economics division and the profession in PNG that you and others are already making a valuable contribution toward.

  • I am very grateful to hear of your bold decision to teach economics at UPNG. Students deserve the best but unfortunately have been deprived of the best for a while.

    Thank you, Michael.

  • Thank you Michael for your contribution to UPNG. A solemn reminder that there is hope at the end of what appears to be a dark tunnel.

    Regards
    Bal

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