Usp: lamenting what we have lost!

Congratulations to the University of the South Pacific on its 50th anniversary. Everyone who has been to USP should be proud of it.The University stands out as the mantle for regional cooperation that has truly brought about a level of integration and fostered a feeling of strong attachment to the region and the institution. No other educational university has produced more leaders and have significantly contributed to the public service of the Pacific Islands than USP. Regardless of whether you have been here or not, we should all be proud of the achievements of our University and the contribution that it has made and continues to make to our region.

The commemorations also coincide with the search for a new Vice Chancellor. It is only appropriate that the future of the University and the challenges it faces going forward is not lost in these celebrations.

I am a former student but not a graduate of USP. I did Foundation Social Science at USP in 1982 before transferring to the University of Papua New Guinea. However, I feel privileged to have started my tertiary education at USP.

As we reflect on what has been achieved over the past 50 years, we should not forget what we perhaps may have lost and remind ourselves of why AD Patel envisioned a regional University. In this short article I wish to make some observations on what we have perhaps lost along the way.

When we arrived at USP in early 1982, we were allocated our rooms by Mrs. May’s staff at the Student Services, and given our sasa (broom), pillows, pillow cases, and blankets. We had no choice in the rooms we stayed in, and we had no say in who our room mates were. If you were unfortunate to have to share a room with a snorer or a noisy student, it was just sheer bad luck. But no one complained or raised any issues about their room allocation and who their room mates were. In the First Hall where the first-year students were allocated, there were 4 students to a room, separated by cubicles. Each cubicle had a bed, desk, and enough space to hang your clothes. We shared a common shower, toilets and laundry. Every week, we would take our linen and exchange them for freshly washed ones. We delighted in the beautiful smell of fresh linen. I remember the delight in the faces of the women working in the Student Services when Prince William was born. Fiji was still a member of the Commonwealth and her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s realm.

My roommates were Iaone Okesene from Samoa, Askar Ali from Labasa and another Fiji-Indian student also from Labasa whose name eludes me. Ioane and I were in Foundation Social Science while our roommates did Foundation Science. I have lost track of my other two roommates but have continued to remain in direct and indirect contact with Ioane ever since. My other Samoan classmate who was a regular visitor to our room was Kosimiki Latu who is head of the South Pacific Environment Programme (SPREP) Secretariat. He also spent one year at USP before going to Canterbury, but I never forgot him. We would play soccer behind the halls with students from all over the Pacific. We played touch rugby and even boxed. One of the neatest students with a typical Fijian haircut that stuck a bit at the forehead was Manase. He is now a Senior Minister at the World Harvest Fellowship Church at Kinoya. There was Tomasi Sotutu whose friends were Andrew Tekirua from Solomon Islands and the Tokelauans. The Tokelauans and Andrew hung around together because Andrew who was from Tikopia, a Polynesian outlying island in the Solomon Islands, spoke a similar language to the Tokelauans.

We ate together in the Dining Hall, with our class and dorm mates. Even though we would often look out for our wantoks, we knew students from the other Island groups and would often sit with students from the other Island groups. The Vanuatu and Solomon Islands students formed the Wantok Association and had regular social gatherings. The Solomon Islands students even had social gatherings with the i-Kiribati students. You had a meal card with your name and photo on the first page. Bisun from Navua would sit at the front and stamp the meal card as each student entered the dining hall. He knew every student by name and recognised their faces. Six years later when I returned to Suva after having graduated from UPNG I came to USP and had lunch at the Dining Hall. He was still there and even remembered my name and recognised me.

USP has lost the intimacy of the student interaction across the different cultural groupings. It has lost the integration of the rich cultural heritage and lost the space where students are able to actually live together, play sports together, have fellowships across the different cultural groupings where for four to five years they learn from each other, eat together and share the same room.

One rainy night, a drunk student from Micronesia came to call his Wantok from the back of the rooms but in doing so must have accidently dropped a Fijian student’s clothes. They beat him up in front of our rooms. We were woken up by the commotion. When I came out, Kwan Amataga from Samoa was standing over the Micronesian student and pushing the Fijian students away. Kwan was wrapped up in a blanket, then the blanket fell down. He wasn’t wearing any sapo (underpants)! He continued to push the Fijians away not worrying about his ‘gentleman’ which were swaying from side to side. At that point we all burst out laughing. Kwan came to work with Solomon Brewery in Solomon Islands in 1996 and has lived there ever since! When he came, he had no problems adjusting. He had so many of his class mates in key positions in government including one who worked with him in the same company. Kwan was his boss!

That was the USP that I knew and I am sure so many other people remember and indeed reminisce about. Those were the days before the garment factories which made clothes cheaper. The Fijian girls wore their hair in their traditional style while the Indian girls came to class in their sarees. I had two very nice Indian girlfriends. We would often sit down together and tell stories. I continued to correspond with one of then when I left for UPNG. I understand she became Fiji’s Miss Hibiscus and a few years later moved to Canada. Her name was Irene Dutt.

