May 09, 2021 Last Updated 7:04 AM, May 7, 2021

Will Fiji emerge victorious in the prolonged leadership dispute at the regional university it co-owns with eleven other Pacific island nations?

This was the question many were asking after the February 16 meeting of the USP Council, which failed to restore the work contract of deported Vice Chancellor, Professor Pal Ahluwalia. That meeting also deferred a decision on action over two key council members, Pro Chancellor Winston Thompson and the chair of the council’s audit and compliance committee, Mahmood Khan.

Rather than deciding on a motion dismiss to the two for alleged breaches of the council’s code of conduct, New Zealand introduced a new motion that called on the executive committee of the council to investigate the charges of insubordination and acting against the interest of the university before reporting back to the full Council.

This motion was carried 14 votes to 12.

Both Thompson and Khan are members of this executive committee but Islands Business understands that since they are the subjects of the committee’s probe, they will be excluded from its deliberations. The committee’s other members are the reps of Australia, and New Zealand, Kiribati, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Fiji’s education minister, Rosy Akbar.

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The University of the South Pacific Council has issued a statement expressing its disappointment over the fact it was not advised of the decision to deport USP Vice Chancellor, Professor Pal Ahluwalia, this week.

“The Council was not consulted over Professor Pal Ahluwalia’s deportation, that it has not made a decision to dismiss him and expressed disappointment that it was not advised, as Professor Ahluwalia’s employer, of the decision to deport him,” a Council statement reads.

The Fiji government deported Professor Ahluwalia and his wife, Sandra Price yesterday, saying they had “continuously breached” immigration laws which state: “no foreigner is permitted to conduct themselves in a manner prejudicial to the peace, defence, public safety, public order, public morality, public health, security, or good government of Fiji.”

In its meeting today, the Council established a sub-committee, chaired by the President of Nauru and including the Council Representatives of Australia, Tonga, Niue, Solomon Islands, Samoa and two Senate Representatives, to look into the matter.  The Sub-committee will bring recommendations on these matters to Council at its next meeting, which is scheduled for February 16th.

In the meantime, Dr Giulio Masasso Tu'ikolongahau Paunga will be USP’s  Acting Vice-Chancellor and President. It was Dr Paunga who prayed with Professor Ahluwalia and his wife Sandra Price in the moments before they were bundled into a car and driven to Nadi when they were detained in the early hours of Thursday morning.

Today Fiji's delegation led by Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum, attempted to block the renewal of Professor Ahluwalia's contract. The delegation included Dr Anjeela Jokhan, now Fiji’s Permanent Secretary for Education but until recently, the Dean of the Facualty of Science, Technology and Environment at USP, and a central figure in the long-running controversy there.

The cancellation of  Ahluwalia’s contract the moment his work permit was revoked by Fiji’s government, was confirmed by President Aingimea in a statement his office released just as he was about to lead the USP Council meeting this morning.

In that statement President Aingimea stressed the need to protect the regional university’s reputation. “We have to be careful of the messages we send to academics and donor partners of the USP. It needs credibility to attract very well qualified and excellent academics to be able to teach our Pacific people", he adds. “It needs to be done in an environment where people feel safe in regards to job security.”

Today's meeting was conducted virtually. Council ran out of time and was unable to discuss the second item on the agenda, a proposal to sack Pro Chancellor Winston Thompson and fellow Fiji rep in the Council, Mahmood Khan for alleged insubordination and for working against the interests of the USP.

Earlier, Professor Ahluwalia tweeted about being locked out of the Zoom platform for the Council meeting. “As the council meeting has begun I am not allowed to join. Please keep praying,” his tweet reads together with a picture of his laptop.  His exclusion from the discussions was debated when the Council meeting started, with Khaiyum leading a vigorous objection to the VC’s participation.

Ahluwalia and his wife were unable to fly to Nauru today as they had to comply with Australia’s compulsory 14 days quarantine requirements. The couple were initially advised that they could travel on to Nauru after a few hours stay in a hotel near Brisbane Airport, where he was expected to join his host, the President of Nauru, Lionel Aingimea in today’s USP Council meeting.

