Whose Development, Whose Needs? Distance Education Practice and Politics in the South Pacific


Clair Matthewson

VOL. 9, No. 2, 35-47


The article addresses two overlapping themes: Distance Education for Development and Distance Education in the Developing World. Initially, it questions the modern concept that development is only a culturally relative notion, increasingly being paraded as a positive, absolute goal.

The article further suggests that education for development is always accompanied by the transmission of cultural values; that when distance education is provided to developing regions, preliminary impact reports should be mandatory, in relation to effects both on culture and on local education providers.

The growth of post-secondary education and the declining standards of basic education in the Pacific region are considered in detail, particularly in relation to external aid assistance (scholarships and projects) and to the education policies of recipient national governments.

Finally, the article examines the ambiguous potential of aid to advance educational developments or to undermine them and the potential that distance education may either advance human resource development and yet undermine culture and entrench disadvantage. Some concluding recommendations are offered.


Les thèmes connexes de l'éducation à distance pour le développement et de l'éducation à distance dans les pays en voie de développement sont ici mis en cause. L'on se penche d'abord sur l'idée qui veut que le développement soit une vision de l'esprit, déterminée culturellement, et qui cherche à obtenir le statut d'objectif désirable dans l'absolu.

Les auteurs suggèrent que la transmission de valeurs culturelles accompagne toujours l'éducation pour le développement, et qu'il convient donc dans tous les cas d'exiger des rapports préliminaires sur son impact tant sur la culture que sur les pourvoyeurs locaux d'une telle formation.

On examine en détail la croissance de l'éducation postsecondaire ainsi que la chute des normes d'éducation élémentaire dans la région du Pacifique, en particulier en rapport avec l'aide venant de l'extérieur sous forme de projets et de bourses et avec les politiques nationales d'éducation des gouvernements récipiendaires.

On se penche aussi sur le potentiel ambigu dont l'aide est porteuse : de promouvoir ou de nuire au développement de l'éducation, et sur celui de l'éducation à distance de faire progresser le développement des ressources humaines, mais aussi d'ébranler les bases culturelles et de faire perdurer les inégalités. Des recommandations viennent clore l'article.

"Whose development?" and "Whose needs?" appear to be simple questions. They enclose, however, many others, and to few of these can simple answers be found.

Education for development, the focus of this article, touches human lives in myriad ways, for the notion of "development" is tied to or bound by culture, and inherent in culture lie not only our history but also geophysical phenomena and the realm of spiritual values. Development perceived primarily as economic growth, related to factors of labour and capital; perceived as an engine that education can fuel; defined mainly as the achievement of financial independence prescribes a theatre for development in which the ethos of a dominant culture has assigned the roles and values for others. Development as we support it through education and training is a relative notion parading as an absolute. It justifies its own goals with its own definitions, as if the way the world is - with its created economies - reveals some evolutionary, natural truth about how the world should be.

For example, we talk now about the goal of "sustainable development," a new catch-phrase for good developing world assistance. Yet the subsistence economies of the pre-European Pacific clearly had provided sustainable development for thousands of years (Thaman, 1992, p. 4). Rather than being a new phenomenon, sustainable development in some regions is a lost indigenous condition, which became uncompetitive only under new influence. While imperial aspirations supported by size and militarism may have brought subsistence economy regions into a world market-place, education and training have consolidated the effects locally by transmitting the values of the introduced models. These models are supported not only by the education systems established after colonial and missionary incursion but also

by the education of many young people in overseas institutions and the ongoing importation of expatriate personnel as advisers and consultants.

It is not my intention in making these observations to raise nostalgia for past idylls. I do mean, however, that the goals of development are culturally prescribed; that education is perhaps their most effective agent; that regardless of mode - formal or non-formal, in the classroom or at a distance - culture is what we teach overtly or implicitly; that the cultural values transmitted are generally those of the teacher or provider. When distance education in particular is the mode and when the separation of teacher and learner is more than one of physical distance (lying also in different ethnic, linguistic, economic, and historical traditions), then education for development raises even more serious issues.

