Submission to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence
On the Ratification of the 2011 Asia-Pacific Convention on the Recognition of Higher Education Qualifications (Tokyo Convention 2011).
30 January 2020.
By Professor Shaista Shameem SJD, PHD, LLM, MA, LLB, BA.
Fellow of the Royal Society on the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (FRSA).
I am grateful to be provided with an opportunity to make submissions on the 2011 Asia-Pacific Convention on the Recognition of Higher Education Qualifications and its ratification by Fiji as proposed.
I have been involved in higher education for nearly 30 years in both Fiji and New Zealand and have taught generations of students in both countries. I feel that at my stage in life I am in a position to personally make some remarks in light of the Convention that may be useful to lawmakers of Fiji.
I make these remarks in my capacity as a citizen of Fiji and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce and not on behalf of my Employer, the University of Fiji where I am Dean of the Justice Devendra Pathik School of Law. I do acknowledge with pride the University, owned by the Arya Prathinidi Sabha and supported by a robust Council, which has provided affordable education to students who may not otherwise have been able to receive higher education. Many of the Professors of the University are eminent Fijian leaders, in particular I mention Professors Tupeni Baba and Subramani who are the gurus of our entire nation, and any student would be fortunate, from a local perspective, to have such experienced scholars provide them with a sound education which is based not only on a rigorous curriculum but also on ethical values common to all our societies in Fiji.
At the same time, those of us with lifelong experience in higher education in Fiji are faced with enormous difficulties emanating from global problems out of our control. To be upfront about this, the crises facing the world affects our own education system at its core. The students, who are our next generation of citizens are, in my view, seeking answers that we hope we can provide but I believe we have fallen far short in making them feel confident and secure, as well as providing them with sound ethical values that will serve them and the nation well in the future.
In fact, I have to be blunt- we are failing our students abysmally and I feel a deep sense of responsibility myself that I am not able to do more than what those of us in senior positions, who have the nation’s interest at heart, are already doing. It is just not physically possible to do more for the next generation unless we confront head on, as a society, what I regard as mediocrity in the global education system.
The new Convention, if ratified by Fiji, will help to alleviate some of these problems, for example, institutional weaknesses, democratic engagement and the ability of higher education to contribute effectively to the public good. I will elaborate on this a little later but I turn now to the value of the Convention itself.
2.0 The Convention
The key points of the Convention that are important for Fiji’s higher education framework and, for that reason alone, ought to be ratified are as follows:
- 1) Recognition of our own curriculum and qualifications. The Convention allows all signatories to respect each other’s higher education framework despite the diversity that exists in the Asia Pacific region. This goes to transferability and thus employability of our graduates in the region.
- 2) Collaboration. The Convention allows us to collaboratively support better quality in higher education due to the need to be able to transfer the knowledge gained by individuals who are residing in the states who are parties to it. This allows the up-skilling not just of the individuals but also of states to which knowledge is transferred. The quality of higher education is what concerns me now, particularly when we hear news that very few students have passed the 7th form maths examination in Fiji. Does the Convention provision on collaboration allow us to employ collaborative techniques to improve teaching standards and not just qualifications since it is not clear what causes the failure of high school students in such large numbers in one subject?
- 3) Standards. The Convention allows standardising of assessment of qualifications and this, in turn, introduces an element of common educational understanding among the parties in terms of the criteria to be used for measurement which is non-discriminatory and therefore reliable. Standardising should not mean one size fits all and thus we need to be able to explore the parameters of this clause to be able to allow for diversity of assessment of qualifications.
- 4) Accreditation of qualifications. These are not set in stone as the Convention allows parties to impose additional requirements suitable for their unique circumstances, and this is important in the Fijian sense, for our autonomy. The presumption that accreditation of our qualifications elsewhere has to meet certain criteria applies across the board for all state parties to the Convention.
- 5) Fiji’s international obligations towards refugees and internally displaced peoples is reflected in section 7 in case a qualification that is stated by a person in that position cannot be proven. Fiji has not opened her doors to refugees in any significant numbers yet, but the principle expressed in this clause is important.
- 6) The right to information is covered by section 8 and is well represented in the Fijian sense by the Fiji Higher Education Commission and the Ministry of Education which now have the relevant database and a rigorous approach to standardisation of the recording forms through their Fiji Qualifications Framework (FQF).
Impact on Fiji of ratification
Quite apart from adhering to Fiji’s obligations pursuant to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which emphasise life-long learning as well as gender-neutral access to affordable education overall, the impact of ratifying the Convention for improvement of our educational landscape will be felt immediately. As always, Fiji will be taking the leadership role by ratification and her people will be able to take advantage of jobs and qualifications in the region suitable to their career preferences.
