Teaching and Learning Forum 97 [ Contents ]

Who are these students? The cultural background of some past and future AusAID students from Papua New Guinea and elsewhere

David Lake
Academic Services Unit
Murdoch University


Introduction

AusAID students are an important component of the Australian overseas student intake. In the early days of the Colombo plan they constituted the vast majority of our overseas students although in recent years they have been vastly outnumbered by full fee paying students. By virtue of the government requirements for issuing aid we can expect that these AusAID students will come from cultures that differ radically from the dominant Australian university culture. For example, they are often from countries where the bulk of the population live in rural areas and subsistence agriculture is the most common occupation.

This is quite different to the background of most full fee paying overseas students. By definition, self-sponsoring students have access to sufficient funding to pay for university fees and living costs while they are in Australia. While this may not necessarily make them wealthy, it does imply a familiarity with a Western-style economy which cannot be assumed for many of the AusAID students.

Unfortunately, with the increasing numbers of full fee paying overseas students in Australian universities, the needs of the two groups are sometimes conflated to the detriment of the minority AusAID students.

It also sometimes appears that Australian universities have forgotten that the Australian university experience is a brief interlude in the lives of these students, perhaps only five percent of their lives. Despite the brevity of their stay, the aim of bringing these students to an Australian university is to make a real difference in their lives, and the lives of others in their home country. Their experience will be wasted if they return to their home country at the end of their degree without skills that can be put practical use. Yet there are disturbing reports that this has been the case for some students from non-Western backgrounds (Hogan, 1996).

Basic pedagogical theory would dictate that two factors are of particular importance in making any educational experience effective. Firstly, it is necessary to consider what the learner brings with them to the learning situation and work from that point. For AusAID students, this would mean Australian universities taking account of their cultural and educational backgrounds. Secondly, it is necessary to provide an educational experience that is relevant to the needs of the students, rather than the needs of the educator. For AusAID students this would mean providing knowledge, skills and attitudes that will be of value in their home country. If issues of familiarity and relevance are ignored when dealing with students from non-Western backgrounds, their stay in Australia will be a brief interlude, unrelated and irrelevant to the reality of life in their home country.

This paper looks at how Australian universities are dealing with the AusAID students' needs for familiarity on arrival, and relevance for departure in the offerings provided. It uses data and case studies, drawn from Papua New Guinean teachers college students (many of whom go on to become AusAID students) and lecturers who are ex-AusAID students, to suggests some alternative approaches.

Familiarity

An attempt to use familiarity to make the link between the home and the Australian experience can draw on both the educational and extra-educational history of the student. In the case of AusAID students there can be significant misunderstandings by Australian academics about both.

Assumption 1: Australian and Papua New Guinean syllabi are virtually indistinguishable in content, pedagogy and values.

Reality: Lack of confidence by Papua New Guinean teachers means that many lessons never get taught. Less than 60% of science lessons are taught in urban areas (Wilson, 1979) and probably half that in rural areas (Lake, 1994). While subsequent education may deal with more advanced knowledge, basic knowledge gaps can remain.
Strategy: Supervisors should not assume that familiarity with more advanced concepts is associated with comprehension of simpler concepts. Ongoing independent support is needed to provide opportunities to discuss basic knowledge in a non-threatening environment.

Assumption 2: Activities in the curriculum can be done.

Reality: Most Papua New Guinean schools do not have lenses, springs or magnets, much less the microscopes, chemicals or balances that are essential for most science experiments. Few students would have more than a fraction of the science experiences of Australian children.
Strategy: Supervisors should not assume familiarity with equipment because it is common in Australian schools and universities. Often the more basic pieces of equipment cause the most difficulty. Ongoing independent support is needed to provide basic expertise in a non-threatening environment.

Assumption 3: Treating all students in the same way avoids prejudice.

Reality: Australia is amongst the most individualistic societies on earth, yet many AusAID students come from collectivist cultures (Hofstede, 1980). Collectivist schooling avoids questioning authority or highlighting individual performance; university tutorials and presentations given do both. While studies at UPNG (Wilson & Wilson, 1981) suggest formal thought may be as prevalent in Papua New Guinean students as in the West, the threatening conditions of the tutorial will not allow its display.
Strategy: AusAID students need opportunities to work in cooperative groups during their first year of candidature, and should not be required to give individual presentations during that time. Ongoing training in appropriate cultural expression is required throughout the student's candidature.

Assumption 4: All students need the same conditions to learn.

