South Pacific: Showpiece varsity’s dire straits

EducationWorld November 2022 | International News Magazine

BITTER LEADERSHIP ROW AT THE WORLD’S most pan-national university has cost it almost half year’s revenue, in an escalation of the economically and politically fuelled funding insecurity that bedevils the institution. Staff at the University of the South Pacific (USP) say that the institution’s biggest contributor, the Fijian government, has withheld F$78 million (Rs.275 crore) of promised funding since its dispute with vice chancellor Pal Ahluwalia erupted in 2020.

Fiji is the biggest of the 12 island nations that jointly own the university, contributing more than 75 percent of its staff and providing 55 percent of students. Its government now refuses to pay its share of operating expenses, normally about one-sixth of institutional revenue, until Prof. Ahlu­walia is replaced.

The government’s opponents are outraged. National Federation Party leader and former USP academic Biman Prasad has promised to reinstate Fiji as “a sound and reli­able” USP member that “honours its promises” if he and running mate Sitiveni Rabuka, who heads the People’s Al­liance party, win the general election due later this year.

Premila Kumar, incumbent education minister, says grants to USP won’t be paid until the government’s allega­tions against Prof. Ahluwalia, which now include bullying and nepotism, are independently investigated. USP’s two staff unions counter that the allegations against Ahluwalia, who is now based in Samoa, have already been dismissed in five independent inquiries. They say that having failed to remove Prof. Ahluwalia for exposing financial mismanage­ment and misconduct by his predecessors, the government was taking it out on the “premier regional university” and its students.

Economic difficulties in USP’s three biggest member countries — Fiji, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu — have also curbed the supply of loans and allowances. In 2020, Fiji slashed funding for its tertiary education loan scheme (TELS) by more than one-third. As a result, the school mark threshold for loans eligibility was increased while the value of associated scholarships was reduced. Meanwhile, Solomons and Vanuatu students routinely face protracted delays in receiving government living allowances, leaving them vulnerable to “loan sharks” and unscrupulous land­lords in Fiji, according to the Pacific Advocate.

All this threatens what has become an increasingly im­portant income stream for USP, with student fees contrib­uting 39 percent of institutional revenue by 2018, up from 19 percent a decade earlier.

Former USP law lecturer Tess Newton Cain said the uni­versity’s current financial crisis is a dramatic example of the challenges it faces routinely, as one or other of its member states fails to hand over its “stake”. “Solomon Islands had years of struggling to pay its way at USP because they just don’t have the wherewithal to keep up the payments,” says Dr. Newton Cain, who now heads the Pacific Hub at Griffith University’s Asia Institute. “If a country can’t afford to pay, then they can’t afford to pay.”

But now the biggest member country is the defaulter, to the gall of other states that have long envied the economic benefits Fiji enjoys as host of the university’s headquar­ters and easily its biggest campus. “The economic spillover effects are much more pronounced in Fiji than anywhere else,” says Dr. Newton Cain. “They get all the professional support and ancillary jobs, and businesses in Fiji do well out of students.”

The resentment had been exacerbated by a perception that Fiji had monopolised USP’s capital spending while campuses elsewhere had been left to wither. Fiji has rubbed salt in the wounds by denying its citizens eligibility for TELS loans if they study at USP’s overseas campuses, a move that undermined enrolments in Vanuatu — home to the univer­sity’s law school — and the Samoa campus, which special­ises in agriculture.

With the dominant member state now refusing to pay its way, the university faces a particularly tough 2022. It plans to seek additional contributions from its major donors and to find “new development assistance partners”, according to its annual plan.

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