However, there is more to ratifying the Convention and the process of compliance than merely joining the internationally benchmarked family. Importantly, the Convention provides us with a unique opportunity in Fiji to review our education system, particularly in terms of whether we meet the requirements necessary for a robust educational profile for future generations and for those who wish to pursue life-long learning as adults.
Issues pertinent to higher education in Fiji that will be assisted by ratification.
In this second part of my submissions I would like to survey some of the issues that those of us with a background in higher educational institutions in Fiji have learnt and, at the end, I address the benefits that may accrue with ratification and the future direction in education that the opportunity to ratify represents.
These are some questions that I raise for consideration for a further review of the educational framework of Fiji that ratification can allow.
- 1) Education as a social good and public service.
Do our higher educational institutions make any contribution to understanding important issues that face us, including of survival, for example, (i) environmental and economic challenges, (ii) the ways that our body politic can better earn the trust of the people, (iii) the idea of a public service, and (iv) corporate social irresponsibility? If not, how will ratification of this Convention help? It can but only if it opens up proper and inclusive discussion of all these issues by the public.
2) Research quality and not quantity
Research in higher educational institutions the world over, and Fiji is no exception, has become a key result area (KRA or KPI) that has pulled academics into publishing the results of research in obscure ‘ranked’ journals that no one reads and has little or no social impact. Research on improving a society so that it makes an effort to impact positively on the lives of people is not as much a priority in the academic career race. Thus what is academia in higher education about? This is true the world over and much has been written on it. Educators who consider that their job is also to be the critic and conscience of society recognise the difference between an ‘academic’ and an ‘intellectual’, but which one do we favour in higher education in Fiji?
3) Knowledge versus skills
In our higher education system are we teaching and learning ‘knowledge’ or ‘skills’? Do we as a nation sufficiently value knowledge, or do we value skills more? This raises the issue of the rise in the 20th and 21st centuries of ‘low value’ higher education and higher fees for low cost subjects.
Skills are less transferrable than knowledge. We emphasise technological skills but these are useless without adding knowledge represented by the human experience. If we do not take this matter on board for discussion, not just in Fiji but the world over, humans will come to resemble robots more. It will no longer be robots resembling humans but the other way round.
Furthermore, in the pursuit of formal education and qualifications how much do we appreciate the value of emotional intelligence as an educational attribute? EI constitutes things such as Self-Awareness, Self-Regulation, Motivation, Empathy and Social Skills. Is emotional intelligence encouraged at primary or high school? We should discuss this openly as a society.
4) Knowledge that matters
To acquire meaningful knowledge we should place emphasis on appropriate humanities and social science education in all the disciplines. Humanities, also called ‘liberal arts,’ and the social sciences, encourage critical thinking, intellectual flexibility, development of a social conscience, communication, team work, ability to work in diverse environments and writing aptitude. We also need to think about how we teach and not just what we teach, and also get beyond the confines of the disciplines. Peer learning has become an important new methodology of learning that has allowed us to move away from the top down hierarchical method used in our classrooms. Higher educational institutions should use the peer learning pedagogy to good effect because it turns failure into success.
The knowledge economy seeks to understand why the fundamental problems of society- namely poverty, law and order crises, gender inequality (and the trafficking that is a part of it) as well as violence against women and children, and also now climate change which is the ultimate effect of excessive waste and emissions brought about by the conventional ways of making a living- still exist. Are our higher educational institutions taking the responsibility of asking those hard questions?
5) The future of work
In the traditional sense, work is defined as the number of hours during the week where one is productive in a specific environment which has some value attached to it. Fiji’s employment legislation sets out the number of hours per week that an employer can expect an ordinary worker to work- maximum of 48 hours for example. The description of what can be achieved in that time period is set out in Job Descriptions or KPIs and measured against performance.
However, there is an increasingly popular view that ‘life skills’ or what some may call ‘soft skills’ are as important in work as formal qualifications. These are skills gained through providing support to the disadvantaged, or mentoring young people, or building houses for the homeless, volunteering and so on. Such skills are not usually included in CVs or resumes but in terms of the kind of work we will have to do in future, and life-long learning, they are significant. While not everyone works in a factory, the factory production format has risen to apply to bureaucrats’ and professionals’ work methods.
However, nowadays the employment frameworks are no longer uniform. Some countries and businesses have introduced a 4 day working week with marked success not just for work/life balance but for productivity. Can we ask that question for Fiji? What would be under discussion is not the future of work but the future of good work.