Reality: Collectivist cultures take an holistic view, relying more on team work to complete practical, concrete tasks. Yet many Australian universities introduce students to isolated theoretical aspects of content and methodology in the isolation of the library before allowing them to participate in practical laboratory work where they can build relationships with co-workers.
Strategy: New students should be encouraged to participate in 'leg work', while building relationships and gaining an overview, before tackling theoretical aspects. Students should work in cooperative groups wherever possible.

Assumption 5: Since many AusAID students hold government jobs they possess the skills to succeed in Western education.

Reality: Over half the Papua New Guinea trainee teachers' parents are subsistence farmers (Table 1). Two-thirds had less than seven years schooling (Table 2). We cannot assume that these students have the necessary study skills to develop their potential in a foreign system.
Strategy: Ongoing independent learning skills support in a non-threatening environment is required throughout candidature.

Table 1: Occupations of parents from the Madang Teachers College
1991, 1992 and 1993 intake students*

Parental OccupationNumber of Students
frequency%

Urban occupations
Professional
Teaching
Trade (eg carpenter, mechanic)
Clerical
Semi skilled (eg driver, sailor)
Unskilled (eg cookboy, road worker)
35
30
43
8
9
5
10
9
13
2
3
1
Rural occupations
Cash cropping
Village business
Village elder/councillor
Subsistence farmer
5
5
7
174
1
1
2
52
Other
(eg dead, retired)
144

Total335100

*Where a student has two parents in paid employment, only the highest skilled occupation is shown.



Table 2: Years of schooling for parents of Madang Teachers College
students in the 1991, 1992 and 1993 intakes.

Years of SchoolingFather's schoolingMother's schooling

No school124 (36%)164 (48%)
Community School
1
2
3
4
5
6
1
5
6
12
3
33
1
7
8
12
4
49
Community School total60 (18%)81 (24%)
Provincial High School
7
8
9
10
4
32
6
35
2
20
3
29
Provincial High School total77 (23%)52 (15%)
National High School
and Vocational
11
12
2
33
1
19
National HS and Vocational total35 (10%)20 (6%)
University
>12262
University Total26 (8%)2 (1%)
Length of schooling unknown 18 (5%)19 (6%)

Total340340

Assumption 6: AusAID students working in the cash economy, they share common Western experiences.

Reality: Sixty percent of trainee teachers in Papua New Guinea lived more than three quarters of their lives in rural villages, most leaving only to further their education, often in other rural locations. Even this figure reflects the elite nature of this group compared with the general population where only 15% of the population rely on the cash economy (Tetaga, 1993) . About one third of students had used a television once or never (Table 3). One ex-AusAID student spent her first allowance in Australia on dry-cleaning because she did not understand the laundromat, and was so shamed that she could not concentrate for several months.
Strategy: Ongoing peer and administrative support is required throughout candidature.

Table 3: Use of television technology by Madang Teachers College
students in the 1991, 1992 and 1993 intakes (n = 352)

Type of technology
Amount of useVideo-recorderTelevision

almost every day
frequently
sometimes
once
never
29
76
148
24
75
32
63
149
30
78

Assumption 7: Since it is the language of instruction, students are fluent in English.

Reality: 5% of trainee teachers speak English at home (Table 4): Two-thirds use one of a wide range of vernacular languages (Table 5). Some vernaculars do not readily support concepts required in many disciplines (Kelly & Philp, 1975)). One AusAID education student failed to distinguish between concepts and clusters in his thesis.
Strategy: Ongoing independent specialist linguistic assistance is needed throughout candidature.

Table 4: Language normally spoken at home by Madang Teachers College trainees.

Language1990199119921993Total

English
Melanesian Pidgin
Tok Ples
Not Known
8
49
114
8
6
33
85
0
6
38
80
0
9
44
69
0
29
164
348
8

Total179124124122549

Table 5: Vernacular languages normally spoken at home for the 1991-1993
student intakes at Madang Teachers College

No. Students Speaking LanguageNumber of Languages

Languages spoken by 1 student
Languages spoken by 2 students
Languages spoken by 3 students
Languages spoken by 4 students
Languages spoken by 5 students
Languages spoken by 8 students
Languages spoken by 9 students
Languages spoken by 12 students
Languages spoken by 15 students
78
12
8
3
4
2
3
1
1
(Jiwaka, Kiriwina)
(Kuman, Motu, Melpa)
(Enga)
(Kuanua)

Total No. of vernacular languages112named tok ples *

* 6 students were unable to name the tok ples commonly used in their home

Relevance

Relevance for the student will ease their way back into their home culture at the end of their Australian stay. If their studies have been relevant they may be able to implement ideas and practices into their work on return. Success in these early attempts seems to be important in continuing to use the knowledge, skills and attitudes gained in Australia: failure at this time can easily result in a rejection of all that has been learned. Thus, knowledge, skills and attitudes learned need to be compatible with the students' home cultures.

