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End of mission statement of the Special Rapporteur on rights to education visit to Fiji

15 December 2015

Suva

Members of the press, ladies and gentlemen,
I would like to start by warmly thanking the Government of Fiji for inviting me to examine the situation of the right to education. I remain thankful for the full support of authorities during my visit to your beautiful country.

I would also like to thank the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Fiji and Geneva for their valuable support in preparing for and conducting this country visit.

During my visit, I had the pleasure to meet with senior members of Government, including the Honourable Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum , Attorney General and Finance Minister; Honourable Mahendra Reddy, Minister of Education, National Heritage, Culture and Arts; Honourable Jioji Konusi Konrote, Minister For Employment, Productivity And Industrial Relations; the Honourable Mereseini Vuniwaqa, Acting Minister for Foreign Affairs; and Mr. Naipote Katonitabua, Acting Permanent Secretary in the Office of the Prime Minister. I was received by the Parliamentary Commission for Social Affairs. I also met with representatives of the Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Commission, the Chief Justice of Fiji, the Chief Registrar, members of the diplomatic community, representatives of United Nations system in Fiji, as well as civil society organizations.

I had the opportunity to visit the University of the South Pacific. I also visited technical institutions, as well as community and Government schools, and met their management, teachers and students in Suva, Lautoka and Sabeto. I would like to warmly thank all those who received me and took the time to share their experiences, and to provide information and documents.

Today I am here to share some of my initial impressions. I will limit myself to preliminary remarks on my findings. I will be analyzing in more detail the issues in education in the report on my visit which I will present to the Human Rights Council in June 2016.

Ladies and Gentlemen,
Fiji is going through an historic period of transition in the education system to address the ethnic divide. It is commendable that Fiji has launched a national initiative to combat discrimination and ethnic divide in order to build a better Fiji for all, One Nation, One Fiji, so that all Fijians have a sense of oneness. Community schools are a special feature of Fiji’s education system, which is now evolving towards a national system for social cohesion, overcoming ethnic divides and for building a better Fiji as one nation.

Despite political instability, Fiji celebrated a democratic election in 2013 which promises to usher in an era of stability and progress which Fiji deeply needs. The Government’s commitment to promoting a multicultural nation which respects all ethnicities and communities, seeks to put an end to racial divides is to be commended.

The elimination of single ethnicity schools and the compulsory teaching of iTaukei and Hindi at a conversational level in schools is a welcome change as it promotes respect for cultural diversity and mutual respect for each other. Cultural diversity is inseparable from linguistic diversity, and the teaching of these languages responds to the needs of the multicultural society.

An equitable approach aimed at reducing disparities in education is necessary for better supporting schools in rural and remote areas which are marginalized and poorly resourced. Ensuring that all schools offer education of equal quality, is a valuable measure towards giving similar opportunities to all children.

The Government must be commended for making education free for all, including free textbooks, and for providing targeted transportation subsidies. As new measures are considered, such as free milk for first year students, I encourage the Government to take careful measure of the effectiveness of their programs, to ensure that reforms are equitable, and that support is given to those who need it the most. There is a need to ensure that all schools have adequate access to water and electricity. For the poorest students, subsidies for school uniforms should also be considered.

The introduction of free early childhood education is vital, and should be supported and provided to all communities. I am pleased to hear that primary schools for the first three years have been established almost everywhere, to ensure that young children are not taken from their parents.

I would also like to emphasize the important role of parents in ensuring a child’s education. Parents are invaluable partners who must ensure children attend school, and engage with teachers to ensure they are receiving a quality education.

It is recognized that the present education system is not serving all students equally well. In Fiji today, some large, urban schools are a model of achievement, but every effort should be made to bring all schools, particularly remote ones, up to the same level. For there to be one Fiji, though it is understandably difficult, there must be one level of education quality for all.

I noted with great interest that Fiji has developed a national qualifications framework, to establish uniform national norms for quality, for infrastructure, curriculum contents and teacher qualifications. This framework must be refined to further promote civic education as well as moral values necessary for making children responsible citizens.

The existing Education Act, which dates from 1978, contains many provisions which have become outdated. For example, the act prescribes fees to be collected in various types of schools, although current policies have eliminated all school fees. A modernized Act should be updated in a comprehensive manner to ensure that all aspects of the right to education, including the right to full access to quality education, role and responsibility of teachers, objectives and contents of education, and financing of education, are clearly defined. In this context, reforms are urgently needed as the existing legislation is not in conformity with the new constitution of 2013.

We must always remember that the right to education is in the first place a matter of entitlement to education in terms of universal access without discrimination or exclusion. This is an essential prerequisite for the exercise of the right to education. At the same time, inextricably linked with entitlement, the right to education is a matter of empowerment by imparting knowledge, values and skills, with a holistic approach to quality education.

The unprecedented increase in financial resources devoted by the Government to education must be commended, as it demonstrates a deep commitment to the future of this country. I understand that the present funding formula which provides money on a per-student basis disproportionately benefiting large urban schools at the expense of the small rural ones is being reviewed to give more financial support in marginalized and rural areas.

Despite these increases, education continues to require significant investments. Many schools seeking to raise their standards and quality are constrained by their Government-provided budget. Further, schools in wealthier areas should not be better than those in poorer ones. I would like to suggest a model, whereby all education-related fundraising, for example through philanthropy, is placed in a national trust fund. This fund would then enhance the national investment in education. In addition to academic merit, a scholarship system should also ensure that students from rural or economically disadvantaged environments are also given an opportunity. It must, however, be recognized that the Government loan scheme which provides loans to all those who obtain a position in a university is also useful in ensuring all students have an opportunity for education.