In environmental developments, impact reports are now common requirements. In tourism developments, for example, "ecotourism" is now the catch-cry for achieving the industry's goals without damage to local integrity. Yet in the field of education, which is the conduit of active culture and a major vehicle for social change, we are not required to consider the impact of what we do. This seems anomalous given its powerful role and the fact that, ultimately, all human choice and action proceed from what we think we know or what we have been trained to value. No teaching or subject area is free of a worldview, a deep structure of intellectual referents that no amount of content-localizing can effectively erase. An educational impact report would ideally address this issue as one of its terms.

There should be two other requirements of a more practical nature. The first would be to examine the effects of one's distance education on the local providers within the community. Obviously doing so requires some research effort and interest in finding out who they are and what they are already offering or planning to develop in the short and long term. It should answer the questions "Why?" and "What more should we know than this group or that politician has told us?"

An impact report's third useful item would be a balance-analysis of advantage and disadvantage. I refer to the concern that some of us have about distance education's effects, particularly within developing countries. Distance education - and especially when it comes relatively well-resourced with outside funding and expertise - can certainly open new and undreamed of opportunities. The poorer the country, the more dramatic this opening will be. But dramatic also can be the social and economic divisions arising between communities targeted for access and others that are not.

In "Distance Education and the Developing World," Guy (1991, p. 157) summarizes some crucial issues not yet well understood. In addition to "the relationship between distance education itself and individuals, groups and social structures that make up society," he cites, among others, a lack of understanding of:

It could be noted that, limited as knowledge may be, there is perhaps more known about these issues within the developing regions themselves than outside them and more known than is currently acknowledged by some developed world educators. The "publish or perish" syndrome is a Western condition inseparable from individualism and competition as concepts.

These introductory observations are not directed only outwards to "developed world" providers or even particularly to the international entrepreneurs. They are also relevant to the practices of Third World governments, to their national education policies, and to the policies of some aid donors. They are relevant also to the University of the South Pacific (USP), with its distance education mandate in twelve Pacific island states. In the education that we are providing, at a distance or in the classroom, we are reinforcing a model of development in terms of which this region can never achieve fully "developed" status.

The developing region of the south and central Pacific has vital statistics that make it unique. It is, in geographical terms, the largest of Third Worlds, spanning 33 million square km and four time zones. Within these vast expanses only 1.5 million people live. Covering an area (mostly water) three times larger than Europe, it is fully encircled by developed countries. It is, in terms of overseas development assistance, the most highly assisted of all regions, with many of its states now receiving highly skilled, professional aid (Luteru, 1991, p. 73).

No member country shares its profile of economy, population, language, education, or colonial history with any other, and within each country diversity is also apparent. Within its four major ethnic groups - Melanesian, Micronesian, Polynesian, and Indian - 265 distinct languages and 60 distinct cultures are still current. Its smallest country, Nauru, comprises only one atoll, its largest, Fiji, 95 islands (Fiji has hundreds more without habitation). National populations range from Tokelau's 1,600 to Fiji's 750,000, annual population growth rates from 3.9% in Kiribati to –11.3% in Niue. Transportation systems between islands and countries range from canoe to 747s; communications systems, from none to standard technology.

Many children still have no access to full secondary education although their national systems include post-secondary institutions. Literacy rates are beginning to fall, and the quality of basic education is declining rather than rising. Economic independence as commonly measured is an unrealistic goal for many of its widely dispersed communities because of their meagre natural resource endowment. Its GDPs per capita range from A$2,500 to A$450 a year (with phosphate-rich Nauru as an unenviable exception). Aid from its colonial donors is noticeably falling, but donor-multiplicity is on the increase. The only major resource for development common within this vast region is human. Thus, education and training have come to be regarded as key elements in the pursuit of decreased economic dependence, and governments' priorities move increasingly to the post-secondary sector. The politics and practice of educational aid and the questions of "whose development, whose needs" become critical in both national and international arenas, especially in these entrepreneurial times.

