Studying at the Bird of Paradise University


AS UNIVERSITY tuition fees increase, and PNG university programmes face funding problems, many families are looking for ways to send their high school graduates to universities in other countries.
Australia has always been a favourite destination, but fees for privately sponsored international students there are now exceptionally high, and the process for Papua New Guineans to apply for visas to go to Australia is notoriously complicated.
In recent years more students have been looking at studying at Asian universities, especially in China and the Philippines. But few students look at other universities in Melanesia, especially next door in Jayapura.
The Universitas Cenderawasih in Jayapura is named after the bird of paradise, “cenderawasih” in Indonesian. Often called by its nickname, Uncen, it is the oldest university in Melanesia and, with 24,000 students and 680 lecturers and professors, it is by far the largest Melanesian university. It offers 78 different courses at the BA, masters, and doctorate levels.
I recently visited Uncen and spoke with senior administrators about the procedures for PNG students wanting to study there.
Although there are currently only a handful of foreign students there, there is a great interest in welcoming PNG students at the university. The university “rector” (vice-chancellor), Dr Apolo Safanpo, said that “since Jayapura is a border city, of course we welcome Papua New Guinean students here”.
He said that he recently met with a delegation of West Sepik officials wanting to send their high school graduates to Uncen. He said these and privately sponsored PNG students would be an enriching addition to the Uncen university community.
I was told that Uncen can accept PNG students with good grade 12 results. Applications can be made online without having to apply in person in Jayapura.
University fees and living costs are quite low in Jayapura. Foreign students pay around K600 a semester (K1,200 a year) in university fees. This includes tuition, health care, and insurance, as well as participation in official university activities and fieldwork trips, but it does not include room and board.
This is twice as much as Indonesian citizens pay. The university estimates that students should budget around K800 a month for living expenses, although I feel that frugal PNG students could probably get by on less than this. The university has both male and female dormitories, but it is not clear if these are available to foreign students. Staff suggested that PNG students might want to rent a house together and share costs.
The greatest barrier to studying at Uncen is, of course, language, as all courses there are taught in Bahasa Indonesia, a language very few students in PNG learn. According to Dr Pieter Upessy in the Department of English, who taught Bahasa Indonesia at UPNG, diligent students can get to a level where they can follow regular lectures in their subject area after a full-time six-month intensive language course.
Although Uncen once offered such courses, at the moment it does not. The dean of Education indicated, however, that he would be willing to open the course again if there are at least 15 foreign students needing it. Since the Indonesian academic year begins in September, the Bahasa Indonesia course could be offered to new PNG students for six months from February so that they could study with their local classmates from September.
As in PNG, a bachelor course usually lasts eight semesters (four years) at Unceb. With this extra semester of language study, PNG students should plan on being at Uncen for at least nine semesters to graduate with a bachelor degree.
There is much that PNG students would find familiar in Jayapura. The climate is the same as coastal PNG, betel nut is available at every market, and making friends is as easy as in any other Melanesian country.
One welcome difference is the high level of personal security. Shops and markets are open and active until late in the evening, and female students say that they feel safe on campus. If students do get homesick for PNG, all they have to do is get on a bus or in a taxi, and in an hour they are back in their home country.

There is much that PNG students would find familiar in Jayapura. The climate is the same as coastal PNG, betel nut is available at every market, and making friends is as easy as in any other Melanesian country.

The political situation will be a cause of concern to some families. With recent changes in government, living in Jayapura has become more normalised. One lecturer told me that in the past, he had to provide regular reports to the Indonesian intelligence service about the activities of a foreign post-graduate student he was supervising, but with the more democratic system now in place, this was no longer a requirement.
The province of Papua has had autonomous status within the Republic of Indonesia for several years, similar to that of Bougainville in PNG. Part of the autonomy agreement is a requirement that all higher level officials, such as the governor, are indigenous Papuans, and indigenous Papuans get preference when applying for government positions or contracts. Uncen Rector Apolo Safanpo, for example, is himself a Papuan from the Asmat region.
Nevertheless, PNG students at Uncen should be aware that they are in a sensitive environment and should always act with wisdom.

Cenderawasih University in Jayapura.

Their presence in Jayapura should be catalyst to better relations between PNG and Indonesia and between Papua New Guineans and West Papuans, not the opposite.
Having a large, established, and relatively inexpensive university right on their doorstep should be a resource that PNG students consider when thinking about studying outside the country. Although the Universitas Cenderawasih is in a foreign country and uses a language that is new to most PNG students, it is located in a Melanesian environment where Papua New Guineans are very welcome.
Given the need for more understanding between the two nations sharing the island of New Guinea, I hope that in future we will see a number of future PNG students considering UNCEN when making their university plans.

  • Professor Volker is a linguist living in New Ireland, and an Adjunct Professor in The Cairns Institute, James Cook University in Australia. He welcomes your comments at

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