Jun 04, 2020 Last Updated 12:26 PM, Jun 3, 2020

The year-long leadership tussle at the sole Pacific owned university has flared again with reports of fresh attempts to dismiss besieged vice chancellor and president of the University of the South Pacific, Professor Pal Ahluwalia of Canada.

This new attempt to remove Ahluwalia reportedly stemmed from his decision a fortnight ago to terminate a senior USP manager for alleged plagiarism.

IB Online spoke to the university's controversial pro chancellor and USP Council chair Winston Thompson today, and while he confirmed that he is  convening a meeting of the executive committee of the council on Monday next week, the retired Fijian diplomat declined to reveal the meeting's agenda.

He also declined to confirm whether the suspension of Professor Ahluwalia will be discussed.

Tensions between the two surfaced in public more than a year ago after the leaking of a report that was critical of several appointments and payments made by the university during the term of Ahluwalia's predecessor, Professor Rajesh Chandra of Fiji.

Ahluwalia authored the report, and his critics, including Thompson and Chandra, accused the Canadian academic of leaking the report to the news media.

Attempts by Thompson to sack Ahluwalia on at least two occasions last year were foiled by the USP Council, which instead formed two groups of experts to look into the issues raised by both vice chancellor Ahluwalia and a BDO New Zealand report. The Council had commissioned the accounting firm to review the allegations Ahluwalia had raised.

In March this year, Thompson launched another attempt to remove the vice chancellor by writing to Council members to say that he has formed a committee comprising of mainly Fiji-based councillors to investigate Ahluwalia on allegations of misconduct.

The status of this investigation is unknown after several education ministers from Pacific Island governments that co-own the USP with Fiji, wrote in to warn Thompson to stop his investigation and his constant interference in the running of the university.

Just yesterday, IB Online published the story of Hasmukh Lal, the previous CEO of Pacific TAFE who has taken legal action against the university for what he claimed was unfair dismissal.

He is accusing his previous employer of breach of contract, of negligence and breach of duty of care, and is claiming damages as well as reinstatement.

IB Online has established that Lal's termination was over a dissertation for a doctor of business administration he was pursuing at an online university, called the Atlantic International University on 21 May 2019.

Called the 'Processes & Impact of Strategic Mergers in Higher Education; Study of Pacific Technical and Further Education of [the] University of the South Pacific,' Lal allegedly  plagiarised elements of the paper from one of his former employees at the USP.

The controversy surrounding the top job at the University of the South Pacific (USP) has refused to go away nearly one year after it first erupted at its main campus in Suva, Fiji.

By March this year, exactly 10 months after this magazine exposed a damning confidential report about a series of allegedly questionable payments and senior appointments at the USP, the USP Council is still embroiled in the fallout of the report.

The Council is the top decision-making body of USP, comprising representatives of the 12 island governments that own the institution plus associations of staff and students, as well as key funders of the university, including Australia and New Zealand.

Now Samoa, Tonga and New Zealand have called on the USP's Pro Chancellor to stop pursuing a parallel investigation into the university's Vice Chancellor.

Read more in our April issue - subscribe now.

 

Students of the University of the South Pacific have weighed in on the leadership row surrounding the university by calling on the USP’s top decision making body, the USP Council to reign in its chairperson who’s also the university pro chancellor, retired Ambassador Winston Thompson of Fiji.

Expressing ‘disappointment and outrage’ at Thompson's actions, the USP students say they support the call by Samoa’s education minister that the USP Council should “clearly instruct the PC” (Pro Chancellor) to cease and desist from pursuing a new investigation against besieged vice chancellor and president (VCP) of the USP, Professor Pal Ahluwalia.

“I am calling on the rest of the members of the University Council to clearly instruct the PC to refrain from such actions and cease investigations that have been initiated by him against the VCP,” says USP Students Association President Joseph Sua and Vice President Viliame Naulivou.

“The [students] body further joins the Hon. Member from Samoa in cautioning the PC that his action does not carry the intents of the Council and that we will not be held back from joining the council in initiating the proceedings to remove the Pro-Chancellor from Office.”

Both student leaders signed their letter dated 7 April, which was addressed to members of the USP Council. They urge all council members that included representatives of the 12 Pacific island countries that own the university to support Samoa and Professor Ahluwalia.

“The student body has had enough of this rift, we have already seen the grave mismanagement in the past and we cannot risk this governance body to fail from taking actions to protect this very institution that brings pride to the region and to the people of the Pacific.

“We are encouraged by this support from Samoa and call upon other member countries to join us in this good cause of saving our Pacific Institution from the actions of one individual that can seriously put this prestigious organisation at risk.

