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John Roughan: Solomons Hosts USP's Newest Campus

Solomon Islands Hosts USP's Newest Campus

By John Roughan
20 September 2004

Solomon Islands will soon be the home of USP's forth campus. Three others stretch across the Pacific. Vanuatu's campus, for instance, specializes in law, Samoa's Alafua's focuses on agriculture while the mother campus in Suva, Fiji concentrates on other faculties-education, sciences, distance education, etc. What, if any, should Solomons' specialty be?

One way to tackle this serious issue would be to focus on the reasons why we suffered five years of Social Unrest. In that light, what then is the country's greatest academic need-educating more teachers, producing first-rate public servants, developing a local Peace Institute, inaugurating a Land's Couse, instituting a political science faculty, starting up a population institute, etc. etc?

While each of these possible institutes or specialized study areas has much to recommend itself, perhaps a longer view of Solomons' history and its problematic future is called for. For instance, would the above-mentioned institutes/bodies adequately respond to the fundamental reasons for our 1998-2003 Social Unrest years?

How well would these courses and studies prepare our young people for the problems they will certainly face in this 21st century? Should we basically steer our newest education vehicle by paying greater attention to what we see in our rear view mirror rather than focusing on the road in front of us?

For instance, I see three areas of deep concern looming in our face for the whole of this century. The country's first major issue is our growing food insecurity-food production, storage/preservation, nutritional aspects, etc.. Since 1978 our country's food security-ability to produce sufficient food for our rapidly growing population-has weakened by about 1% a year. In other words our primary food producers-read women gardeners, fishermen, shellfish gatherers-are growing, catching and gathering less and less food each year.

Our $70 million yearly import bill for rice, other grains and foodstuffs make up for our food deficiencies but we really can't afford it. Rather than becoming less we are now more dependent on others for our food. Australia, New Zealand and eastern Asia love all the money we send them for their food exports. That good will, however, would dry up in a twinkling of an eye if and when our dollars stopped flowing.

But our food insecurity is more than an agricultural issue. It's not merely a matter of growing more food but tackling the structural issues, the underlying causes, why we grow less and have become dependent on others to feed us. Our growing food insecurity certainly concerns our weakening agricultural sector but the reasons behind our growing weakness-the social, cultural, political and economic issues-need to be addressed.

For example, what place does the nation's unsustainable logging industry, cash crops' chemical pollutants, slash and burn agricultural practices, destruction of water sources, dying reefs, over-fishing, growing population numbers, etc. play in our food insecurity. Politics, they say, is far too important to be left to politicians. So too, our growing food insecurity is a matter of national concern and not simply an Agriculture Department problem. Our newest USP campus should be at the forefront of this vital issue.

Our second most pressing problem area and one which must also inform our choice of what kind of a USP campus we should be thinking about is our illiteracy problem. The lack of basic reading and writing skills among so many of our people is but the most clearly national education weakness. Our 1999 Census informs us that almost 7 out of 10 Solomon Islanders read and write. Yet, in 1992 when Dr. Mosley conducted her Literacy Survey for the Honiara Town Council she found less than 3 out 10 men, women and young people could read and write. How could we have jumped so high in so short a time frame? Or is it that the lower number is the true count of our national illiteracy? Illiteracy is the tip of an iceberg! The social, cultural and economicdimensions surrounding illeteracy are huge.

Our third most important area which our youth will face is the issue of focused knowledge on our resource base. When I first arrived in the Solomons, many a village child loved to capture a large Birdwing butterfly, attach it to the hair and let the poor thing fly up and down until it died of exhaustion. At the time I had no inkling that these beautiful creatures could fetch more than US$40 each, if in prime condition.

Our resource base-land, trees, soil, plants, insects, coral, reef, sea life, etc.-teams with uncounted riches we know little about. Today's use of these priceless items goes no further than their food value. A little bit perhaps is known about their medicinal value. Other than food and medicine, however, their treasures are locked away from us because we don't have the expertise, knowledge and know-how to extract their full value. A Solomons' campus must be the home to study their unique value for the nation and its people in a serious way.

Solomon Islands education officials are soon to travel to the Suva campus to hammer out with USP staff what exactly should our country's campus teach. But the importance of this issue goes far wider than academia. The 4th USP campus must truly respond to the life of these islands, its special needs and not the least how to prepare students willing and able to create a brighter future for all our people. A 4th USP campus is too important to be left to educationalists alone. Our people and their experiences must be part of this equation as well.


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