Making news today too was the exclusion from the Suva Campus of local journalists covering the Council meeting. While the media is never invited into the meeting proper, journalists from local newspapers, tv and radio stations were milling around the meeting venue, at the Japan – Pacific ICT Building when university security officers ordered them into a university vehicle and drove them out of campus’s main gates. Some University staff questioned the high handed tactics, saying the security personnel seemed to be taking orders from the Fijian Government and not the office of the Vice Chancellor.

-Additional reporting by Samantha Magick

University Vice Chancellor Professor Pal Ahluwalia and his wife Sandra Price are overnighting in a hotel in Brisbane, Australia this evening, and will be travelling onto Nauru early tomorrow.

Professor Ahluwalia says he is in good spirits, and hopes to arrive in Nauru in time for the USP Council meeting which is scheduled for tomorrow.

It was a meeting that was postponed last Friday due to water cuts at the USP Fiji campus and the approaching TC Ana.

‘It was a surreal experience’ was all Professor Ahluwalia could say about the midnight raid on his Fiji campus residence last night by 15 men and women. They broke down the residence’s front door to arrest the couple, confiscated their phones and tablets, and bundled them into a car for the three hour long drive to Nadi Airport.

Professor Ahluwalia and his wife were put on a 10am flight to Brisbane this morning.

The High Commission of Australia in Suva has refused to respond to questions about the arrangements that saw the deportation occur today.

“My wife was particularly courageous all throughout the ordeal and she was the one who smuggled in a phone to call you.”

Ahluwalia is referring to the phone call to Islands Business around 8am this morning when she whispered that she couldn't talk, "we’re being deported on the 11am flight.”

“It’s full steam ahead in so far as work is concerned and my wife and I are both very committed to serving the university from our new location,” Ahluwalia says.

Earlier Nauru’s President told Islands Business that, “it is proceeding as planned,” in respect to plans to relocate the office of the VC outside of Fiji.

As news of the deportation broke early today, President Aingmea told the magazine he had just been briefed and would hold a telephone meeting with other Council members.

At last week’s aborted virtual Council meeting, a paper on the possible relocation of the  Vice Chancellor’s office was on the agenda, in addition to the motion to dismiss two of Fiji’s reps on the council, Winston Thompson and Mahmood Khan on allegations of insubordination.

The logistics of managing the university from another member country would be challenging. The vast majority of USP’s students are in Fiji, and the Fiji government is its largest financial contributor, although the government has withheld at least part of last year’s grant due to the ongoing saga there.

This morning the University management released a statement saying, “Until the Council meets and provides its direction, the Senior Management Team will jointly undertake the Vice-Chancellor’s duties. The Senior Management Team has notified the Council leadership and are waiting for direction. The safety and wellbeing of our staff and students and the continuation of University operations remain our priority.”

The Fiji government released a statement saying Professor Ahluwalia and Price were deported for “continuous breaches of the of Section 13 of the Immigration Act which states “no foreigner is permitted to conduct themselves in a manner prejudicial to the peace, defence, public safety, public order, public morality, public health, security, or good government of Fiji,” wihtou stating more precisely how that section  had been breached.

And late this afternoon the USP Students Association said students were “heartbroken” by the events of last night.

“The notion of Natural Justice has clearly been disregarded and such treatment of the Chief Academic and Executive Office of the Pacific’s Premier Institution is a disgrace for the entire region,” the Association said in a statement.

When University of the South Pacific Vice Chancellor and President, Professor Pal Ahluwalia walked back onto USP’s Suva campus on June 22, he was accompanied by songs of celebration from staff and students who lined the path to his office.

The embattled VC was returning to his office three days after the full USP Council had reinstated him, at a meeting called on the insistence of USP governments, resolving that “it was not persuaded that due process was followed in [his] suspension”.