In the south and central Pacific, distance education has one major provider, the University of the South Pacific. USP is also the only regional provider in the senses of area coverage, collective ownership, and indigenous location. As an educational type, USP is rare in the international community because it is regional in the core components of its organizational structure: financial, physical, academic, and political. USP is owned by twelve Pacific countries, which, as proprietors, exercise collective governance. The major part of its budget is provided by its owners, all but one of which have aid-dependent or aid-augmented economics. USP maintains two campuses (Fiji and Western Samoa); two Complexes (Vanuatu and Kiribati), eleven in-country Extension Centres, and six Institutes, all for the purposes of regional development. From inception, the university was conceived as a dual-mode teacher, its founders clearly addressing three major factors:

Despite the passage of 25 years and the growth of USP and 40 other post-secondary institutions, these conditions have not markedly changed. Difficulties are still evident at all levels of the twelve respective education systems. One country (one of the largest) has an estimated 700 teachers still working untrained in primary level schools. Their training needs include functional literacy and numeracy. It is still common in the region for teach-ers to have been educated only to the level at which they are teaching. For example, secondary teachers may have only secondary education while 60% of primary teachers have only primary education. Only one country (Fiji as the most "developed") has managed to establish its own final year of high school. Even this in several aspects is struggling in its provisions, and like the two years of school preceding it, is not available to all. The University is still offering by distance education the two senior years of secondary schooling, and the Form 7 science program on campus is likely to continue.

Education for human resource development has been widely under-taken and on a large scale by USP. In addition, the Fiji Institute of Technology, the Solomon Islands College of Higher Education, the National University of Samoa, Tonga's Centre for Community Development and Training, many Colleges of Advanced Education, and specialist vocational schools have all been endeavouring to educate towards development. Generous assistance has been given through multiple forms of aid, yet as education providers we seem to bring development scarcely closer. Major personnel vacancies still exist in both the public and private sectors: for teachers and trainers in all fields (but especially in science and mathematics), for skilled professionals and technicians across the board. One might observe that we run to stay in the same place. One could go further, however, as the World Bank has done (1992), and suggest that we run in danger of going backwards.

Even if one takes as given that the south/central Pacific region can never become fully developed in the sense of the orthodox model, one still might wonder why, with time and effort and money, education seems not to be winning in the field of human resource development; why, in particular, distance education - with its far-flung net and open access policy - seems not to have developed the region's major (still growing) resource.

There are some likely explanations and so, possibly, some solutions. It would be heartening if the solutions did not so depend on political will and private agendas. It would also be heartening if they were not so fraught with paradox: that the educational aid assistance on which the region depends is inadvertently undermining its own targeted objectives - human resource development and the development of education. Stated briefly, the three most likely explanations for lack of progress are:

That the best of the region's human resources is being taken or sent for training in Pacific Rim country institutions is exemplified in 1991 statistics. In that year, USP's full-time internal roll was 2,664, its part-time distance enrolment, 10,500, equating (under the formula) to 1,079 full-time equivalents (FTEs). At the same time, records show (from only six of the twelve countries) that there were 1,800 students studying in Australia and New Zealand on scholarships; 1,300 more were in these countries as private students; and a further 500 were in New Zealand on secondary school awards. Large but unaccountable numbers of others were studying in the United States and other developed countries. In summary, the known maximum of FTEs at USP in 1991 was approximately 3,700 from twelve islands states, while the known minimum in the rim, from only half of these, was approximately the same.

Two particular features could be additionally noted:

These trends in internal enrolment are matched by a decline in distance enrolments in countries other than Fiji. (Distance education enrolments in 1992 were 5% lower than in 1989. Drops were most significant in Tonga and Western Samoa, whose share of the distance roll has fallen respectively from 15% to 7% and 14% to 5%). Several member countries are now limiting or discouraging distance enrolment because major donors only directly support internal students.

Because the scholarships offered for study in the donor country are vastly more expensive than those needed for study in the region, they are considered more prestigious and awarded to the best students. Colonial traditions and attitudes reinforce this perceived prestige. The effects of shipping out the most able human resources include:

That aid assistance to the region sometimes comes under conditions that, in real terms, support development needs in the donor country rather than in the recipient is evident to some extent in the scholarship award schemes. Approximately A$50 million of aid to the Pacific is currently being spent in rim country institutions, compared with A$23 million spent on education in the region. While some development benefits might accrue to the Pacific from that percentage of overseas trained students who do return home, financial benefit always accrues to the donor country through fees. It is interesting to note, also, that the $50 million supports fewer than 3,000 students, while the $23 million in the region supports at least 11,000. Little of this money in either context is directed towards distance education.

