ʻAtenisi Institute

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ʻAtenisi Institute is located in the Kingdom of Tonga and comprises ʻAtenisi University and the ʻAtenisi Foundation for the Performing Arts. ʻAtenisi in Tongan means Athens, the capital of Greece. The institute, founded by Futa Helu (1934–2010), began as a continuing education programme for civil servants, then initiated a high school in 1964 (now closed) and ʻAtenisi University in 1975.

Aerial photo of the institute and surroundings

ʻAtenisi Institute was initially a downtown night school providing continuing education for civil servants, evolving into a secondary daytime school in 1964. In 1966 Helu registered ʻAtenisi's high school with the government and at the end of that year leased a 6.5-hectare (16-acre) parcel in Halaano, a western district in the Tongan capital of Nuku'alofa. The parcel is, in fact, below sea level and students often speak of the swampus instead of the campus. At the end of 1975 a small university joined the high school on the site, its first bachelor of arts degrees being awarded in 1980, followed a few years later by bachelor of science degrees. By the 1990s, some master of arts degrees – and even a doctorate degree – were awarded in collaboration with universities in Australia and New Zealand.

ʻAtenisi High School[edit]

In the 1960s there were not many high schools in Tonga, and the few that there were catered to either an economic or academic elite. To fill the gap, ʻAtenisi's high school assumed a populist stance, offering inexpensive and innovative education. Yet academic standards were high; for example, whereas other schools settled for the modest New Zealand syllabus, ʻAtenisi choose the more challenging syllabus of New South Wales, Australia.

The 1970s and 1980s were the high school's heyday, at one point attracting some 800 students; however, enrollment began to fall in the 1990s in the face of competition from more than a dozen high schools established by the government or religious organizations. By 2005 school fees were no longer sufficient to cover costs. The school was forced to close in 2006, but reopened in 2007 before closing permanently at the end of 2009.

ʻAtenisi Foundation for the Performing Arts[edit]

ʻAtenisi Foundation for the Performing Arts (AFPA) is a component of the institute whose mission is to preserve the music and dance of traditional Tongan culture as well as to train musicians in classical European music. Some elements of Tongan society regard the foundation as a national treasure. Its director, ʻAtolomake Helu, daughter of Futa, is acclaimed throughout the South Pacific for her classically trained operatic soprano voice. A small orchestra was established in 2000. For a time AFPA regularly toured overseas, performing European classical and operatic excerpts side by side with traditional Tongan music and dance. This cross-cultural approach was typical of the ʻAtenisi ethos and is consistent with the Heraclitian sentiment of "one world, many things, an everlasting fire, common to all".

ʻAtenisi University[edit]

The university at 'Atenisi Institute was established a few years after the University of the South Pacific opened its Tongan campus. Nevertheless, the school was unique in being the only privately founded university in the Pacific, and therefore autonomous from any church or government. This was both an advantage and a disadvantage. The advantage was that the university could freely train critical thought, rather than compel students to conform to bureaucratic obedience or religious dogma. The disadvantage was that the university rarely received funding from either of the aforementioned sources, which usually condemned it to an austere budget solely supported by modest tuition fees.

Because the university regarded method of thought to be its pedagogical priority, philosophy was considered its most important course; facility with the English language and appreciation of English literature was a second key objective. In addition, the university offered core courses in the natural sciences, social sciences, arts, and humanities. Because of its reputation for rigour, most ʻAtenisi University students found it relatively easy to obtain scholarships to graduate schools in New Zealand, Australia, and the United States.

Decline and Rebuilding[edit]

In the early years of the university, its emphasis on methodology was popular with Tonga's independent farmers: their sons might return to their modest plantations and display classical learning at weekend faikava (traditional kava circles). Yet with growing pressure for vocational success among Tonga's urban middle class, only the most talented students remain attracted to ʻAtenisi's classical credo. This has led to a decline in enrollment which, in the face of increasingly more viable tertiary training in Tonga and overseas, threatens the prospects of the small university that Futa Helu built.

Presumably suffering from Alzheimer's disease, Futa Helu retired as institute director and dean of its university in 2007. Since then there has been a rapid turnover in administration. At first his daughter Sisiʻuno assumed the post of institute director in 2008, followed by his son Niulala in 2009, then Sisiʻuno returned in 2010. The university has suffered similar instability in leadership, with Dr. Michael Horowitz taking over as dean from 2008–2010, followed by Dr. Marilyn Dudley-Flores in 2011–2012.[1] The current university Dean is Dr. ʻOpeti Taliai, a Tongan anthropologist who holds a Ph.D. from Massey University as well as an ʻAtenisi undergraduate degree, and previously taught linguistics at the institute.