Ethical responsibility of the private sector is another question for us all. The issue is whether we can expect companies to behave ethically in all circumstances and what would be the definition of ethical conduct? Creating a work environment free from sexual or other harassment would be one example and I am pleased as a human rights advocate to see that Fiji’s employment legislation has played a large part in the transformation from exploitation to ethical conduct at work with ultimate oversight of this by the judiciary.
So how does ratifying the Convention assist with these five issues of concern for the civic minded person in relation to higher education in Fiji?
The light is focused on two aspects of the Convention- (i) the notion of wide recognition of qualifications to promote life-long education which will, if properly done, take care of the concerns relating to education as a social good and public service and the quality of research; and (ii) to emphasise collaboration in the advancement of knowledge which will take care of the concerns regarding knowledge versus skills, knowledge that matters and the future of good work.
Ratification of the Convention is not simply about standards and transferability of our degrees and qualifications in the region, but about the opportunities that ratifying gives us to open up the conversation, and space, for discussion of the social conditions that higher education can improve; and the value of higher education for transformation of the social milieu which surrounds us as a nation.
If we cannot find our students jobs that make them happy and fulfilled, and if they are not satisfied with the way the higher education system cannot currently prepare them for the world they need to face and the problems their countries obviously have, then we need to allow them to go elsewhere whether or not this would represent a skills flight. Ratifying the Convention opens up that opportunity.
Of course there is a way to prevent the brain drain but only if we first have a proper consultation on what the definition of national (and global) interest is with respect to employment and enjoying a decent life, and whether our national interest coincides at all with the personal preferences of students.
The core value of Fiji’s ratification of the Convention in my view is the fact that it allows us, as a nation, to open up space for a meaningful conversation with each other about higher education as a whole.
This is an opportunity we cannot miss if we are to progress with dignity and national pride alongside the other parties to the Convention.
Commentary based on questions from the Standing Committee:
Section II and III of the Tokyo Convention refer to the competence of the authorities in assessing qualifications as one of the measurements for complying with the Convention post-ratification. In Fiji this is served by the statutory Fiji Higher Education Commission which has an independent persona, though Ministerial approval is required for appointment of members of the Commission.
The Higher Education Act 2008 will need to be re-visited with a view to bringing it more strongly into conformity with the Convention for the purposes of compliance with the provisions on competence in assessment of qualifications. Section 6 (3) of the Act states as follows in relation to ministerial appointment of members of the Higher Education Commission:
Section 6 (3) In appointing the members of the Commission, the Minister shall consider members who have –
(a) substantial knowledge and experience with a balanced combination of post- graduate qualification and work experience;
(b) research and publication experience in any academic field;
(c) knowledge and experience of higher education academic affairs;
(d) knowledge and experience in governance and management of higher education institutions;
(e) knowledge and experience in the design, development and delivery of higher education courses; and
(f) independence and integrity.
In other words, those who have the statutory duty, as laid down in the Act, to assess qualifications at higher educational institutions must themselves be appropriately qualified to do so in regards to what is required pursuant to section 6 (3) of the Act. It is not sufficient to have industry experience (indeed industry experience is not necessary at all given the section 6 (3) provision) but higher educational qualifications and experience are mandatory. Furthermore, the qualifications established by the Act are cumulative as all of the sub-provisions must be fulfilled in each case.
The last provision, section 6 (3) (d) ‘independence and integrity’, goes to aspects such as ‘fit and proper’ person or ‘of good standing’ of the members and is as important as the mandatory formal qualifications (‘the Minister shall…’), pursuant to section 6 (3) (a), (b), (c), (d) and (e). This requirement also needs to be clearly and transparently established.
Thus Fiji’s ratification and compliance with the Tokyo Convention involves much more than mere existence of an entity entrusted with assessments of qualifications and accreditation. Those having this responsibility must themselves be qualified to do so. This specific requirement can be reviewed by the Government since those involved in higher education delivery of qualifications have the legitimate expectation that its governance, monitoring and evaluation are conducted by people actually qualified to do so. Otherwise there will be lack of confidence in government’s ability to provide the right mechanism for ensuring its compliance with the Tokyo Convention.
Higher education in Fiji is very important for the future development of the nation. Paying mere lip service to it and not considering the need for adherence to the legislation overall but specifically with the need for correct qualifications within the monitoring and compliance agency as required by the Higher Education Act of Fiji will make Fiji’s higher education programme not only structurally vulnerable but, embarrassingly, also open it up for criticism by those involved in it directly, thus jeopardising Fiji’s compliance responsibility to the international community.
The right to education is protected in Fiji’s Constitution as a human right and thus governance of the higher education mechanism in Fiji needs to be adequately and carefully scrutinised and monitored in view of higher education’s significance to the national interest. Those with a stake in higher education have a special duty to do so.