Education sectors at all levels are going through a major change. COVID-19 has provided a lever to deeply reflect on education policies and reforms that are required in the 21st century.
These changes relate to primary, secondary and tertiary education. There is no doubt that developed countries are moving fast and others are catching up.
But Fiji seems to be ignoring global developments in education. There are significant developments taking place to align education policy and systems with 21st century needs and expectations of learners and society.
What Fiji requires is innovative use of technology, investment in research and new discovery, as well as upskilling of workers to adapt to the new normal.
The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us many lessons. Students at all levels have been affected. The Ministry of Education, Heritage and Arts has realised that it does not have the technology to smoothly transition to remote learning.
Because of lack of infrastructure, many teachers are not trained to use new teaching technologies. Neither are schools equipped with technology and human capability to teach and support students in an online learning environment.
Similarly, tertiary education institutions struggled to accommodate the needs of students for remote delivery. Only institutions such as the University of South Pacific that has a long history of online learning had the technological infrastructure and staff capacity to transition to online delivery.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that many first-year students failed their subjects while studying remotely. The failure rate is high among those students who are first in their family to access tertiary education.
The failure is attributed to a lack of online teaching technologies, lack of personalised learning support, and lack of remote access to specialist labs and software in certain courses.
The developments in technology are not only related to the education sector. There are significant developments taking place in all industries. These include health, transport, logistics and in engineering.
The use of artificial intelligence, data analytics and “internet of things” are fast emerging. Our failure to recognise the global developments will impact the next generation of graduates and technological innovations in industries.
We are significantly lagging behind in research and new discovery. Universities in Fiji are mainly teaching-only institutions.
While the University of South Pacific (USP) requires academic staff to actively pursue research, USP’s outputs are very low.
Newly established institutions such as the Fiji National University and the University of Fiji have a long way to go to build capacity for research. The Government has neither funded nor focused its attention on strengthening research capacity.
Research and new discovery requires funding, infrastructure and training of researchers. Innovation in research also requires governments to encourage new discovery and dissemination of the findings.
In the past, academics in Fiji had the freedom to undertake research and disseminate findings in the media and other publications.
Previous governments have engaged academic peers in the formation of public policy informed by research.
However, the deportation of the USP Vice-Chancellor and intrusion on academic freedom with prominent senior academics in Fiji raises many questions on the extent to which academics can widely disseminate research without any fear of victimisation.
A university’s role is to educate citizens and bring new knowledge and discovery. A university’s role is also to pursue truth and without it, democracy cannot function.
We have seen facts being altered; debates on issues of significance that have been ruled out and those that are in pursuit of truth are targeted.
Across the world, history suggests that democracy and truth drive peace and progress. A classic example of research, discovery and dissemination is the COVID-19 vaccine.
Many months of work was undertaken by researchers in many countries to test and trial suitable vaccines. Without research and discovery, it would not be possible to find the solution to the current global problem we are facing.
Our education system at all levels is significantly lagging behind. The Ministry of Education, Heritage and Arts is unable to provide an example of excellence in our education system which we could be proud of, even in the Pacific Islands.
We have serious problems with the medical and health system. Hundreds of people die in our hospitals because of poor infection control. Challenges related to diabetes and cardio-vascular disease confronting Fiji; require further research and new discovery to solve our health problems. For many years, we have relied on India to treat our citizens.
As a result, each year hundreds of Fiji citizens travel to India for treatment. But for how long will we do this? Do we rely on others to solve our health problems or can we build capacity in Fiji to respond?
We have built hospitals, we have increased the salaries of doctors by 70 per cent, and we have two medical schools, but we don’t seem to engage in research that solves our health problems.
The 21st century workforce is driven by technology. Industries require workers to adapt to the changing technologies.
For example, the construction industry requires engineers to be proficient in the use of various building and construction management-related software applications.
Similarly, the health sector requires professionals with skills related to digital health and analytics. The financial industry also requires professionals to have the skills in FinTech (finance technology).
If our education system is not innovative, then a ripple effect will threaten the effectiveness and efficiencies of our businesses and industries. Multi-national companies require workers to be mobile.
At present, when students complete Bachelor’s degrees in many fields of education in Fiji, they are unable to gain accreditation in neighbouring countries such as Australia and New Zealand.
Nursing, medicine, and pharmacy are some of many examples.
People completing trade qualifications in areas such as electrical, plumbing and others are similarly unable to practice their profession in other countries regardless of their often many years of experience.
We need to ensure that our courses of study are accredited by international professional bodies to ensure comparability of standards.
International accreditation provides confidence to overseas universities, professional bodies and employers about the reputation of our education system, and quality and standards of our curriculum.
Ceasing the funding of tertiary loans and suspending university funding will not help to improve our education system.
The minister’s focus so far has been on closing schools, managing student behaviour and most recently suggesting that boxing could be introduced in schools.
This narrow focus only on operational matters will not improve broader policy and strategic reforms in education. We have indeed come a long way, but we are still very much behind.
- Mahsood Shah is a professor and dean at an Australian University. The views expressed in this article are his own and not the university’s or of this newspaper. Readers can contact Mahsood at email@example.com