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Address at the Vaka Pasifiki Education Conference 2018

July 5, 2018       University of the South Pacific, Laucala Campus, Suva.

The Pro-Chancellor of the University of the South Pacific and President of the University Council, Ambassador Winston Thompson;

The Acting Vice Chancellor, Professor Derrick Armstrong;

The Board Chairperson of the Pacific Education and Research Foundation, Professor Konai Helu Thaman;

The Associate Professor of the Faculty of Science, Technology and Environment, Dr. Bibhya Sharma; 

The Board Member of the Pacific Education and Research Foundation and former Director of the University of the South Pacific’s Institute of Education, Dr. ‘Ana Maui Taufe’ulungaki;

Professor Unaisi Nabobo-Baba of the Fiji National University;

The Board Member of the Pacific Education and Research Foundation, Vanuatu, Mr. John Niroa;

The Director of the University of the South Pacific’s Institute of Education and Coordinator of this Conference, Dr. Seu’ula Johansson-Fua

Distinguished Guests, Educators, Scholars, and Students from around the Region; 

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Ni sa bula vinaka and warm greetings to you all.

I wish to extend my heartfelt appreciation to the University of the South Pacific for inviting me to deliver the opening address at the 2018 Vaka Pasifiki Education Conference.  I have just relinquished my role as the University’s 24th Chancellor a week ago, but I am most happy to continue my association with the University through activities like this.

It is, indeed, an honour to be here among a distinguished group who have a vested interest in enhancing the education of our Pacific Island scholars in a holistic way, integrating not only innovation in the learning process, but keeping it in tandem with our valued cultural ethics. I am informed that there are teachers, school leaders, curriculum writers, assessment specialists, educational administrators, directors of ministries of education, teacher educators, researchers, lecturers and professors from around the region and further abroad. You would not be here if you were not truly passionate about our region and the education of our children. 

The Vaka Pasifiki coincides with the University of the South Pacific’s 50th anniversary. And in the five decades of service to its 12-member countries, the University has produced an alumni of more than 60,000 suitably qualified and experienced personnel who have and continue to serve and contribute at various levels of the national and community strata. The two-day Vaka will discuss numerous topics and the various approaches to learning in our Oceanic communities, as well as exploring modern methods of disseminating information. The Vaka will also provide an opportunity for each one of you to network, collaborate, and share lessons learned and best practices that will contribute to the overall objective of rethinking how you, as educators, can better deliver in a continuously evolving environment.

Ladies and gentlemen, the theme for this year’s Vaka – ‘It takes an Island and an Ocean; Rethinking Pacific Education for Resilient, Healthy Communities’, is an appropriate and important reminder of the challenges that we need to overcome, not only as individuals, but as a collective group in our ongoing effort to lay a solid foundation for the children of the Pacific. The theme reflects our islands’ culture and our community approach to living life the Pacific way, – that we share a holistic approach to life, to raising our children and the value we place on our relationships.  It suggests that education is both holistic and lifelong. It also suggests that as a community, we are all responsible for educating and preparing our children for the future. The theme further reflects our Ocean, which unites us. It draws from the late Pacific writer and anthropologist Professor Epeli Hau’ofa’s Oceanic philosophy expressed in his seminal work of ‘Sea of Islands’. Professor Hau’ofa reminds us of our ancient history, of our connectedness to each other and to the Ocean. He also reminds us that Oceania is vast, hospitable and generous. 

As a region, we have the opportunity to make the voices of the Pacific heard in safeguarding our peoples, our ocean, and our environment from current threats like climate change.

Through Fiji’s presidency of the ongoing United Nations climate change negotiations or COP23, we have the chance to demonstrate our ability to address an issue that has a profound impact on all of us in the Pacific. For indeed, Fiji continues to make its COP23 presidency a Pacific presidency, to demonstrate that we are all in the same voyage, paddling together with all our brothers and sisters in the Pacific in the same canoe, towards a more resilient and stronger future.

Ladies and gentlemen, exactly a week ago, Fiji’s Minister for Economy and Education, Honourable Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, announced an unprecedented one-billion-dollar budget for the education sector in his 2018-2019 National Budget address. This is a bold statement of Fiji’s commitment to building a knowledge-based society that will in turn result in a resilient, healthy, modern and progressive Nation.

 As educators, you all have a pivotal role to play in the success of the Pacific peoples and nations.

For the immediate period, I encourage you to not only consider how you could rethink Pacific Education for Resilient and Healthy Communities, but how you could also address other real and present threats like Non-Communicable Diseases. NCDs cause up to 80 percent of deaths of our productive population throughout the Pacific region. Here in Fiji, the economic burden of NCDs is estimated at $406 million annually. This is a burden to Fijian families and the Nation as a whole.  I have no doubt that other Pacific Islands Countries face similar loses relative to your respective economies. As Fiji’s lead advocate and champion of our national campaign to reduce NCDs, I urge you all to incorporate wellness programmes into your education initiatives and promotional messages.  You could also help influence lifestyle changes if you lead by example by being fit and healthy.

Part of this year’s Vaka theme – It takes an Island and Ocean, rings true in that it will take a collaborative effort and holistic approach to change and to rethink our current situation and to encourage more resilient and healthier communities. 

Ladies and gentlemen, the 2018 Vaka will, indeed, be another celebration of Oceanic research and scholarship. A record 113 papers will be presented over the next two days. Over 300 participants have joined the Vaka this year compared to a smaller number of academics who attended the conference in 2011 when Fiji last hosted.  The conference theme will be deliberated through four platforms of sharing - the Tok Stori, which is drawn from the Melanesian cultures of sharing information and stories; the Ako, drawn from the Polynesian reference to education, schooling, and learning; the Maneaba, from the I-Kiribati and Tuvaluan traditional format for communal dialogue; and the Lan, which is from the Marshallese word for sky, reflecting our hope for the future. 

I am informed that this is the first time the organisers of this conference are introducing this format as a way to continually push the Vaka to reflect the Pacific philosophy, values and reality.To support the Vaka, the University of the South Pacific is also launching its USP App that will see all programmes and conference papers uploaded to the App.  The USP hopes that this will further support the development of its ICT programme. The use of the USP App is also to demonstrate that technology can support our traditional knowledge and culture. 

Ladies and gentlemen, the resourcing of the Vaka is dependent on Pacific people, communities, corporate bodies, tertiary institutions and national governments. I am advised that since its inception, the Vaka has been resisting the temptation to seek outside funding. This is aimed at encouraging Pacific Islanders to take ownership of the Vaka; and for participants like you to set the agenda that you believe is critical to our children and our future.  The Vaka is a conference for the classroom teacher, the school principal, the educator, the researcher and for all those who consider the Pacific Ocean home.  The success and future direction of the Vaka then, ladies and gentlemen, is a collective responsibility for Pacific islanders.  

I consider it appropriate that I acknowledge and commend those who initiated the Vaka concept and those who persevered over the years to bring this biennial event to fruition. 

I also acknowledge all those who have prepared research papers, and the conference sponsors.  

I wish you all a successful two days of discussion and networking.

It is now my honour and great pleasure to declare the 2018 Vaka Pasifiki Education Conference officially opened.

Vinaka vakalevu, thank you, and may Almighty God continue to bless us all.