South Pacific REGIONAL CONSULTATION ON BIG ISSUES IN THE UNIVERSITY
Canberra, 27-29 November 2017
The South Pacific Consultation brought together 16 individuals, representing Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. Most of those present were IFES staff.
There are vast differences in the size and developmental stage of the national IFES movements, the number of staff, relationships with churches, access to resources (money, books, training, …), stability and long-term viability. Between the different countries there is also a wide range of affluence, political stability, and cultural diversity.
Many of the issues for the Pacific Islands are not unique to them but rather issues that are common across the Majority World. These issues are quite different to the issues in Australia and New Zealand.
- Purpose of the University: Is it a business? Are students customers? What is the role of community within a university?
- Purpose of a University education: Is it to enable students to access high-paying jobs and an affluent lifestyle? What is the role of ethics in education? What is the responsibility of graduates to serve their communities?
- Student strikes: In the past two years the University of Papua New Guinea has often been closed down by student strikes against government corruption.
- Corruption: Participants said this is a significant issue in the Islands but was not discussed much.
- Trauma from sexual abuse: In the Pacific Islands there is an increasing awareness that many students have experienced sexual abuse, as children or teenagers, often from family members.
- Ethnic conflict: Fiji is divided between ethnic Indians and Islanders. Papua New Guinea is divided along linguistic (wantok) lines. These societal divisions flow into the university, the church, and IFES groups.
- Conflicts of values and world views: At the USP there is often conflict between those of Western academics, NGO’s, USA pop culture, and traditional island culture.
- Student poverty: This makes it difficult for some students to complete their education and to participate in IFES training programs.
- Lack of critical thinking: Like in most Majority World contexts, the Pacific Islands have an educational system that is often centred on rote learning and the authority of teachers. Thus, it is counter-cultural to ask questions, particularly a big question for which the “correct” answer is not clear.
- Lack of personal agency: In the Islands, people are usually told what to do, particularly by elders or foreigners. The idea of taking personal initiative to tackle a big issue is not familiar.
- Lack of engagement with the Bible: Due to the lack of critical thinking and personal agency it is a struggle to motivate students to read and study the Bible, and particularly in a meaningful way where they have to grasp its Big Story, think through what it actually says, and apply it appropriately to their own situations.
These issues lead us to the following questions:
- How do South Pacific Christians live with integrity in a context of poverty, corruption, trauma, and ethnic division?
- What is the purpose of a university?
- How might IFES groups be a peacemaker in student strikes?
- How might we build the capacity of IFES groups to engage with Big Questions?
This consultation showed the great value for networking and sharing ideas and resources between national movements. Given the geographic spread of the region and the great expense for travel within it, many participants feel isolated.
One participant said,
“The real strength of the South Pacific consultation was not actually the Big Issues we discussed… The starting point for that was a rare chance for significant relationship building between key leaders.’’
The “bottom-up” and consultative approach of the meeting was endorsed by some participants. They commented that it was challenging because they were not used to people asking their opinion, think through issues for themselves, plan action points, and be responsible for acting on it. They are too used to being told what to think and what to do.