In February 2017, thirty-five years after leaving USP I attended a church service in a church at Brown Street. There was a Fijian sitting a few pews in front of me. Before the service was over, they called him and introduced him as the Pastor to close the service. After the church service, we introduced ourselves outside. I said, “my name is Transform,” before telling me his name he said, “I think we went to school together.” I did not recognise him and wanted to put a name to his face so I asked “where? In PNG, Canada, Australia?” “No” he said, “here in Fiji.” I took a closer look at him and said “you are not Asaeli?” He said “yes” whereupon I hugged him and said “wow, it has been such a long time but you still recognise me. I would never have been able to recognise you.” It was not difficult not to know Asaeli at USP as he was the smallest of our cohort.

In March 2017, I was sitting at the outpatients ward at St Giles Hospital when a grey-haired Fijian walked in with his wife. He immediately came over and said “I know you.” I took one look at him and said, “Setoki!” We had not seen each other for 35 years but we still remembered each other. That is what USP has lost, the intimacy of the student population that transcended ethnic, cultural and linguistic barriers.

As part of the process of writing this short piece, I stationed myself at the Laucala Campus and observed the dynamics, demographics and movement of students. I hardly saw students from the different countries walk and sit together outside the classroom. They always mingled in their own island groups. Even Solomon Islands students, who are the second highest student group at USP have different associations often affiliated with their language groups. This is to be lamented. The University is where they should build a strong regional and national identity, but this is not happening. The Dining Hall and accommodation arrangements like what we had in First Hall should be reintroduced.

As we mark the 50th Anniversary of USP, we also lament how USP has somewhat lost its strong tradition in Pacific Islands studies. It used to be the bastion of publications on all matters pertaining to the Pacific Islands. We had the late emeritus Professor ‘Papa’ Ron Crocombe who was a prolific publisher and supporter of Pacific Islands scholarship when he was in charge of the Institute of Pacific Studies. It had a global reputation par excellence on all aspects about the Pacific Islands. It is somewhat ironic that the University that was established as a focal point for Pacific Islands leadership, training and scholarship has lost the mantle that it once carried.

It is a travesty that in the pursuit of economic rationalisation and efficiencies that there is no longer any centre of excellence with a world class reputation that focusses in depth, breath and length on Pacific Islands studies. Granted there are various centres that focus on different issues that impact on the Pacific Islands such as the PaCE-SD which is a centre for excellence in environmental education, research and community engagement around climate in the Pacific Island Region, but there is no dedicated centre of international repute around Pacific Island studies. This is to be lamented and a regrettable facet of these celebrations.

The University should be the centre par excellence of everything about the Pacific Islands, its history, culture, economics and politics. It should be where anyone in the world who wants to study the Pacific Islands come to study. They should not be going to Australia, New Zealand and other countries outside the region to study about the Pacific Islands. There should be a pool of Pacific Islands experts based at the University that not only provide educational and other support to the student population but they should also be able to provide policy support to Pacific Island governments.

USP should be the centre of excellence, steeped in knowledge and research on every sphere and facet of life that impinge on Pacific Islands societies. What has happened? Why has the University allowed itself to lose the richness and depth of the studies of subjects that touch on the lives of the very peoples it was established to serve? Has it traded economic rationalisation and efficiency by doing away with studies that do not generate revenue for itself? This is a sad indictment on the treatment of Pacific Studies and is to be lamented.

Professor Brij Lal has rightly called for a review of the quality of educational standards because whether we like it or not, overall quality and standards have declined. Granted there are exceptional students who will invariably do well but it is now quite a common fact that the quality of graduates has gone down. How do you measure this, one might ask? Well you need to only read the poor grammar of some Masters and even PhD Students. It is inexcusable at that level of education but is an indication that something is not right. This raises questions about the quality of the human resources that is being produced for the work force. Has this happened because the University felt threatened by the emergence of universities like the Fiji National University, (FNU) and the Solomon Islands National University (SINU) and thus sacrificed standards of admission for economic efficiency?

The danger of trading high standards of entry for dollars is that students think that they might have a degree but it is not worth much when their inadequacies are revealed at the work place. These are uncomfortable issues and is probably politically incorrect to raise, but USP should not have to fear about losing students if it maintains itself as the centre of excellence for tertiary education. It should be competitive to get into USP, where the best and brightest get educated by world class researchers and lecturers. That is what USP should be. In the name of economic efficiency, it has lost this and this too is lamented.

In conclusion, it is lamentable that 50 years after its establishment, USP graduates cannot work across the region in another Pacific Island country without a work permit. What has happened to the much touted labour mobility that our leaders talk about? I think before we ask Australia and New Zealand to make labour mobility easier, we should first apply it to ourselves. USP graduates are trained to work in the Pacific Islands and elsewhere.

As a matter of principle and policy USP graduates from Tonga and Fiji should be able to work in Solomon Islands or Kiribati and vice versa without a work permit. There should be no barriers to USP graduates to move freely across the Pacific Islands region to work or engage in business. If class mates from different countries want to set up a business in a USP country, they should be able to do so. Their ticket should be their USP qualification. That would truly integrate the University into the social and economic fabric of its member countries; after all it is “Our University.”

As USP searches for a new Vice Chancellor, I sincerely hope that whoever she or he is, will be sensitive to these challenges to make USP a truly premier University of the region where students from all walks of life from the Pacific Islands can be truly enriched by the education that they receive and be proud of their South Pacific heritage.