Irrelevant content knowledge

Assumption: Students can adapt content.

Reality: Students can see overseas study as a break from reality. One Papua New Guinean ex-AusAID agriculture student studied dairy, wheat and sheep farming. Five years later he could not think of one way in which his (most enjoyable) stay in Australia had helped him.
Strategy: Supervisors need to be aware of the conditions their trainees will return to.

Inappropriate technological skills

Assumption: Countries adopt the most advanced technologies available.

Reality: Dependence on sophisticated, interdependent technologies is usually unsustainable. This has previously been noted in relation to Papua New Guinean needs (O'Donoghue, 1994). One ex-AusAID student returned to Papua New Guinea enthusiastic about implementing a computer education into local schools without electricity and unable to afford calculators.
Strategy: The students' need skills in technologies that can sustained in their home countries. Supervisors need awareness of the conditions under which their trainees will work.

Cultural clashes in values

Assumption: Westernisation will be accompanied by Western values.

Reality: Students cannot present themselves in a manner acceptable in a collectivist culture (Hogan, 1996). Only by retaining shared values with the home culture can the students (and their ideas) be accepted as a member of the ingroup (Triandis, 1995). Yet much of the training received in Australian universities stresses an adversarial approach to the falsification of knowledge claims (for example, Trusted, 1979). For example, while the Matane report (1986) recognises the need for individualistic approaches it stresses communalistic values.

Traditional education was based on obligation to the clan. In replacing social emphasis with concern for the individual child, has education lost sight of the importance of responsibility, justice and respect for others? (p4)

Strategy: Non-confrontational approaches to critical thinking (eg D'Agostino (1989)) need investigation. Ongoing negotiation is required to ensure that the students' skills remain acceptable at home.

Summary

The problems described are not typical for full-fee-paying overseas students and must not be conflated with them. However, from my experience they appear to be quite common among many AusAID students. The notions that AusAID students' experiences in Australia need to be structured according to their prior experience and their future needs if they are to be of lasting value is not surprising. What is surprising is how many graduates of Australian (and other Western universities) return to their home countries unable to build on the knowledge, skills and attitudes that they acquired during their overseas stay because the host universities failed to appreciate their needs in these areas. Too often the 'bridging course' in the first few weeks (or even days) is considered sufficient to ensure transition into the Australian university culture. Even less consideration is given to the other end of their candidature. The needs of students from non-Western type cultures are not amenable to 'quick fixes'. They require ongoing assistance throughout their candidature; without this assistance, given in an appropriate manner, educational value for money will remain well below the optimum. At a time when Australian universities are competing to market education as a consumer product it is perhaps appropriate for aid donors to demand on-going specialist support as a standard item rather than an optional extra.

References

Ministerial Committee Report. (1986). A philosophy of education for Papua New Guinea. (Chairperson: Matane, P.). PNG Government Printer, Port Moresby.

D'Agostino, F. (1989). Adjudication as an epistemological synthesis. Synthese, 79:231-256 Hofstede, G. (1980). Culture's consequences. Sage, Beverley Hills.

Hogan, C. (1996). What is the extent of responsibilities of universities to prepare overseas students to return to their home countries? Proc. 1996 Teaching and Learning Forum, Perth. pp83-91.

Kelly, M. & Philp, H. (1975). Vernacular test instructions in relation to cognitive task behaviour among highland children of Papua New Guinea. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 45:189-197.

Lake, D. C. (1994). Cultural views of science. Proc. Twenty-fifth Annual Conference of the Australasian Science Education Research Association.

O'Donoghue, T. A. (1994). Transnational knowledge transfer and the need to take cognisance of contextual realities: a Papua New Guinean case study. Educational Review, 46:73-88.

Tetaga, J. (1993). Educational reform in Papua New Guinea. In Thurlwall, C & Avalos, B. (eds.), Participation and educational change: Implications for educational reform in Papua New Guinea. UPNG, Port Moresby.

Triandis, H. C. (1995). Individualism and collectivism. Westview, Boulder Colorado.

Trusted, J. (1979). The logic of scientific inference: An introduction. Macmillan, London.

Wilson, A. (1979). Science in the community school. Papua New Guinea J. Education, 15:138-153.

Wilson, M. & Wilson, A. (1981). Formal operational thought and science teaching in Papua New Guinea. Papua New Guinea J. Education, 17:187-199.

Please cite as: Lake, D. (1997). Who are these students? The cultural background of some past and future AusAID students from Papua New Guinea and elsewhere. In Pospisil, R. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p187-193. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1997. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1997/lake.html


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