USP at the crossroads – a student view on tracking good governance

Prof Pal Ahluwalia
Professor Pal Ahluwalia ... represents the good governance of the future. Image: FBC News

Amid recent months of political turmoil about the region’s premier institution of higher learning, the University of the South Pacific, students have been keen to be heard as well as politicians and media. A group of international students – the Australian subgroup – at USP have approached the Pacific Media Centre’s Asia Pacific Report to contribute this perspective.

By international students of USP, Australia subgroup

Echoing the collective concerns of the University of the South Pacific Student Association (USPSA), students and staff, and a commentary from respected elder and leader, Dr Tarcisius Tara Kabutaulaka, an associate professor and director of the University of Hawai’i’s Center for Pacific Islands Studies, we are seeking to support a transition towards good governance at the USP.

A brief recap: in June this year, vice-chancellor Pal Ahluwalia was “tried” by Winston Thompson pro-chancellor of the USP Council in an act widely seen as a defensive reaction against the BDO report and anti-corruption campaign spearheaded by vice-chancellor Ahluwalia.

Watching from within Fiji and from overseas, we saw waves of solidarity and support for vice-chancellor Ahluwalia’s efforts.

Various international student associations and other overseas voices added to the groundswell of support from staff and students within Fiji.

Regional students gathered at the Alafua Campus in Samoa, Emalus Campus in Vanuatu, the Republic of the Marshall Islands campus in Majuro and the Solomon Islands campus in Honiara as well as campuses throughout Fiji.

These groups carried signs reading “We stand with Pal”, calling out “Stand down Winston” in order to make way for demands for “good governance”.

These waves of international solidarity and support from across the region were testimony to the idea that what happens at USP has widespread implications beyond Fiji.

Caught between the old and new
Interviewing students from a range of countries and disciplines, we learned more about their experience at the USP. We were particularly interested to learn about how they feel being caught between these two paths represented by the old and new orders of governance at the USP.

We were also interested to learn about the importance of USP for international students.
Last week, we conducted some surveys with Australian students and alumni about the benefits they attributed to their time at the USP. The findings of the survey found that Australian students benefitted from new career opportunities, new research opportunities, new friends and networks and new skills and abilities as well as a deeper awareness of the Pacific.

A USP student questionnaire query … what kind of benefits have you found from studying at USP? Figure: International USP students

Student E spoke of the USP’s strong capacity for “geospatial sciences, remote sensing” and drone capabilities.

Student A spoke about meeting “incredible new friends”, learning about “Pacific values and politics” through immersion on campus. Student O emphasised how by participating in a range of “classes and extracurriculars” they found the potential for collaborative research opportunities.

The perspective of Australian students and communities, whose taxes eventually flow via foreign aid assistance into the USP budget, are in a unique position.

We often become more concerned about how our contributions to the USP budget are spent or misspent. We question the wisdom of continued investment.

During a trip to USP before the covid-19 pandemic, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that Australia would invest $84 million over the next six years to the University of the South Pacific.

Letter to Australian High Commission
During the USP Saga and the “trial” of vice-chancellor Ahluwalia, the Australian Students of USP drafted a letter to the Australian High Commission to voice our concerns about the events unfolding at the USP.

Not long after the High Commission released a statement from the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. The statement made in light of the BDO Report and the USP Saga have highlighted that the Australian government’s donor assistance would be influenced by progress towards demonstrating good governance, transparency and accountability.

USP sits at a crossroads between good governance of the future represented by professor  Ahluwalia and the old regime represented by pro-vice chancellor Thompson.

When asked about how they view the future of relations between Australia and the Pacific, the students involved in the survey all viewed USP as having an important role.

Students E and A both spoke of the powerful role of USP in supporting people-to-people links and cultural and educational exchange programmes.

Student O stressed the importance of accessibility both in terms of logistics and finances.

This point is especially pertinent when it comes to accountable and transparent management of budgets so that funds are going towards student’s access and education rather than being circulated and siphoned through senior executive circles of power.
Speaking to a range of local students, it is clear that there have been a number of changes between the old order of the previous USP vice-chancellor’s administration and the current administration.

According to Student C, under the old order students were widely “discouraged and even punished for asking questions or even saying hello” to the previous vice-chancellor if they happened to see him on campus.

‘A real Pal’
In contrast, “I have found the current vice-chancellor Ahluwalia to be incredibly approachable, a good listener and open to questions and constructive feedback… a real Pal,” said student M.

These seemingly small interactions, in the last year, are symptomatic of a wider shift towards a less top-down hierarchical system.

This is a departure from the past when the students served the executive. Instead, as vice-chancellor Pal Ahluwalia has said, “I am here to serve and listen to the students.”

Imagine the potential of the future generations in the Pacific if the students are elevated and empowered rather than being seen as mere numbers to be extracted from.

This shift towards empowering students is threatened by a small and elite group. Members of the elite are often political appointees, well-connected to government. These members of the USP Council and other levels of senior executive governance represent a more “subverted” influence of government.

More recently, government interventions have been less subtle. Examples include the deployment of police to monitor peaceful gatherings at the USP Laucala Campus as well as ongoing investigations which have been linked to accusations of police harassment and intimidation of staff and students at the public gatherings.

In perhaps the most direct violation of USP Council procedures, the Attorney-General, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum attended the USP Council Meeting held on October 13, despite the fact he is not a member of the USP Council.

Unexpected interference of the AG
Through the unexpected interference of the AG, the meeting was stalled and little progress could be made to move towards recommendations made in light of the BDO Report.

This most recent direct intervention of the government in USP affairs leads many to ask whether the USP can truly become a university representative of the South Pacific or whether it will remain a “University of FijiFirst”.

Throughout the Pacific region, students, alumni, staff, partner organisations and government donors are watching the USP at this crucial juncture. It is a crossroads in which USP may turn towards the path of good governance as symbolised by vice-chancellor Ahluwalia.

On the other side, there is a slippery slope scenario in which the USP may turn down the other path representing the old feudal regimes where funding disappeared, or funded the corrupt elite, without transparency and accountability.

The future of USP still hangs in the balance and could go down either of these two paths. Furthermore, these choices could be made either through due process in alignment with the university’s constitution or through coercion in which the USP would be, yet again, hijacked by higher powers.

Regardless of how events continue to unfold, one point has been made clear: the world is watching.

This article is contributed by the Australian subgroup of the University of the South Pacific’s international students.

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