PORT VILA, Vanuatu — On the island nation of Vanuatu, a struggle is taking place. The struggle is not one of rifles, tanks and rival armies. Instead, there is a struggle for education. Education in Vanuatu lags far behind the standards of the developed world, severely limiting the nation’s development and economic growth.
Vanuatu, known for hundreds of years as the New Hebrides, is located in the South Pacific. More than 80 volcanic islands make up the nation. During the 19th century, British and French colonizers arrived on the islands and took control of the region. The two European powers co-administered the New Hebrides starting in 1906. Then in 1980, the nation declared independence and renamed itself Vanuatu.
Today, fewer than 300,000 people live on the islands of Vanuatu. The average Ni-Vanuatu, or citizen of Vanuatu, is only 21 years old. Almost two-thirds of Ni-Vanuatu are 24 years of age or younger, a significant demographic imbalance with consequences reflected in the educational system. Most of Vanuatu’s people — about 80 percent — live in rural areas and practice subsistence agriculture.
These conditions contribute to modern Vanuatu’s poor educational infrastructure, but they do not tell the whole story.
For instance, language differences have complicated Vanuatu’s educational system. The small nation has three official languages: French, English and Bislama. Though these are the languages of classroom instruction, most Ni-Vanuatu speak other languages at home.
There is no standard language in the classroom—it is possible that three teachers working at the same school would each teach in a different language. This creates tremendous language barriers, especially for young students, whose brains may be flexible enough to absorb a new language but not enough to retain classroom material.
Money is also a major stumbling block for education in Vanuatu. A reported 6.4 percent of Vanuatu’s GDP is spent on education, a relatively high number that places it along such spending cousins as Spain, South Korea and Saudi Arabia. However, the effectiveness this spending is dubious.
Despite claims of free universal education, Vanuatu provides only subsidized primary education to its citizens. There is no money provided for secondary or tertiary education. Even these reduced primary fees are hard to pay for subsistence farmers. Though 96 percent of primary-aged children attend school, only about 73 percent of those students ever finish school. Most of those who drop out do so because their families cannot afford to pay tuition.
Secondary education are even more expensive. The high price of secondary school is one of the reasons that only 20-25 percent of graduating primary students move on to the next level of education.
The other reason is one of numbers. Because Vanuatu’s age demographics are so unbalanced, the infrastructure for nation-wide secondary education falls short. Instead, rigorous nation-wide exams determine which graduating primary students are eligible for secondary education. Students must not only be able to pay for their secondary education but also graduate top of their class if they wish to continue school. As a result, only 17 percent of secondary-aged students—children ages 13-16—are attending school. The rest return to their families to work or travel to urban centers, where unemployment is high.
Every year, over 4,000 students who graduate from primary school in Vanuatu are forced to drop out either because they lack the money to continue into secondary school or because their test scores fall short. While repairing the nation’s education system will take some time, the organization Oxfam has stepped in to offer help in the form of vocational education.
Oxfam operates 50 rural training centers on the islands of Vanuatu. These facilities provide education for more than 500 Ni-Vanuatu every year, effectively assisting 1-in-8 primary school graduates who would otherwise hit a dead-end in their schooling. Oxfam’s training centers teach skills like business management, mechanics and healthcare. Graduates have gone on to become small business owners, automotive specialists and nurses, careers which provide better income and greater security than subsistence farming or manual labor.
Though Oxfam and other organizations have worked to patch Vanuatu’s leaking education system, larger reforms are needed for long-term improvement to literacy rates and secondary education programs. Changes need to be made on a national level in order to overcome the linguistic, monetary and infrastructural roadblocks to education that exist today.