It would still be true to say that within the region itself, USP has no major competitor in distance education for formal qualifications. Some of the reasons for this, perhaps, could be altruistic. Others could relate to the massive practical problems in delivering and supporting programs in this vast, sparsely populated area described by The Commonwealth of Learning as perhaps the most difficult in the world (Renwick et al., p. 43), and to the inability of students to pay more than minimal fees.

Even so, aid assistance is also hurting the region's distance education capability in indirect ways. Local expertise and services are in constant competition for distance projects and consultancies, and often we lose. Losers also, on occasion, are the island states themselves, which, on bilateral aid, acquire schemes, advice, and people inappropriate to their needs and of lesser quality than that which is locally available.

On occasion, USP has some opportunity to tender, but more often the deals are made bilaterally. Even when it does tender as a local institution, it can seldom compete despite longer experience, more relevant expertise (and so faster project execution) and despite an established delivery infrastructure and lower tendering fees. The truth is that aid can create a highly unlevel playing field: one on which the principle of open competition, of the buyer's free choice to select the most suitable product, can founder on the politics of which team a donor will back. Thus, a Polynesian police force can be trained at a distance by a university in Melbourne that seems not to need the business; a distance program for training teachers in Melanesia can be designed from New South Wales. Thus, a regional agency's officers might learn communication skills from Canada, and one member government has recently spent more on buying one distance program from Australia (for 30 students) than its total contribution to the USP budget. USP will develop its much needed distance courses in Pacific agriculture without funding, however, because this adheres only to American personnel.

Another undesirable effect of educational aid can result from its project or institutional basis: from piecemeal rather than macro or sectoral assistance. In the Pacific region, this is by no means donor fault. There still is no effective data collection on employment trends, no labour market monitoring system, no comprehensive data on education offered or needed. It still must be noted, however, that uncoordinated and piecemeal assistance causes problems. For example, institutions in the region often find their limited budgets carrying heavy burdens from the on-going costs of short-term aided projects (Fairbairn, 1992, pp. 9–10). As a different example, a USP distance program for full-time students in Melanesia is being generously supported by a donor that is removing the program's targeted student group under another of its own aid schemes.

That political decisions and changing economic conditions in the developed world encircling us always have an impact upon the region but that the reverse is never true is the one of the three explanations with no implicit solution. It can only be noted as a factor of instability for Third World distance education. Thus, downturns in the economy of a major donor country - leading to bilateral aid cuts for some of our member countries - can put families out of work, mean that students do not get their fees, or even that the University's core budget is undersubscribed by some of its owners. In turn, staff posts and program developments may be frozen. Likewise, a restructuring of education sector funding in another donor country can produce a dramatic increase in export entrepreneurship and in overseas student recruitment even by mission teams into our schools. Similarly, involvement in military conflict can cut a donor's aid budget part-way through a funded project.

For developing countries' governments, education's goals must be largely utilitarian: appropriate skills and sufficient numbers from limited investment. Distinctions that could be made between education and training serve little purpose if one cannot afford to make them. The Pacific's political leaders - its education masters - face rapidly expanding populations, declining heath and nutrition profiles, the high mobility of an educated minority, and a developed world privatizing or corporatizing around them. To develop or not to develop is not really a matter of choice. This is true in two ways: the first is resource endowment; the other, that either way, one remains within a global system. Thus, a Third World country develops whatever resources it has, if not in full hope of joining the developed class, then at least in the hope of not becoming more disadvantaged. The island states of the Pacific, therefore, will doubtless continue striving for human resource development through educational endeavours.

This paper has identified some diverse effects of the problems, as gain in one sphere is counterbalanced by loss in another. This is not an argument in favour of doing nothing; it is rather a case for careful forward planning in which the compromises that are necessary have been weighed in advance for impact. Without planning, general well-being cannot be served, and sectoral or political interests will drive development choices.

It will always be both necessary and desirable to send students to the developed world for highly specialized or high-cost development. It does not make sense, however, to sponsor students away from programs that one is funding in one's own institutions. It is obviously attractive on a limited budget to acquire expertise from externally funded sources; it does not make sense, however, if the expertise is heavily context-based and does not transfer easily to one's own conditions. It is understandable and even desirable that a government seeks to develop its own higher education and training systems; it is not logical, however, if this is done by sacrificing access, equity, and quality at basic education levels. It is reasonable that donors also should make gains from their benevolence, but it is not really benevolence if these gains exceed the beneficiary's. Moreover, it is not reasonable for a government to accept aid that is known to translate into future losses downstream.