I would like to underline the importance of the assessment of student’ educational attainments through a national uniform system, which ensures that minimum quality education achievements are respected in students’ progression throughout the education system. I hope that while expanding education opportunities, empowering role of education and quality is not neglected and that provision of quality education receives constant attention, with focus on humanistic mission of education.In this respect, I commend the concept of education as a common good, embraced by the Government of Fiji. Education should enable the full realization of human rights as well as human development, it is also a noble cause, and must be safeguarded as a public good.

We must take care not to envision education as a factory, with inputs and outputs, as education is a lifelong learning process. Instead, the policy focus should be on the students’ educational attainments in whatever setting or level of education as a lifelong pursuit.

A well-qualified and trained teaching force is a determinant factor in imparting value education. Teachers are custodian of quality education, and public policies must address the questions regarding the status of teachers in an endeavor to make teaching profession more attractive, and socially better esteemed, with career development perspectives. Contractual teaching erodes teachers’ morale, motivation and commitment. With clearly defined roles and responsibilities of teachers, and ensuring the teaching profession is a career, it is possible to take action against those teachers who are performing poorly, or those who indulge in political activity, and to promote those who are dedicated to the teaching profession.

Quality in teaching, in curriculum content, and in school infrastructure are the basic tenets which must be constantly improved. It is only through the close collaboration of all stakeholders, educators, administrators, the Government and parents that effective solutions can be found. Fiji’s admirable commitment to provide meaningful financial support to education must lead to strengthening reforms, through open and consultative process with all stakeholders. Civil society organizations have a voice which must be allowed to be heard, in a spirit of dialogue to constructively contribute to the education system.

I also encourage the Government to speak openly about the social challenges being faced in many schools. Violence and bullying continue to be reported. Youth suicides are very alarming. Teenage pregnancies should not be a hurdle to receiving an education. These difficult challenges require a dialogue with parents and communities. I urge the Government to take measures to educate and involve parents and communities in dealing with these issues. Education as a social cause can be better served by greater consultation and transparency in both the development and implementation of reforms.

I am very pleased to see that the Government has recognized the need to strengthen technical and vocational education and training. The skills shortage in Fiji is a serious issue, and the Government has opened three technical colleges, and is committed to opening 8 more.

Youth unemployment is an issue of concern. The Matua program is an important measure to provide continuing education for dropouts, to address the issue of unemployed youth. I consider it important to relate literacy to skills development.

The new skills development framework, which allows students to move between the academic stream and the skills-based one, is promising. However, its implementation will be challenging, and I urge the Government to work very closely with industry to ensure the program produces competent and skilled graduates needed by the country.

This is critically importance in creating opportunities for employment, decent jobs and entrepreneurship and in responding to the rising aspirations of youth as well as to the emerging needs for life-long learning. This should be supported through stronger linkages between TVET institutions and enterprises, necessary for making the system better responsive to growing skill demands, and better capacitated for contributing to industrial and socio-economic development.

The budget allocation for TVET, at around 2%, is scarce, and TVET deserves greater financial investment. Institutional collaboration with industry and sustained public private partnerships can be possible avenues to mobilize more resources. Raising the social esteem of TVET, and making it professional rewarding is essential, as is developing critical thinking skills in TVET students. This can be done by awarding national prizes to TVET students to raise the profile of technical education in society.

Oversight of the implementation of education laws and policies is critical to ensuring they are effectively implemented. For example, the Government must collect disaggregated, specific information to identify schools and students which should receive prioritized support.

An independent mechanism is required to ensure that the right to education is protected from being violated. The establishment of the Human Rights and Anti-discrimination Commission is a welcome development. I urge the Government to ensure that this body is supported in a fully transparent and independent fashion, to provide it with the credibility necessary for it to conduct its work effectively.

I was happy to visit the Hilton Special School, which is a model school for the education of students with disabilities. However, with an enrolment of some 80 students, there is far too little capacity in Fiji to address the needs of all students with disabilities. Perhaps more important, there has been far too little work done to address public perceptions against persons with disabilities. There is an urgent need for a public information campaign to deal with social stigma, and to educate teachers, parents and children to promote the right to education for children with disabilities.

I also call upon the Government to show its commitment to the human rights by ratifying the international human rights conventions which contain provisions on the right to education. First and foremost among these is the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, as well as the 1960 UNESCO Convention against Discrimination in Education. These instruments provide the basis for the right to education, and along with the Constitution of Fiji and national legislation will provide a framework for Government to assume its responsibilities for protecting, respecting and fulfilling the right to education.

Before concluding, I would like to draw the Government’s attention to the education goal in the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, the Education 2030 Incheon Declaration and the related Framework for Action. It expresses the resolve of governments from all over the world including from Fiji to effectively implement this Framework for Action, which provides at least 12 years of free, publicly funded education of good quality – of which at least nine years are compulsory. I would also like to mention that the Framework for Action also provides that tertiary education should be made progressively free, in line with existing international agreements.

Fiji is an education hub in the pacific region, and it would be opportune if Fiji were to organize regional level events in order to exchange experiences on key areas such as skills development or education programs for preserving cultural heritage and pacific ethos. In a region where countries have committed themselves to regional cooperation, Fiji can play a pioneering role in giving visibility to such concerted action and collective endeavors at the regional level.

I would like to conclude my statement by again thanking the Government of Fiji for its tremendous support on my mission. There is a real commitment to strengthen the right to education in Fiji, and I look forward with great interest to following developments over the coming years.

Thank you.

Kishore Singh (India), the Special Rapporteur on the right to education since August 2010, is specialized in international law, who has worked for many years with UNESCO for the promotion of the right to education, and advised a number of international, regional and national bodies on right to education issues. Throughout his career, Mr. Singh has supported the development of the right to education in its various dimensions and worked to promote better understanding of this right as an internationally recognized right.