This Pacific island’s plan to produce more scientists

This Pacific island’s ambitious plan to produce more scientists

Honiara, Solomon Islands: It’s a wet Friday morning at Solomon Islands’ National University (SINU), and none of Dr John Fasi’s students have turned up to class.

The biology lecturer isn’t fazed, though. “That’s fine, don’t worry about it,” he tells me with a laugh.

The rain, which has been falling in thick sheets all night and morning, often brings the local buses to a standstill. Dr Fasi suspects the students are probably stuck in traffic. Or perhaps a timetable mixup is the culprit – some of the students haven’t received their new schedules yet. 

“It’s not their fault. They want to be in class from day one,” Dr Fasi explains in his muggy office, seated under a broken air conditioner. We hear the rain pelt down outside. 

These teething problems are to be expected. Dr Fasi and his colleagues are taking part in an unprecedented project at SINU (pronounced sinoo): to offer the country’s first ever Bachelor of Science degree.

The “milestone course” was launched last year, and aims to boost the number of qualified scientists in the country. It’s hoped they will go on to use their education to help develop the nation. 

We have all these traditional beliefs, and I think it needs to be recorded

Dr John Fasi

“We need a population that is scientifically literate,” Dr Fasi says. 

“We have all these traditional beliefs, and I think it needs to be recorded, to be properly understood so that it blends well with science.”

Before this course was made available at SINU, aspiring scientists had to go abroad to earn a tertiary qualification – often to Fiji, where the regional University of the South Pacific is based. The placements were competitive and costly.

“Going to Fiji or Papua New Guinea or Australia for that matter, it’s quite expensive, it’s very hard for people here, ” says Dr Fasi, who earned his PhD in Australia after winning a prestigious Australia Awards Scholarship for his research into agricultural and environmental science.

Sinu 1 of 24
SINU’s Panatina Campus in capital Honiara is where the science department is housed. Credit: Prianka Srinivasan

“Having SINU here offering the same programme provides everyone in the Solomon Islands the opportunity to be educated.”

New Bachelor degree a ‘privilege’

Solomon Islands is now one of only a handful of Pacific countries offering an undergraduate degree in science. 

The new course has the potential to be life-changing to students like Brian Raomalefo. The 24-year-old attends Dr Fasi’s biostatistics class the following week, seated front and centre between a dozen other students.

It’s a privilege to be the first in this program

Brian Raomalefo

Once class has ended, he talks to me about his experience getting into university.

“I shouldn’t be here,” he says with a wide grin.

After high school, Raomalefo moved to Fiji, intent on earning a science degree. But, as the son of “simple farmers” who had already made big sacrifices to finance his education, he soon ran out of money. He waited a year for the funds to return, but missed the deadline for registration at Fiji’s University of the South Pacific.

Sinu 16 of 24
Brian dreams of becoming a researcher, so he can study Solomon Islands’ traditional medicines. Credit: Prianka Srinivasan

Around that same time, SINU started accepting applications for its science program. Raomalefo became the first and only student to enroll in SINU’s BSc during its inaugural semester (a dozen more students have since joined him). He’s now on track to becoming Solomon Island’s first ever homegrown science graduate.

“It’s a privilege to be the first in this program because I show the upcoming students that we can do this here at SINU,” Raomalefo says.

High fees, but even higher aspirations 

Raomalefo and his classmates are unusual in Solomon Islands, not simply because of their science education.

Sinu 6 of 24
Dr Fasi teaching bistatistics at SINU. Credit: Prianka Srinivasan

Restrictive tuition fees (a semester at SINU costs around $1,300, about a fifth of the yearly median household income in Solomon Islands) means higher education is reserved to only a slim minority of Solomon Islanders. Less than a third of teenagers are enrolled in senior secondary school, and only a fraction of them will go on to university.

Mathilde Souchon from the Pacific Islands Universities Research Network, a regional body setup to facilitate collaboration between Pacific researchers, says achieving a university education is a luxury inaccessible to many Pacific Islanders.

People will do part time bachelor degrees … because they have a job, they have to provide for the family.

Mathilde Souchon

“It’s expensive to get a bachelor degree, and you also usually have to juggle between your job and your study,” she said, adding it can take six or seven years for students to graduate.

“People will do part time bachelor degrees … because they have a job, they have to provide for the family. Sometimes they cannot pay for the next semester, so they have to wait.” 

Graduating from SINU isn’t guaranteed for Raomalefo either. Finding money to cover fees, equipment and textbooks continues to be a problem. But these difficulties haven’t dampened his dreams of becoming a researcher or lab technician. He wants to analyse the country’s traditional remedies, hoping one day herbal medications made in Solomon Islands can take their place alongside other pharmaceuticals.

“I have this kind of idea, how can we survive on our own resources?” he says.

Sinu 13 of 24
Science students seek assistance from Dr Fasi after class.

“How can I cultivate these leaves to become like hospital medicines?”

Raomalefo’s peers have similarly big aspirations. Yvonne Lisian, who first joined SINU to become a teacher, now hopes to graduate with a bachelor of science so she can work in climate change research. Auldrine Taro missed out on studying medicine in Fiji, but hopes a science degree can offer a new path to a medical career.

Foreign education still more desirable

Though the bachelor’s degree is new, SINU’s science building is old and worn down. Cracks run through the plaster outside. A cabinet in the building’s kitchen is rotten and warped with mould. The iron roof above is striped with rust. The phones don’t work.

When class begins, Dr Fasi fumbles with the projector. The extension cord is missing, which means he can’t connect his laptop. A student rushes out of class to hunt for the wire, while others patiently wait in their plastic chairs. 

The undergraduates complain about laboratory equipment, which is often missing, broken or out-of-date. As a result, chemistry is often taught simply through theory, and students rarely get a chance to put what they learn into practice. 

We have a long way to go. But we are progressing.

Dr John Fasi

It’s no surprise, then, that foreign education is still seen as necessary for a career in science. The students I speak to hope they can travel to Fiji or, ideally, Australia to get a better education.

Souchon wants that to change. She hopes more Pacific countries, like Solomon Islands, can learn to train scientists domestically.

“In terms of science, unfortunately, even though indigenous knowledge is so important in the Pacific, the universities in the Pacific Island region still look to models of Western education,” she said. 

“Some of the Pacific universities are really trying to incorporate indigenous knowledge in their curriculum, but it’s still a long way ahead.” 

Sinu 20 of 24
The labratory equipment room is well-stocked, but much of the equipment and chemicals are outdated or expired. Credit: Prianka Srinivasan

Dr Fasi himself is unlikely to stay much longer in Solomon Islands. His wife and children live in Brisbane – they migrated there while he earned his doctorate at the University of Queensland – and he hopes to join them very soon.

But he’s hopeful that the next generation of Pacific scientists will have more incentives to stay at home.

“We have a long way to go. But we are progressing.“

Dean of Science and Acting Pro Vice Chancellor of Solomon Islands National University, Dr Eric Katovai, would welcome your support. Contact him directly

Please login to favourite this article.