The role of distance education thus invites careful measure. In the Pacific region, it has undeniably extended access, with 90,000 course enrolments at USP in the last twelve years, compared with a maximum annual intake of 2,664 internally. It has achieved these numbers by deliberately waiving formal admission qualifications for mature students and holding fees at 20% of the equivalent internal course. Although many students live in towns or larger villages, USP also reaches those on very distant atolls, who have one boat visit a month and no electricity or telephones. As well as offering courses available on campus, the distance program also provides the only regional courses in nutrition, law, preschool education, library studies, English as a Second Language (ESL), and Pacific languages.

While the region's formal education systems have created a trained élite - less than 1% of the post-secondary cohort - the distance education program has "softened" the edges by bringing many adult students into the select field. For them, distance studies are often the first or only chance of education at the senior secondary or tertiary level.

Distance education from the regional university is increasingly strengthening other institutions. It does this through the sale of sets of course materials (e.g., to the National University of Samoa); by accepting as USP distance education enrolments complete classes of internal students in other institutions (e.g., in Kiribati), or through its distance courses' being components of other institutions' curricula.

Many of the region's senior civil servants, qualified professionals, and political leaders are former USP students. While some will have come through a fully internal program, many USP graduates have been dual-mode students, either beginning or completing their studies at a distance. For many, the distance mode is the only way they can begin, as through it, they qualify for admission to full-time study. It can often also be their only means for them to finish, if employers need them back or if they have fewer courses left to do than the full-time load required by scholarship agencies. While a Pacific education for Pacific decision-makers cannot always guarantee Pacific values and priorities, it at least provides for a nurturing of them.

On the debit side, however, we are educating mostly males (70% of distance students across the region, with the percentage of females in one country as low as 12%). It is possible that in extending access opportunities, distance education in some island states is actually entrenching further a gender inequality. This possibility is at least as grave a concern in relation to future development as that noted earlier about the inequities between communities, which distance education can deepen. For Pacific Islands women, perhaps we are dealing a double negative.

Another matter concerning some of us in the distance program is the heavy predominance of Fiji students. Given that Fiji's population is half of the region's total, its majority enrolment is to be expected. But its 65% share of distance students is only held at that level artificially by a policy decision. From many other countries enrolments are falling, while in Fiji, the most developed, thousands are turned away each year. The cause to a large extent seems to be fees-related. Although relatively low by international standards, as a proportion of average incomes in 10 of the 12 countries, fees are a major deterrent. As each year they climb, the enrolment imbalance increases. It could be said that in educating for development, the distance program has potential to deepen economic and workforce disparities within the region.

Overall, then, and in general terms, whose development and whose needs are being met in this Pacific Third World? Some answers could be those of:

These two groups of beneficiaries only uneasily co-exist, with many resources and efforts wasted in the tensions between them. In these last years of the decade, this wastage will have to be addressed if education for development is not to regress.

Some donors could assist in preventing regression by redirecting much of their overseas scholarship funding:

All donors could assist by allowing more project and consultancy aid to be used for local expertise where this is clearly available. The governments of the region could also help themselves by:


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Suva, Fiji Fairbairn, T. I. (1992). Report of Seminar on South Pacific Post Secondary Education. ISAS, Suva.

Guy, R. K. (1991) Distance education and the developing world: Colonisation, Collaboration and Control. In T. D. Evans & B. King (Eds.), Beyond the text: Contemporary writing on distance education (pp. 152–175). Deakin University Press, Geelong, Australia.

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Claire Matthewson is Director, University Extension, at the University of the South Pacific and is based at the Laucala Campus in Fiji. Before taking up this post four years ago, she was Assistant Director, University Extension and Head of the Distance Teaching Unit at the University of Otago in New Zealand. She is currently the President of the Pacific Islands Regional Association for Distance Education. Claire Matthewson Director University Extension The University of the South Pacific P.O. Box 1168 Suva, Fiji