Vanuatu, Republic of: Interview with The Hon. Jean Pierre Nirua

The Hon. Jean Pierre Nirua

Minister of Education and Training (Ministry of Education and Training (MoET))

The Hon. Jean Pierre Nirua

Between tax incentives, friendly and hardworking people, and tropical climate, the Pacific Islands are a great place for investors around the world. In your opinion, what are the competitive advantages that Vanuatu has to offer international investors over the rest of the Pacific Islands?

The Pacific region has a common culture of hospitality and friendliness. And in Vanuatu we are genuine at that, I mean we don’t “smile for the Tourists”, we do it because it’s how we are. Concerning competitive advantages, Vanuatu does not only offer natural beauty, but also offers a secure environment and we still have at our disposal a lot of untapped potentials.

When compared to Fiji, which has been marketing itself for several decades, we are but an emerging touristic destination (just enjoying the momentum of its growth now). While most tourists tend to stay at Port Vila, we have several other great destinations in the outer islands (which are not only new to visitors; but also for us locals as well).

Vanuatu is an agricultural country which specializes in the production of organic crops (free from chemicals). As such, the government supports the production and fully encourages the policy of producing organic food. So, making sure we maintain such quality standard towards locally produced food is yet another competitive advantage. Not having many industries, we are not heavily polluted, so air quality with good and clean environment are very good for the visitors and local alike; something that many tourists look for.

The government is investing heavily in infrastructure developments, like the airports (Bauerfield International Airport with Pekoa (Santo) and Whitegrass (Tanna) airports as well. So, while maintaining the nation a friendly and beautiful place to visit and live in, we also need to assure the required infrastructure and improve transportation to the islands (by air and sea).

During our meeting with the Prime Minister the Hon. Charlot Salwai, he mentioned some of his government’s social goals, such as, for example, establishing free access to education until year ten. Bearing in mind education is one of the main pillars where HBR has cemented his more than 90 years of prestigious history, could you provide us with more details about your education policy and goals for 2017?

I can confirm that following a meeting held with our Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance, our Ministry officials are working to extend the free education policy from years 7 to 10. In fact, when our Prime Minster was the Minster for Education he introduced the ‘free education policy’ beginning with levels from Years 1 to 6.

Currently, the free education policy is introduced for years 1 to 6, with initial valuable support from the governments of Australia and New Zealand as good development partners. And beginning this year (2017), the policy is being fully funded by the government for the first time.

With the support of the Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, the Government is now to planning the rollout from year 7 to year 10 of the same policy. Officials of the Ministries of Education and Finance are now working as a team to prepare the needed proposal for consideration by the Council of Ministers and implementation.

The MoET is the largest and most complex of the Ministries, with services delivered across Vanuatu. This brings with special challenges and costs. As Minister, how are you actively working to face the main challenges and to increase equitable access to education for all people at all levels?

It is quite a challenge for a small island nation (like Vanuatu), to having inherited two international cultures with respective education systems (in English and French languages). However, in their wisdom, our elders decided to maintain English and French languages as the country’s official languages and both languages of instruction (education).

Having a free education policy means access to the education system for all children (which by far is a very good strategy). Nevertheless, having Vanuatu listed with one of the highest population growth rates in the Pacific region presents itself as a continuous challenge which we must address every year in budgeting exercise. This year, 2017, we were lucky that Parliament increased the budget of the Ministry to enable placing new teachers on the payroll. What we must constantly do is to find ways of rationalizing our education system so it reflects value for money.

Some ways to rationalize being: territorial school distribution; creating management synergies (amongst several schools) and checking the effective need of deploying teachers to remote schools where student numbers may not be economical.

Despite knowing the bulk of our population is in the rural areas as well as a significant number of our resources (the teachers), the core of our ministry services has been based in Port Vila, while the provincial education offices are very weak. So, moving our capacity to those remote offices and simultaneously delegating them with some of the responsibilities (like accessing the performance of teachers), not only makes the provincial services more capable as the education system closer to the population and the schools. So, the process of splitting some procedures from the headquarters has been set in motion, being the challenge at hand to ensure that no additional budget is required by doing so.

Though it may seem difficult to implement, I strongly believe and defend having a more unified system, meaning a true bi-lingual or multi-lingual education system. Though we are a bi-lingual country, we do not practice a bi-lingual culture, but a dual one inherited from French and English systems.

We may become, in doing so, different (for the best), from the countries surrounding us in a manner that brings us closer to a social context like there is in Canada as an example; so, I advocate that we should train our teachers enabling them to teach in both languages. Now I know it is not easy and an ambitious idea, but our history has proven we can produce good bi-lingual resources.

