The Council Chair & Chancellor of the Fiji National University;
Honorable Ministers and fellow MPs;
Your Excellencies, Members of the Diplomatic Corps;
The Acting Vice-Chancellor of the Fiji National University;
Distinguished Guests;
My Fellow Alumni of the Fiji National University.

Bula vinaka and a very good evening to you all.

All the world’s great universities have strong alumni associations – drawing on the energy and resources of their graduates to strengthen their position and build their futures.

So I’m delighted that we are doing the same with the Fiji National University – with its growing number of graduates
already making a huge contribution to our nation and, we hope, the FNU as well.

It isn’t only about drawing on this pool of talent to strengthen the institution at an organisational level. The reputation of the FNU depends on the reputation of those it educates in the wider community. So each and every one of you has a part to play – setting an example in your daily lives – in building the reputation of our national university and with it, the reputation of our nation.

You’ll have heard me say often that the vision of the FijiFirst Government is to make our nation a clever country, a smart country, by giving all of our people the opportunity to gain an education. It’s not a pipe dream, as some might think. Because I’m convinced that when you give people an opportunity to learn by breaking down the barriers to education – and especially the barrier of poverty – they will seize it.

There is now no reason for any Fijian – no matter what their background or family circumstances – to miss out on getting the best education they can. Our free schooling and the scholarships and tertiary loans we are providing have transformed the prospects of even the poorest Fijian children. We have given them the key to a life of opportunity through learning. We have given them the best chance any Fijian has ever had to carve out satisfying and worthwhile careers for themselves and contribute to the development of the nation. It is up to them to take that key and unlock the door to a world of opportunities. To work as hard as they can – and to the best of their ability – to acquire the skills they need and our nation needs to fulfill our collective dreams.

Team Fiji isn’t only about succeeding at the Rugby World Cup or in Football. It is about every Fijian treating the process of learning in the same way as mastering the skills of a game. The more skills each person masters – whether it is in a trade or profession – the stronger the intellectual capital of the national team. And just as our sporting teams punch above their weight in international competition, our workforce needs to do the same. For a small country such as ours to make a mark in the world, we need to be as disciplined and skillful as the best of our sportspeople. We need to play hard intellectually – use our brains and acquire as much knowledge as we can.

What we are doing in the education system is to train our players and provide them with the best education we can afford. But if everyone embraces the value of learning and we work together intellectually as a team, I am certain we will be a clever country. It is only those among us with no imagination – or the lazy – who think it can’t be done. Because, yes we can! And when we do, there will be nothing to stop us achieving our dreams for ourselves and for each other.

This is why the FNU is so important in our national life. A university with its sights set on excellence. A place where Fijians can learn the skills they need to make a mark on our nation, our region and the world. And the wonderful thing about FNU is the hardheaded approach it brings to that process.

Our university isn’t some ivory tower where the brightest people acquire learning for its own sake. It isn’t a hallowed academic institution removed from the concerns of ordinary people or the realities of everyday life. It is a place entirely focused on achieving practical outcomes. On imparting the knowledge and skills a nation such as ours needs to carve out a viable and prosperous future.

It is not a place for intellectual snobbery. It doesn’t regard would-be doctors or lawyers as a superior breed to mechanics or boat builders. It recognises that the skills base of our nation needs to be as broad as possible. It recognises that the great skills shortages in our region today are for tradespeople – builders, plumbers, electricians. And it is just as important – if not more so – to train them as it is doctors and nurses. To cover all of the bases any developing country needs to prosper. Which is why the FijiFirst Government regards the FNU as a vital partner in nation-building and gives it the wholehearted support that it does.

This focus on practical outcomes is not anti-intellectual. Every nation needs its philosophers, anthropologists or sociologists. But no nation with scarce resources such as ours can afford to ignore the overriding imperative to develop a workforce with practical skills – to have enough people to make things or fix things, even if thinking about things or writing about things can be just as valuable.

So we will continue to support the FNU as a Government and expand its activities, with a particular emphasis on expanding its role and importance in the region. As you all know, the FNU already operates the only trans-national medical school in the region and is already playing a wonderful part in maintaining the health and wellbeing of Pacific peoples. But we believe it can do a lot more both with local and regional support and the support of the international community. And we are exploring a range of options for its future development, including on my most recent trip to India. There is no doubt that even more exciting opportunities lie ahead, And as FNU alumni, we all have a part to play in developing the institution that has made us what we are today.

Every year the FNU alumni gets bigger and it’s wonderful for me to see so many familiar faces in the audience tonight – people using the education they received to contribute to our national life. I ask you all to get behind the University as it seeks to make a bigger mark on the world. We need your ideas, your input and your resources to take us forward. And – and through the alumni association – we now have the proper vehicle to do that.

My fellow Fijians, I want to use this opportunity to talk about the importance of creating and maintaining the quality of written expression in the English language in Fiji. Some may think it’s rather strange to speak at a university function about the need the write better English because there’s an expectation that this is par for the course in our tertiary institutions. But I don’t think there’s any doubt about the steady deterioration in the quality of English expression in Fiji over the years. And unfortunately, it is across the board.

We see it in our schools, our tertiary institutions, government, the private sector and even in the media – far too many people who make basic errors of spelling, grammar and sentence construction. It is a particular curse in the civil service, where I continually see even the most senior people unable to write English with clarity, simplicity and in the correct manner. Instead of choosing simple words to get their message across, they use big ones as if they have to demonstrate to everyone that they’ve been educated. Some of these people have high degrees from overseas universities. But they either haven’t learnt or have forgotten that words are the tools we use to convey ideas. And an idea can be conveyed much more effectively with language that is simple, straightforward and gets to the point.

I realise that for many people, English is not their mother tongue at home. But it is our national language used in all official communications and the medium of teaching, so we need to master it properly. And we certainly need to do so when we go out into the world and compete against other nations where English is the mother tongue. English is also increasingly THE global language of commerce and many other areas of human endeavour. Everyone wants to learn it. When I was in China recently, I offered – in several of my meetings – to send Fijians to teach English in China. So maintaining and improving our national capability to speak and write English to international standards is very important. Finglish – Fiji English – may be OK around the grog bowl but we need to meet basic international standards and, generally speaking, I think we are falling short of the mark.

What can we do as a nation to improve our skills? I think everyone needs to read a lot more – books, news magazines, any publication where there is good writing. Because reading is the key to improving written language skills and I don’t think the culture of reading in Fiji is strong enough. While our parents certainly read a lot more in the days before television, many young people especially don’t seem to read at all for recreation. They’ve got their heads buried in their mobile phones. And as long as they can text, tweet or put up a Facebook posting, that’s all the writing they think they need to do. No wonder so many have trouble writing a letter or a decent resume.

So I’d like to leave you all with the idea that we need to develop more of a culture of reading in Fiji. A love of reading. And when we do so, it is bound to raise our general standards of English expression. And give us an important edge in a world in which these things are important. Because people, as well as nations, are inevitably judged on their ability to write well.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for the opportunity to address you tonight – a night in which we celebrate the great achievements of the FNU and collectively thank it for its contribution to our own development as individuals and its contribution to the nation.

I want to pay particular tribute to the Chancellor for his many years of service to the education sector and to the Acting Vice Chancellor for successfully steadying the ship after a period of disruption and uncertainty. Our University is strong and great days lie ahead – new infrastructure, new courses and greater access for Fijians living outside our main centres, as well as for our fellow Pacific Islanders in neighbouring countries. Every Fijian joins me in thanking the FNU and its alumni for their contribution to the nation and to wish you every success in the months and years to come.

Vinaka vakalevu. Thank you.