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.

A former senior manager of the University of the South Pacific has lodged a complaint against his employer with Fiji's employment industrial tribunal.

Hasmukh Lal was until recently, CEO of the USP's Pacific TAFE.

Lal confirmed this when contacted by Islands Business in Suva today.

It is believed the termination is not related to an earlier matter, in which Lal was named along several other senior executives of the USP whose appointments were questioned in a confidential report of the university early last year.

That report was authored by then-incoming Vice Chancellor and President, Professor Pal Ahluwalia, for a meeting of the executive committee of the USP Council, but was blocked for discussion and recalled by Council chair and USP Pro Chancellor Winston Thompson of Fiji.

The office of the Vice Chancellor was not talking to the media today,

Islands Business has established nevertheless that Lal's last day as Pacific TAFE CEO was Friday, 22 May, and that this role is now under the oversight of USP's acting Deputy Vice Chancellor Education, Professor Jito Vanualailai. In informing staff of the change, VC Pal offered no explanation.

USP's TAFE - Technical and Further Education is a programme of learning of vocational and para-professional courses in commerce, hospitality, humanities, science and technology.

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.

 

Fiji National University is celebrating its 10th anniversary as a national university, but 150th anniversary as an education provider. Talking to Islands Business just before his recent departure, FNU Vice-Chancellor Professor Nigel Healey said one of the things that has pleased him most during his tenure was the sense of unity and community the university now has, having historically formed from disparate colleges.

FNU has about 1000 regional students, many of them studying medicine or in TVET (vocational) engineering courses. The largest numbers come from Solomon Islands and Samoa, but other countries are represented as well.

Professor Healey says FNU is distinguished from other unis through its strong vocational focus, and strong provision of sub-degree or TVET level qualifications.

“We really educate  people for careers for jobs…all the programs are very closely integrated with the employment market. So we design the courses in collaboration with employer groups and professional bodies and all of our courses have what we call workplace attachments.”

Fiji has three universities and more than 50 colleges. Is the market large enough to support them all?

To read more, get our April edition.

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.”

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