There has been incremental renovation of the campus since Dr Helu's death in February 2010. A dilapidated science laboratory was removed and replaced with a compact module erected by Group Construction that has, however, not yet been equipped for laboratory instruction. In September 2013 the original university library was abandoned and its collection moved to a more recent and innovative stone building, initially intended as headquarters for the Performing Arts division.

As the sole exponent of critical education in Tonga, 'Atenisi Institute has always suffered from an ambivalent relationship with the Tongan government. On 17 May 2010 the Tonga Public Service Commission (PSC) received a letter from the Director of Education, informing them that the Government does not recognize qualifications from Atenisi University, that degrees obtained from Atenisi University are not valid. A subsequent ʻAtenisi lawsuit against the PSC and the Ministry of Education, alleging employment discrimination in refusing to consider one of the school's graduates, led to an out-of-court settlement through which the University obtained registration from the Tongan National Qualifications and Accreditaion Board (TNQAB) in 2011.[2] In late 2012, the New Zealand In-Country Awards Scholarships program, administered in Tonga through the New Zealand High Commission, terminated its long-standing policy of accepting applications from ʻAtenisi students. Nevertheless, the University conducted a graduation ceremony in November 2012 and plans to conduct one in November 2013.

In mid-2011, Robert Beck, a United States Peace Corps volunteer assigned to teach economics at ʻAtenisi, ended his tour in Tonga six months early, recommending in his report that the Peace Corps terminate its decades-long support. Noting that the mission of the Peace Corps is to support sustainable indigenous institutions, Beck wrote, "The first semester of 2011 has shown that ʻAtenisi University in its current incarnation is not sustainable. Low enrollment, alienated alumni, and debt together mean that reinvention and outside investment will be necessary if Futa Helu's brave creation is to have a future, and it became clear that there was nothing further I could contribute".[3] The Peace Corps' Tonga Post no longer assigns volunteers to tertiary academies, preferring to focus on English language instruction in Tonga's primary and secondary schools.

'Atenisi Institute also became burdened by the bureaucratic interventions of a globalised educational hegemony. The advent of Tongan government regulation of tertiary education in an effort to enforce standards and to boost 'quality' has challenged the recalcitrant institute and threatened its historical independence from the State. In 2011 the TNQAB required ʻAtenisi Institute to cease calling itself a university until it achieves accreditation as such, despite a fifty-year record of producing exceptional Tongan intellectuals and effective postgraduates. Although it was reported in the media that the TNQAB accredited ʻAtenisi in August 2011, in fact the TNQAB merely accepted the institute's registration as a tertiary educational provider.[4] Yet in advertisements in a weekly newspaper in 2013, the institute boasted four resident PhDs on its university faculty - the highest number of accredited Phd lecturers of any equivalent institution in Tonga ... and in August 2013 the TNQAB extended the university's registration for two years.

Despite an arduous 50 year history and countless attempted subversions, 'Atenisi Institute has survived into 2013 under the academic leadership of Dr. 'Opeti Taliai - a talented Tongan linguist and teacher of Pacific Studies. Under Dr. Taliai, his wife, the well-reputed lawyer Mele Tuilotulava (as Financial Controller) and Futa Helu's daughter Sisi'uno (as Director), 'Atenisi Institute has surmounted financial debt for the first time in a decade. The very well-regarded New Zealand sociologist and poet Dr. Scott Hamilton joined the institute in February 2013 and, in July, former university dean Dr. Michael Horowitz returned to it. This leadership team is now engaged in the rebuilding of the school in line with Futa Helu's values of rigour and independent criticism.

Documentary film[edit]

In August 2012, a film on Futa Helu's life and the history of ʻAtenisi was screened at the New Zealand International Film Festival, garnering a favourable review in the New Zealand Herald. The documentary, Tongan Ark, was created, directed, and photographed by Paul Janman, a Welsh-Kiwi anthropologist and former ʻAtenisi instructor.[5][6][7] Tongan Ark has now been accepted into American and European film festivals and in July 2013, it is screening on New Zealand's Rialto Channel as part of a showcase of New Zealand cinema. Since Tongan Ark deals with the inspiring tragedy of Futa Helu's last years, Janman is now engaged in a second film which he hopes will chart the growth of the institute and the fulfilment of the late Futa Helu's legacy.


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