USP staff slam Fiji’s freezing of F$28m grant as holding university to ransom

University of the South Pacific
The University of the South Pacific ... THE global recognition. Image: Wansolwara

Pacific Media Centre Newsdesk

Staff of the regional University of the South Pacific have condemned the Fiji government’s “dictatorial” action in freezing a $28 million grant, accusing it of holding the governing University Council to ransom and jeopardising the future of students.

“Fiji is reneging on its commitment to its people and the region,” say the staff in a letter to Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama.

The letter, signed yesterday by the university’s academic Association of USP Staff (AUSPS) and the USP Staff Union (USPSU) leadership, was sent in support of the 29,000 students following the grant suspension statement by the Attorney-General that has “sent shock waves across this regional institution to which 80 percent of graduates from Fiji are indebted”.

Attorney-General Aiyaz Saiyed-Khaiyum was reported as saying the Fiji government – as the largest grant contributor to the USP – was concerned at the “continuous question marks about the lack of adherence to the principles of good governance in the day to day administration of USP”.

This came after months of conflict at the regional institution between the University Council and the Fiji-based university management.

It also followed recent exoneration by the University Council of popular Canadian vice-chancellor Professor Pal Ahluwalia who had been targeted by two senior Fiji officials over his reforms.

Yesterday’s staff letter said: “It is poor governance when a single member state of the USP Council attempts to dictate its course of action.

Critical financial position
“The staff of the USP strongly object to the AG and Minister for Economy’s decision to cease Fiji’s grant contribution to the USP,” the letter said.

“This places the university in a critical financial position, jeopardising the education of Fiji students (80 percent) and Fiji staff (80 percent).

“This decision is viewed as an assault on the Fiji students and staff who, to date, in this covid and pre-covid environment of 2019 have been able to continue their education and work with minimum impact under the current vice-chancellor’s prudent leadership and council oversight.

“The government is seen to be using Fiji students and staff to dictate to and to hold the USP Council to ransom whilst holding a ‘gun’ to the head of the vice-chancellor and president.

“The action is tantamount to ‘cutting off USP students and staff legs at their knees’ and therefore their lifelines to coping with living in the current and post-covid environment.

“Not only will hundreds of families suffer, the quality of support and education for USP students in Fiji and the region will be seriously affected due to the domino effect of this decision.

“The question being asked is, why would the government use such strong arm tactics and punitive action to jeopardise the education of its youth who are their voters and the next generation of leaders when the USP’s supreme governing body of 12 regional states and development partners have spoken,” the letter said.

‘Mere pawns on political game’
“Rather than being treated as valuable citizenry, it appears that all are mere pawns
in a political game.

“The vice-chancellor and president is doing what every government, university, corporation and family business in the world needs to do to survive – reflect, redesign and reorganise.

To date, said the letter, no staff member had lost a job, no student had been refused admission – except for “mandated academic reasons” – and there had been an increase in student enrolments.

“The gravity of this decision and its implications require serious reflection on the basis of the decision and in-depth reconsideration by the Fiji government for the greater good of the students of Fiji and our Pacific `vuvale’ [canoe sail].”

Fiji Labour Party Leader Mahendra Chaudhry has branded the Economy Minister’s suspension of Fiji’s grant to USP as “simply childish”, reports Fiji Village radio.

Chaudhry said it looked like Fiji wass on its own, “like a lone wolf crying foul”.

The FLP leader said he was concerned that students’ university education would be affected and it would also affect the reputation of USP.

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