“I am further endorsing the point that the PC has seriously undermined the Council’s authority by continuing to disrupt and obstructing the VCP from fulfilling his duties as the Chief Executive Officer of the University.

“I note that the Council had sought a commitment from the PC and VCP to work together for the advancement of the University.

“However, the entire student council is disappointed and outraged with the PC’s actions in continuing to seek VC’s suspension.

“I have read the PC’s paper that was submitted in August 19 special meeting that called for the removal of VCP and now with yet another investigation being implemented seriously begs the question of what intentions the PC has?

“The Council did not endorse or approve PC’s paper as pointed out by the Hon. Member from Samoa.

“Additionally, the minutes of the Special Council Meetings have not been made available.

“We sincerely hope that the council takes this matter seriously and looks the actions of the PC in light of all these.”

By Samantha Magick

The Auckland-based accounting firm tasked with investigating allegations of mismanagement at the University of the South Pacific appears to have vindicated the University’s new Vice Chancellor, who first raised concerns about hiring, human resources and remuneration practices.

BDO has also stated that “further investigation is required” into the allegations and has made a significant number of recommendations relating to processes and policies at USP.

BDO was asked to conduct the investigation following allegations made by the recently appointed Vice Chancellor Professor Pal Ahluwalia about decisions made by his predecessor and other senior USP staff over a ten year period.

It says “oversight, governance and control of remuneration  is a key weakness across the university” and that four remuneration  mechanisms—inducement allowances, responsibility and acting allowances, bonuses and consultancy arrangements—“have collectively been exploited and have led to significant cash leakage across USP over a number of years.”

In a summary of its report released this morning, BDO says while the majority of decisions investigated were made within the powers of the (former) Vice Chancellor, “the rationale for many of the decisions taken is unclear.”

The summary does not state what decisions may have fallen outside this “majority of decisions.”

BDO says it’s clear that the USP’s human resources function has been “without consistent leadership for many years” and concludes “this lack of leadership has contributed to the weaknesses” across HR.

BDO says it was not able to trace all the allegations through documents because of the “level and/or quality of the documentation retained by USP…As a result BDO was not able to substantiate a number of the allegations.”

The summary does not state for which allegations the documentation held by USP was either inadequate or unavailable.

BDO also states that similar concerns had been identified by the USP’s internal audit service provider over the past few years, but it appears “the recommendations [made by the auditors] had been only partially implemented, or in some cases, not at all.”

BDO recommends:

  • A full review of the USP’s approach to inducement allowances
  • Development of a single, comprehensive policy for staff setting out its approach to responsibility and acting allowances
  • A full review of bonus calculations and payments
  • A forensic review of consultancy agreements that are currently active, or have been recently completed
  • A comprehensive structural review of the USP’s human resources function
  • A full review and amendment of the USP’s approach to the employment of people who have reached retirement age
  • Expansion of the role of the Remuneration Committee to include succession planning for all key senior roles across the USP.

BDO says with the airing of the allegations, USP has the “opportunity to reflect and take corrective action that will ultimately improve the culture and quality of education and research at USP.”

The Council of the University of the South Pacific has appointed a committee to implement the recommendations of BDO Auckland.

The Council of the University of the South Pacific has appointed a committee to implement the recommendations of BDO Auckland, which had been brought in to investigate allegations of mismanagement and abuse of office at the regional university.

In a statement released tonight, the Council says the BDO report  resulted in a "range of findings and recommendations that will need to be addressed to ensure the sound operation of the University."

BDO Auckland was engaged to  investigate the allegations raised in a paper by the Vice-Chancellor & President, Professor Pal Ahluwalia titled “Issues, Concerns and Breaches of Past Management and Financial Decisions.”

The statement tonight does not specify what BDO's recommendations are, but says the Commission's work will relate to:

  • Remuneration policies and control
  • Inducement Allowances
  • Responsibility and Acting allowances
  • Bonuses
  • Consultancy Arrangements
  • Succession Planning
  • Human Resources
  • Transition Arrangements
  • Governance and Oversight
  • Operation of Senior Management Team
  • Interface between Governance and Management
  • Committee Structure and Responsibility

The Council  has promised transparency, saying it will develop an action plan that will be made publicly available, and that a summary of the BDO Auckland report will also be made public "in due course."

The Commission will report to three members of the USP Council; Committee Chairman Deputy Prime Minister of Samoa  Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, Cook Islands Prime Minister  Henry Puna and Fiji's Attorney General  Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum.

 

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