We may not possess the same level and volumes of natural resources found in Fiji, New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea or the Solomon Islands (just mentioning the Melanesian countries that surround us). However, our human resource is our major capital we can and must invest on. But if we can do it rightly in both international languages we have inherited as ours, this can take us a long way as we can then market the skills and talents of our bi-lingual or multilingual manpower and citizens which will further give the country a competitive edge over the countries around us.

Additionally, we must mainstream Technical Education, which used to be a “second cousin” of Academic Education; plus, incorporating early childhood care and education and inclusive education for disabled people.

We are now on the verge of developing our own national university (sending all our students abroad is costly overtime in scholarships); but we want to do so in articulation with other existing regional universities to ensure we do not duplicate our efforts with existing program and course offerings with those universities; both locally and regionally.

In line with the University program, we are also planning the development of a national research center, not only to conduct our own but to linkup with research works being developed by other overseas institutions locally and around us.

In Vanuatu education is provided in either English or French. This is a great advantage in a global world but it also allows young people to study abroad and to stay after their studies in France, New Zealand or Australia. It is a brain drain. I believe one of your challenges is how to retain them here?

Although you have very few exceptional cases of Ni-Vanuatu living and working overseas; generally Ni-Vanuatu people stay connected to their local roots. It is not part of Ni-vanuatu cultures to migrate; as locals always return home. There could be some past instances of migration for work, but after 36 years of independence we can comfortably say that Ni-Vanuatu people return home or like their countries. This goes also for the increasing number who undergo seasonal workers’ programs in New Zealand and now Australia, locals always return to Vanuatu as they like their country. So, it is hoped that this trend remains in the future.

Again, not being an Industrialized country (like our neighbors), we must invest in human capital and that bares risks, still our own internal demand for resources whom can speak both languages will grow. It is education’s contribution to the nation and beyond.

Not only demand from Vanuatu, since you will be attracting people from other countries to come and study here.

That is also one reason to open a bi-lingual University, having citizens from New Caledonia, Solomon or Fiji coming here to study in English or to learn French.

Emerging Markets such us Brazil, China, India and South Africa provide new opportunities for collaboration in areas such as teaching and research, student exchange or training. Why should an international student or professional looking to study in the Pacific Region choose Vanuatu?

Having a bi-lingual environment will be our competitive advantage, for you cannot find it often, only in places like Canada or Belgium. In fact, Chinese students are already showing huge interest in coming here to study in English and our feedback has been: “come, you will study in English also having the opportunity to learn French”.

Although we may not have many competitive edges (University wise), living in a global society as we do now, implies it is relevant to learn about other cultures. We send our students everywhere: China, the Philippines, France, UK even Cuba in the case of medical doctors. So, besides getting training in what is not locally available, they come back having been “been exposed to other cultures and living experiences”. This is itself is advantageous.

Our students whom return from China are now fluent in Chinese, the language spoken by most people in the world, and that is a “collateral” advantage that we did not perceive at the beginning, when we started sending them there. Several Chinese companies are investing in Vanuatu (it’s our biggest trading partner) and instead of bringing their own translators, we can now propose to them to hire translators or workers here locally.

Coming back to your question, we may not present many advantages as a small country, but coming to know a country such as ours and its cultures in a University context where programs are supported by other renowned international Universities is always a valuable experience.

As Minister of Education you have one of the most important functions right now in Vanuatu: to provide an integral, permanent and quality education for the young people. For which goals would like to be recognized by young people who will have the future of Vanuatu in their hands?

I am aware my statement bares a high amount of responsibility, but when dealing with Forests, livestock, or civil aviation one speaks of impersonal things; whereas, dealing with people’s lives (specially our children and youth), implies the huge responsibility of researching and making sure we are providing them with the very best we have and leaving them the best legacy we can. They will be our successors and leaders of tomorrow; as such we want to ensure we give them the best and most suitable education that will prepare them to cope with life.

That is one of the reasons why I always advise my officials in this Ministry never to take education of our children for granted. We need to drive it with a passion for them to be the future beneficiaries.

It is obviously an evolving and changing matter, for in the past there were neither environmental issues nor ICT. So, we need to develop a dynamic education system which can adapt itself not only to our local way of life but to what is happening around us.

How do I wish to be remembered? Well, my personal life is not relevant, I would like us to maintain a culture of responsibility and to be remembered as having provided the best support to schools (content and accessibility wise) plus concerning the credibility of delivered knowledge to our children, either in the Academic or Technical stream.

I will really be happy if we manage to do what we are supposed to and in the best and right way to:

•     Ensuring an inclusive Education System

•    Ensuring that provided content is aligned with the changing requirements of the world we live in

•    With modesty, I shall simply be a happy man, if one day all our citizens can fluently communicate in English and in French (not that I want to be remembered for that). Because they will come to really cherish the true benefits of as unique citizens, when the many doors of opportunity start opening up for them.

Thank you.