May 09, 2021 Last Updated 7:04 AM, May 7, 2021

A multimillion-dollar program aimed at supporting “a more prosperous Pacific driven by a skilled, competitive and productive workforce” is undergoing controversial changes which could have significant impacts on the future of vocational training in the Pacific Island region. 

The new leadership at the Australia Pacific Training Coalition (APTC) says it’s a necessary response to the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impacts. But there’s concern amongst some stakeholders that the process has been opaque, as it is based on a strategic review and rapid assessment that few people have seen, and that it marks a shift away from meaningful Pacific Islands nations’ input into the Coalition’s work.

APTC was established in 2007 as the Australia-Pacific Technical College, and began work a year later. Over that period, the Australian government has invested more than A$350 million (US$271 million) in the effort. Corporate materials state that it has supported 16,000 graduates across 14 Pacific countries, working with TVET (Technical and Vocational Educational and Training) institutions in Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu, and offering Australian-recognised qualifications and other training. It has since transitioned to become the Australia Pacific Training Coalition.

APTC is managed by TAFE Queensland, specifically TAFE Queensland International Education (TQIE), a company limited by shares that was established in July 2017. TAFE Queensland’s 2019-20 annual report states that TQIE’s primary source of revenue is from the APTC contract. In 2019-20 TQIE recognised revenues totalling A$5.91 million (US$4.57 million).

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Our children are valuable and we have the responsibility to ensure that they are educated;  that they have the basic needs to go through school.”

That’s the firmly-held belief of Vunilagi Book Club founder Mariana Waqa, who for four years has worked with a group of volunteers to bring high-quality books and literacy programs into a sprawling Suva informal settlement.

The settlement in which they work, Nanuku, is just three kilometres from Suva’s city centre and a stone’s throw from the University of the South Pacific. USP academics Nicholas Halter and Anawaite Matadradra have written of the challenges that face the people of Nanuku: most live below the poverty line and suffer social stigma and discrimination for that reason. Few residents have toilets, running water or electricity. “The settlement can also be dangerous,” they write, “with regular instances of substance abuse, violence and criminal activity. In some cases, families can leave the settlement suddenly, forced by financial difficulties or domestic crises to move.”

While Fiji’s literacy level is high, estimates range between between 91% and 99%,  the story is different for many children in informal settlements. In  Nanuku, “in some cases, children above the age of six were struggling to recognise phonics, and children as old as fourteen were unable to read independently,” Halter and Matadradra write, attributing this to overcrowded classrooms, inadequate school libraries and the children’s living conditions.

Mariana Waqa started the Vunilagi Book Club after she spent seven weeks surveying the settlement for Uniting World. “During that time I saw not only the poverty within the community, but I saw so many children not going to school, being at home. I didn’t see one children’s book in any of the homes that I went into, so that was just something that was in the back of my mind.”

Back in Australia where she was studying at the time, she realised “my time here wasn’t finished.”

She started Vunilagi Book Club  with the idea that “books take you places. It’s not just about reading so you can pass your English exam, but that reading is actually a key to information.”

Initially Waqa got the support of her community in Melbourne to help buy high quality books she had selected and plotted on a spreadsheet. ”Then we began in February 2018.  The idea was really simple, it was just to spend some time reading to the children,  with the children,  and  it evolved from there.”

The initiative required perseverance. The initial uptake was slow and some community members told her, “look we know you have good intentions, but this kind of stuff is just not going to work in a community like Nanuku. The children are not interested in what you’ve brought;  we don’t want to waste your time and their time as well.”

Waqa asked for more time, and after a few months, “it just caught on.”

“I wanted to  create a safe space where the children are welcomed despite whatever ethnic group religious group they came from;  that when they entered into the Vunilagi space in that church that they were welcomed , valued and that they could understand they could come even with their limitations and it wouldn’t be an issue, we would just take them.” 

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As the tertiary sector in New Zealand prepares to shift online in response to COVID-19 restrictions, digital equity among students has never been more critical – an issue that disproportionately impacts on Pacific and Māori communities.   

AUT Vice-Chancellor, Derek McCormack has announced that AUT is underlining its commitment to access by providing computer equipment and broadband to thousands of its students.   

During the four-week study break, the University canvassed students to establish their digital needs.

The survey indicated that six per cent of AUT students do not have a laptop, tablet or PC at home that they can use for study purposes. In addition, 17 per cent of students do not have broadband at home in order to connect to learning and support. According to Open Colleges, 81% of U.S teachers think tablets can enrich classroom learning, and 86% of students believe that their tablets can help them to study more efficiently.  

Assistant Vice-Chancellor Pacific Advancement and South Campus, Walter Fraser, led the digital equity and access initiative that has resulted in AUT securing up to 1,500 laptops and purchasing up to 4,000 connectivity packages, a move that that will enable AUT students with identified technological barriers to pursue online learning and continue their studies.  

“The impact of COVID-19 is being disproportionately born by our most vulnerable and, in New Zealand, many of these are our Pacific and Māori communities, and especially in South Auckland,” he says.  

“Over the past three years, I have been pulling together data that has brought into sharp focus the inequities that poverty and deprivation creates. About one in five of our students live in areas that score 9-10 on the New Zealand Deprivation Index. Initiatives to bridge the technology divide and ensure digital equity are an example of a paradigm shift in the way our university is addressing these issues.  

“AUT has endeavoured to ensure that all of our students, irrespective of socio-economic status or ethnicity have the best possible chance to be successful with their studies,” Mr Fraser says.   

“I can’t underscore enough the unequivocal and unanimous support that this initiative has received from every quarter of the University and in particular our senior management colleagues and AUT Council.” 

Fiji National University is celebrating its 10th anniversary as a national university, but 150th anniversary as an education provider. Talking to Islands Business just before his recent departure, FNU Vice-Chancellor Professor Nigel Healey said one of the things that has pleased him most during his tenure was the sense of unity and community the university now has, having historically formed from disparate colleges.

FNU has about 1000 regional students, many of them studying medicine or in TVET (vocational) engineering courses. The largest numbers come from Solomon Islands and Samoa, but other countries are represented as well.

Professor Healey says FNU is distinguished from other unis through its strong vocational focus, and strong provision of sub-degree or TVET level qualifications.

“We really educate  people for careers for jobs…all the programs are very closely integrated with the employment market. So we design the courses in collaboration with employer groups and professional bodies and all of our courses have what we call workplace attachments.”

Fiji has three universities and more than 50 colleges. Is the market large enough to support them all?

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Dodging the digital divide

  • May 10, 2021
  • Published in April

It will be two long months before Fijian children are back at school; classrooms are scheduled to reopen on June 15

Like them, children in many other Pacific nations and territories are learning at home, or taking extended holidays,  as a result of COVID-19 precautionary measures. Globally, the UN education and cultural agency, UNESCO says this is revealing a startling digital divide, as half of all students currently out of the classroom,or nearly 830 million learners globally, do not have access to a computer.

Writing from Queensland, academic  Carol Farbotko and community leader Taukiei Kitara have suggested this period will give Tuvaluan students more time to join in fishing, farming, and production of handicrafts, thereby “strengthening customary knowledge systems.” However two Tuvalu government employees,  Tala Simeti and Jess Marinaccio are concerned about the logistics of reopening schools, writing in DevPolicy: “if schools re-open too late and students are forced to repeat a year, this may have major ramifications for the entire education system.”

Alongside Kiribati and Vanuatu, Tuvalu offers its students the South Pacific Form Seven Certificate (SPFSC) course. How will they fare during the education lockdown?

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