The Low-down on USP

In drawing to conclude ‘What Is to Become of USP?’ (see Islands Business August 2020), I acquiesced to the prospect that the University may already be undergoing transition from a ‘public good’ to a ‘club good’. The basis of such a conclusion was that ‘whilst USP – the tertiary education provider – does not dwindle in supply as students consume it, it may however be already excluding some students due to congestion.’

I then concluded as follows: ‘Such a reformulation of the university may not necessarily hasten big changes in the immediate term. However, the mix of political economy considerations and ‘club’ myopia, intricately laced with local-level geopolitics, may just trigger nuances that may further undermine USP’s regionality that will cast a long shadow at Pacific regionalism.’

As it turned out, both USP and Pacific regionalism are currently ‘in the soup’ – both distasteful, and the creeping shadow that is engulfing them can spell disaster for the region unless solutions are found.

I feel compelled therefore to re-visit my concluding remarks, in the interest of good order, to expand on it for clarity and greater comprehension. By greater understanding others’ positions, we can best strategise to avoid possible snags that these positions can cause in future.

My task now has been alleviated somewhat by some regional commentators who have been writing on these two subject matters from since late last year. This is particularly so as regards commentaries on the University; specifically, on what I can term as the political economy considerations of Fiji’s membership of USP.

These commentators have touched on the political and economic processes that Fiji’s Bainimarama government has been wielding in its interactions with other members in the USP Council in the conduct of the legitimate affairs of the Council. By these interventions, the representatives of Fiji have impeded the Council’s ability to solve its delegated tasks that required collective action.

It should be noted that, if Fiji was so inclined, its political and economic processes could have worked to support the collective tasks of the Council. Instead, Fiji has opted to be acrimonious.

Fiji’s political processes that leverage influence on the work of the Council obviously arise from its hosting of USP’s main campus, dating back to over 50 years ago when USP was established.

In addition, it can be envisaged that Fiji’s geographical centrality in the Pacific Ocean renders the country’s geo-strategic pre-eminence adding to its political and economic influences. Fiji has had expansionary ambitions to be the entrepôt in the south Pacific Ocean and the financial centre through its South Pacific Stock Exchange.

On the economic front, Fiji provides the largest number of students to the University. These students’ fees and government’s subsidies for them represent a big chunk of the University’s annual income.  Professor Waden Narsey has pointed out that currently all students’ fees alone contribute more than twice that of all the governments’ grants together in the university budget.

Fiji’s subsidies for the fees for its students are what many have referred to as Fiji’s ‘grant’ to the USP budget. Grant – it is not. The contribution is that which enables the University to cover the costs of educating Fiji’s students. Furthermore, it enables the University to sustain its critical educational role on Fiji soil, thus rendering Fiji its biggest beneficiary across many sectors of the economy.

Fiji’s influences, arising from these political and economic processes, have enabled Fiji to wield the big stick over time to undermine, not only the university’s integrity and independence, but also the delegated tasks of the USP Council.

Professor Brij Lal, for example, has written about Fiji’s intervention in silencing those seen by the Bainimarama government as those speaking out of turn as regards government policies. Government’s harsh and unwelcome intervention at the time was conceded to because USP’s previous top management capitulated to the intervention.

The silencing and eventual deportation of Professor Pal Ahluwalia, whose only ‘crime’ was that he blew the whistle on those before him who had committed a series of unpardonable financial misappropriation, corruption and mismanagement. Such disclosures were too close for comfort since they discredited lackeys of government both in the top echelon of USP’s management and in the Council.  

His reported crime was on the basis of allegation that the good professor was a threat to the peace, order and security of Fiji; and this led to the revocation of his work permit. He was then declared as persona non grata. This, in the absence of evidence, remains speculative.

In considering Fiji’s recent actions on the USP and its Council, one can be forgiven for assuming that the Bainimarama government seemed to have strayed beyond the bounds of simply political and economic considerations. The distribution of power amongst USP members is certainly a factor that impacts on the interests and incentives that would have compelled Fiji to act as it did. As we have seen above, however, Fiji opted to impede rather than to support the collective responsibilities of the Council.

Methinks that Fiji’s consideration of power, resulting from its political and economic processes, has a differential dimension to it. I am reminded that in sociology, ‘it is common for power to be conceived of as involving issues of control and coercion, where some groups use power to gain advantage over others in competition for scarce and valued resources.’

This power dimension, or a variance of it, sits snugly in Bainimarama’s armoury of policy options. The government’s love affair with curfews during the high-risk periods of post-COVID-19 and the draconian provisions contained in the draft Police Bill 2020 (now retracted) to increase the power of the police which will result in the curtailment of personal human rights stand firmly as prospective validation of the perversion arising from this power dimension.

As regards ‘club’ myopia, I referred to above, it can be seen that Fiji’s planned delay in the remittance of funds to subsidise the fees of its own students is somewhat short-sighted. It lacks foresight. It only jeopardises the education of its own students should USP terminate these students for incomplete payment of fees. Furthermore, such action jeopardises the viability of the whole university since it affects the greatest number of students.

Further evidence of the short-sightedness of this delay is provided by USP Chancellor himself when he was reported to have said that: ‘No Fiji grant (sic), uni still afloat.’ The Chancellor made this comment whilst he was praising Vice Chancellor and President (VCP) Pal Ahluwalia ‘for great work’ after VCP’s deportation by the Fiji government.  

The shadow engulfing USP is inflicting devastation. Its growing length is suggestive of some forms of terminality. USP, for instance, may move the functions of its main campus from Suva. Samoa has already offered.  Some university members may withdraw to focus on their own national universities, thus altering the regionality of the institution. This may include Fiji that is already on record that it wants its own national university to be the premier university in the region. Should this be the case, it can be envisaged that Fiji, of all the PIF members, is that who is doing its darndest to incapacitate Pacific regionalism.

The author is a former Fijian Ambassador and Foreign Minister and runs his own consultancy company in Suva, Fiji.

As with all opinion pieces, the views expressed here are not necessarily the views of this magazine.