Across the Divide | Orientation towards Education – Part 14

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Dr Appanna, sitting second from right, with USP team and students of Rabi High School. Picture: SUPPLIED

In our last article, we highlighted that students these days are unable to make the critical link between effort and reward in order to become hardy contributors to society later on in life like our ancestors. Within the schooling system, this can be attributed to the fact that education has lost its rigor, exams are easier, teachers are not as demanding, parents have lifted their feet from the “push” pedal, one can pass to the next level at school even if one fails, getting into tertiary institutions has become so much easier, and most importantly, education and educational achievement does not carry the same meaning as it did in the past. Keen followers of this series will recall that we attributed part of the blame for this on a mellowing down in parental guidance and expectations.

Parents these days do not hold back on the ever-increasing demands from their children in the same manner as we encountered in the past. If a child cannot get the right amount of pocket money from one parent, s/he plays the other and makes it a game of who is a better parent. The same goes for any other requirements the child might come up with – many of these would have been considered fanciful in the not-too-distant past. In the process, the whole meaning of parenting is modified by the savvy child. There are other environmental factors that have contributed to the easing of focus on effort. Getting driving licenses for instance has become so much easier. There is no dreaded 3-point turn or stop and start on a hill to worry about – forget about mastering the Road Code. All one needs to do is go through the motions, smile beatifically (if one is a female) or give encouraging signs (if one is a male) and voila, one becomes a licensed terror on our roads.

When attempting to get official approvals, it is not uncommon to cut corners and get it anyway. With the rapid and widespread emergence and normalization of consumerism, people have begun to purchase convenience at every turn. The plastic/paper plate and cutlery do not need to be washed. The diaper  is not reused; they can simply be disposed of correctly (if only!). The vutu/ivi doesn’t need to be cut painstakingly, they are readily available (even cooked). I do not wish to labour this point too much here, but it should be obvious that deprived/difficult circumstances, absence of choices and little or no room to negotiate does ingrain a healthy understanding and respect for that all-important link between effort and reward. Let us move our focus back to reforms in education and how students view education and educational achievements these days.

Changes in the Orientation of Students

We asserted earlier that education has lost its rigor and that education and educational achievement does not carry the same meaning as it did in the past. On the one hand, in the interests of egalitarianism, it is good that we have so many more graduates now than just a decade ago. Unfortunately, the quality of graduates has undergone shocking changes. I remember how in the 1970s, when I was a primary school student at South Taveuni Indian School, our teachers were predominantly certificate holders from Nasinu Teachers College (NTC). Any official document that was received was largely taken to them because they were considered capable to decipher and advice on them. These teachers were able to assist even though they were only certificate holders.

The same cannot be expected from our graduates these days. That is the degree to which standards have fallen and there are ongoing demands to ease the path even further. Just for the purposes of making my point, the normal academic rankings in educational awards are as follows: Certificate, Diploma, Bachelor’s Degree, post-Graduate, Master’s Degree, Doctorate. We have widely documented lamentations from industry leaders like Ram Bajekal, Jenny Seeto and ex-PM Frank Bainimarama that the bulk of our graduates do not make the mark as expected. In fact, many have pointed out shortcomings in literacy and numeracy skills. We will discuss this later in this series. Here, let’s focus more closely on how students view education and educational achievements these days.

I remember when I graduated with a BA in 1986, it was considered a huge achievement and a badge of honour. This was because the path to that degree was much more strenuous and difficult in those days. Getting 200/400 in Form 6 did not guarantee a government scholarship then. In fact, there was keen competition for scholarships because they were scarce and burning the midnight oil was the only way to it. A scholarship ensured that one would get into the University of the South Pacific (USP). The next step then was to plough through the next four years of university studies. Failing a course was not an option and it invoked silent scorn and shame.

These days, passing Form 7 is not too much of a worry and getting past that 200-mark target virtually assures government assistance – I believe there has been some tinkering with this in recent times and the threshold has moved to 250 marks. That, however, is 250 marks in a highly watered-down examination schedule. I don’t believe anyone would argue that the current Fiji School Leavers Certificate examination is more rigorous than the NZ University Entrance Examination that we encountered and conquered. Scoring above 300/400 marks invoked huge respect in those days. Anyone who achieved that was considered to be in an elite category of students. And we worked very hard to achieve that because it also guaranteed a government scholarship.

At university, on the very first day when we lined up and went through that arduous whole-day process to get our ID cards and room keys, we knew that we were special. We knew that we had been given a very special opportunity. And we dug in with a silent vow that we would attain that elusive qualification. Only the very brave or cocky amongst us talked about graduation at that early stage because we knew it was far away and there was a huge ground to cover before we could get to it. Assessment due dates were strictly adhered to; no one thought of asking for extensions or negotiating for new dates. Hardly anyone actually missed deadlines. These days it’s all negotiable and a strict teacher becomes a public enemy without realizing why.

There is much more to say on the path to that first degree between students of yesteryear and those of today; that will come later. Here I wish to move focus to how students view failing and passing. A decade before the turn of this century, students had coined the interesting phrase, “ketna daga” or how many did you fail? This was a very common question among students during the first week of the semester. Up to the 1980s, if one failed a course, it was a huge source of shame. Here, it appeared to be viewed as some sort of weird achievement. I believe that was the point at which seriousness went out of how students viewed exams and the whole concept of passing and failing.

The changes in perception did not stop there. Attaining a degree is no longer considered a high achievement. There are many reasons for this, and we will discuss this later. I remember when I came back to Fiji and joined USP as a lecturer in 1991, there was huge respect all around for my achievement. People acknowledged the fact that I had completed a Diploma is Japanese Studies from Osaka University of Foreign Studies and an MA from the prestigious Sophia University in Tokyo. I highlight this stint in Japan because it required a lot of confidence to want to study in Japan at the time.

This is because Japan was considered to be “very far” from us at that time. There was no Google or internet for ready access to information on that “mysterious” country. My only knowledge of Japan, prior to focusing on bagging a scholarship to study there, came from that famous Bond Movie – You Only Live Twice. I knew nothing about the lifestyle, culture or language of the country. This, however, did not deter me as I took the plunge into the unknown. There is a whole story to tell about my life in both Osaka and Tokyo. Suffice to say that I have never regretted making that choice and I continue to be proud of my association with that internationally respected country.

Readers will have noted that I referred to Sophia University as “prestigious”. This is because at that time (1980s-90s) diplomats to Japan and their children primarily enrolled at that university. I was delighted to meet our own Ambassador Robin Yarrow’s daughter at Sophia University in 1995. Now aside from this fact, the faculty of that university included: Professors Robert Ballon, James Abegglen, Sadako Ogata, Saadollah Ghaussy, Gene Gregory, Gregory Clark, Kimitada Miwa, etc. Professor James Abegglen was shortlisted for US Ambassador to Japan in 1990 and Professor Sadako Okada was later appointed as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. It is clear that the staff rank was filled with luminaries and the university was ranked in the top 5 in the country.

The point being made here is that the MA that I brought back to Fiji from Japan in 1991 was considered a huge achievement at the time. MAs these days do not invoke the same sort of respect and awe. I will expand on this in my next article as it helps understand how student orientation towards education has changed so drastically.

  •     Dr. Subhash Appanna is a senior USP academic who has been regularly writing on issues of historical and national significance. The views expressed here are his alone and not necessarily shared by this newspaper or his employers