Two weeks earlier on June 8, an Executive Committee of the Council had suspended Professor Ahluwalia from duties with pay so that “an independent investigation”  into allegations against him could be conducted.  The Committee appointed Professor Derrick Armstrong as Acting Vice-Chancellor and President to manage the affairs of the University.

It was the latest salvo in a conflict that has come as the university has struggled to retain its place as a cradle of learning for future Pacific leaders, to recruit, retain and nurture academic staff, continue to deliver courses and support students through COVID-19,  put regionalism into practice, ensure it remains relevant and stay financially afloat. 

And while the reinstatement of Vice Chancellor Ahluwalia has brought joy and a sense of vindication to many staff and students, who see it as a victory for good governance, activism and regional unity, the matter is far from over.

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A “support good governance” protest organised by the University of the South Pacific Student Association today with the theme “wear blue” is now underway in a number of campuses around the region with the exception of Fiji, where police presence at the Laucala Bay campus has limited students’ ability to gather.

USPSA Federal spokesperson Aneet Kumar told IB Online the protests are meant to be peaceful and they have cautioned Fiji students and staff who have joined the cause to be careful “because the last thing we want is for anyone to get into trouble.”

“We have asked everyone to wear blue to show their support and we have a sea of blue right now at the Laucala Bay campus but we cannot gather to protest because there is police presence all over campus.  We know this because officers are walking around campus wearing blue tee shirts with Fiji Police logo on them.  So we’re just asking our supporters to take precaution and wear blue to show our solidarity in silence,” Kumar said. 

“But our Emalus campus in Vanuatu is paving the way for Fiji campuses since we can’t gather.  They’re having a peaceful protest there.”

USPSA’s Emalus Campus members have just completed demonstration in a peaceful gathering of around 100 students and staff.

“We doing this to support the re-instatement of Vice Chancellor Pal Ahluwalia and also for transparency and accountability at the highest management level of USP,” USPSA Emalus campus, Vanuatu spokesperson Atina Schutz told IB Online.  

Protests have also been held at the Niue, Samoa, Kiribati, Nauru and Solomon Islands campuses of USP.

Fiji Police stopped protests by Laucala Bay Campus USPSA and the USP Staff Union (USPSU) when they began early this week and this has forced the fraternity to express themselves in other ways, one of which is the coloured dress code that started yesterday with Black Thursday.

Police investigation into the protests are reportedly continuing, with the Fiji Times reporting that  it was served yesterday with a search warrant by Police for photographs of the protests on Monday and Tuesday.

The call for solidarity, hash-tagged #WearBlue #GoodGovernance #Solidarity on the USPSA Facebook page, sees students and staff rallying behind Professor Ahluwalia in a show of support for good governance, with ocean conservation also thrown into the mix to acknowledge this week’s World Oceans Day.

The USPSA, with membership of around 27,000 students, has been actively voicing its disapproval of events that led to the suspension early this week of Professor Ahluwalia. 

The call for Ahluwalia’s reinstatement and for good governance is also being supported by the USP Staff Union (USPSU).

 “We want good governance to prevail. While we want to protest and air our grievances about what has happened at USP, we don’t want to do anything that would be seen as breaking the law because that would defeat the purpose of what we want. At the end of the day, what we want is good governance,” said Ilima Finiasi, general secretary of USPSU, which has a membership of around 500 admin staff throughout the region. 

The current USP debacle has its origin in a report compiled last year by Professor Ahluwalia, which contained a series of allegations  about anomalies in the institution’s financial affairs, especially salaries and benefits for some academic staff and top management .

The damning report has been the cause of the rift that now polarises students, academics and admin staff at USP. A subsequent investigation by BDO Auckland was carried out.

Both USPSA and USPSU want Pro Chancellor Winston Thompson removed and Professor Ahluwalia to be reinstated.

However in a media conference yesterday, Thompson said the correct processes have been followed, and Professor Ahluwalia's removal is unrelated to the BDO investigation.

In accordance with the regulations of USP, a meeting of its 35-member ruling council – which include representatives from all 12 Pacific Islands member countries of USP, donor partners as well as staff and students representatives – will be convened soon to look into the matter.

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