University of Fiji academic chief rejects allegations of corruption, nepotism

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The University of Fiji at Lautoka
The University of Fiji at Lautoka ... controversy over "whistleblower's" allegations. Image: FBC

By Sri Krishnamurthi for Asia-Pacific Report

Allegations of corruption, nepotism and bad governance at the Lautoka-based University of Fiji have been made by a whistleblower who allegedly lifted the lid on a veritable can of worms.

However, the head of the institution, vice-chancellor Professor Shaista Shameem, has rejected the claims, describing them as “wild allegations” by disgruntled former employees.

Asia-Pacific Report has sighted a four-page document titled “The Nexus of Corruption at the University of Fiji” which lists 10 allegations, including mismanagement of funds gifted to the university.

The allegations were put to Professor Shameem who immediately established a Litany Inquiry Commission (LIC) comprising staff from the five schools at the university

She responded to RNZ Pacific late yesterday after initially sending a message “to all staff and students at the university that she will expect quality performance from all at the university pursuant to the new Strategic Plan 2022-2026”.

Although she was appointed in March, Professor Shameem took up her appointment officially on December 10 — International Human Rights Day. As a human rights lawyer, Professor Shameem believed that the date she chose for the announcement to officially take up her position was symbolic for her.

“I did not want to be the VC. It took a lot of persuasion. I was on retirement track. Then I decided I would take up the offer and that I would do it from 10 December,” she told Asia-Pacific Report.

Prasad calls for independent investigation
“National Federation Party (NFP) leader and former economics professor at the University of the South Pacific Biman Prasad told RNZ Pacific that allegations of fraudulent behaviour should be investigated, especially since the University of Fiji had received more than F$2.7 million (NZ$1.8 million) for the 2020-2021 financial year.

NFP leader Dr Biman Prasad 070721
Opposition National Federation Party leader Professor Biman Prasad … the document reveals no academic freedom in Fiji. Image: RNZ Pacific

“Corruption allegations of this nature at any tertiary institution is a matter of serious concern,” he said.

The document’s release to media revealed there was no academic freedom in Fiji, claimed Professor Prasad.

“Academic freedom does not necessarily mean that academics can say whatever they want to say about things outside of the university, but academic freedom also means that staff in the university should be able to raise the issues with the management with respect to any suggestion that there might be corruption or bad governance,” he said.

Professor Shaista Shameem
Professor Shaista Shameem … established a Litany Inquiry Commission (LIC) to investigate the corruption allegations. Image: University of Fiji

“If the issues involve the council members, then it is incumbent upon the council to appoint some independent organisation — such as a reputable accounting firm not influenced by any state apparatus within the country — to give those who are making the allegations and those the allegations are made against … a fair hearing.

“Then any governance issue is dealt with in a proper way.”

Professor Shameem responded strongly by saying “Professor Biman Prasad should take a good hard look at his own backyard before shooting off without any evidence being presented at all in the wild allegations”.

‘Terminated over lack of performance’
“The allegations sent to Radio New Zealand were made by disgruntled and disgraced former employees who were terminated due to lack of performance or breach of Fiji’s law and others who have not performed but expect to be promoted or given permanent employment,” she said.

“The University of Fiji will not be bullied.”

“As far as I am aware, no staff member has raised any matter to do with corruption or bad governance. The University of Fiji has a whistleblower policy which keeps identities confidential and ensures that independent investigation of any allegation takes place promptly.

“No one has so far made such allegations through the whistleblower process. Evidence of bad management practices were certainly present at the University of Fiji in the previous administrations, but a clean-up has since taken place and we are back on the right path”, Professor Shameem said.

She claimed Professor Biman was out of date on the issue.

“Politicians should get themselves up to scratch otherwise no one will have any faith in them come next elections,” she said.

‘Issues had been resolved’
“Over a two-day period of inquiry, the LIC was informed by the staff who had expressed similar views internally that at no time had they sent either Radio New Zealand or a third person their views because their issues had either been resolved by the university administration or they had understood why the university had made the decisions that it had on all the issues they initially found difficult.”

The 10 allegations are about an online learning and teaching software (Top Hat) as used mainly in in American universities, such as the University of Alabama, Rutgers University, and the University of Iowa; purchase of four new cars at a time when staff bonuses and benefits had been suspended and some staff were alleged to have their salaries cut; and a $500,000 donation by the Rajendra Sahay Trust in 2019 for the establishment of a health centre; and issues over the opening of a second café.

However, the document claimed this was the “tip of the iceberg” at the privately owned university, which is run by the Hindu religious organisation Arya Prathinidhi Sabha of Fiji.

The university is based in Lautoka and has a campus in Suva. It has about 1000 students and 100 staff.

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