Apr 11, 2021 Last Updated 4:12 AM, Apr 8, 2021

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.

Sacked University of the South Pacific senior manager Hasmukh Lal is not challenging claims of plagiarism that led to his termination, documents filed with the Fiji High Court reveal.

His lawyers, Reddy & Nandan are alleging two causes of actions in their 15-page writ of summons filed at the High Court of Suva’s civil registry on 27 May.

“It is an implied and or express term of the agreement that when dealing with its employees, the defendant (USP) would afford them due process, natural justice and procedural fairness and the defendant failed to afford the plaintiff due process, natural justice and procedural fairness,” states the document that proposes breach of contract as the first cause of action.

Negligence and breach of duty of care is stated as his second cause of action:

“The defendant owed a duty of care to the plaintiff (Lal) to ensure that the plaintiff during the cause of his employment was protected from victimisation, loss of dignity and humiliation and injury to feelings and to ensure that the plaintiff was afforded due process, natural justice and procedural fairness.”

The document seeks a nine-point declaration from the High Court’s Employment Tribunal which among other demands included reinstatement and payment of damages for “breach of contract, negligence, loss of salary, loss of allowances and superannuation.”

Islands Business understands that USP’s lawyers must respond to Lal’s writ of summons before the court can convene. USP has been given a few weeks to lodge its reply.

However there are suggestions Lal may be reinstated following the decision of the executive committee of the USP council to stand down Vice Chancellor Pal Ahluwalia and replace him with one of his deputies, Derrick Armstrong.

Lal has declined to talk to Islands Business.

USP’s Pacific TAFE is a multi-course pre-degree study programme offering courses in hospitality and tourism, commerce and business, arts and humanities, science, technology and environment. Lal’s employment as CEO of Pacific TAFE was terminated on 22 May on charges that he plagiarised the dissertation he submitted to a little-known internet-based university in Hawaii, for a doctorate in business administration.

Prior to this Lal had sought and obtained approval for USP to pay for his online studies, reportedly costing the university F$18000.

The dissertation in question was titled: Processes & Impact of Strategic Mergers in High Education, Study of Pacific Technical and Further Education of University of the South Pacific. It bore the date, May 21, 2019.

USP alleges that the dissertation was not authored by Lal but by a junior staff of the university whom he directed on 17 April 2019 to do research on “Business Impact of Strategic Mergers in High Education: A Study of Pacific TAFE of University of the South Pacific.”

On 21 May 2019, the fourth draft of the paper was submitted to Lal, the USP alleges. A final draft was done on 22 May 2019 and on 23 May 2019, he reportedly informed his staff that the paper has been sent, although he did not say to whom or where it had been sent to.

“On 7th June 2019, you were conferred the Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) from the Atlantic International University,” said a letter sent to Lal by the USP.

“You subsequently submitted the DBA degree to USP for purposes of updating BANNER with the said doctorate.”

The USP letter continued: “On 14 May 2020, USP obtained a copy of your thesis entitled “Business Impact of Strategic Mergers in Higher Education: A study of Pacific TAFE of University of the South Pacific” that you submitted to the Atlantic International University for the award of the DBA.

“The thesis paper that you submitted for the award of the DBA to the Atlantic International University is the same as that submitted by [name withheld] to you on 22 May 2019 entitled ‘Business Impact of Strategic Mergers in Higher Education: A Study of Pacific TAFE of University of the South Pacific.’

“If it is established that you used a USP Document to represent a work of your own to obtain a DBA, it would constitute a breach of paragraph 4.1 of the Code of Professional Conduct for Academic Staff.

“Such a breach would be classified as “gross misconduct” on your part under the USP Discipline of Academic, Professional, Administrative, Library and Technical, Intermediate and Junior and Hourly Paid Staff Ordinance.”

Lal’s writ of summons quoted the above, but made the claim that “the charge(s) and allegations levelled against the plaintiff by the defendant is/are fundamentally and fatally flawed as the plaintiff is not an academic staff therefore the code of professional conduct for academic staff does not apply to the plaintiff.”

It also alleges that even if Lal had responded to the allegations, the “matter could not proceed any further as the position of Vice President Administration (VPA) was vacant and consultation with the VPA was required after the receipt of the said response.”

His writ of summons also made reference, although not by name, to the Ahluwalia report in early 2019 that exposed mismanagement and excessive payouts to several university staff during Vice Chancellor Rajesh Chandra’s tenure, and seemed to infer that his sacking was the continuation of victimisation of him by VC Ahluwalia.

“Sometime in early 2019, VCP (Professor Ahluwalia) had prepared a report which among other things had cast aspersions on the plaintiff’s reputation,” claims point 7 of Lal’s writ of summons.

“The plaintiff had after matters stated in the preceding paragraph had transpired sought protection against victimisation by the VCP from the defendant (USP),” adds paragraph 8.

Earlier story:

https://www.islandsbusiness.com/past-news-break-articles/item/2822-usp-taken-to-court-by-sacked-manager.html

Senior academics and staff at the University of the South Pacific in Suva are accused in a special audit report of manipulating allowances to pay themselves hundreds of thousands of dollars they were not entitled to, as several Pacific governments say Fiji is using the COVID-19 emergency as a cover to take over the university.

The scale of allowance abuse has outraged Pacific member nations of USP, including Nauru, Samoa, Tonga and New Zealand. USP staff are accused of helping themselves to money intended to educate the people of the Pacific.

The payments took place under the leadership of Fijian Vice-Chancellor Rajesh Chandra. They were revealed by his replacement, Pal Ahluwalia on November 1, 2018.  Since then, Vice Chancellor Ahluwalia and USP Pro Chancellor, Winston Thompson, have been at loggerheads, with their opposing factions rallying behind them. This week a contentious meeting of the Executive Committee of USP’s Council installed Professor Derrick Armstrong as acting VC after suspending Ahluwalia.

Ahluwalia’s whistle-blowing forced Thompson to bring in the Auckland office of international accounting firm BDO to investigate. BDO Auckland’s report was submitted to USP on August 21 last year, but kept secret.

The report has now been leaked as Ahluwalia comes under attack from USP’s host government, Fiji. Critics claim Fiji is trying to nationalise the 52-year-old regional institution. Fiji’s education minister, Rosy Akbar, denies this is the case.

Along with the 114-page BDO report, a cache of USP documents reveal attempts to drive Ahluwalia out of the country.

Ahluwalia, born in Kenya and schooled in Canada, was appointed by the USP Council as VC to replace Chandra. BDO suggests this was against the wishes of Thompson and Fiji, and evidence is revealed that efforts began, even before Ahluwalia arrived, to frustrate his work.

In May last year Ahluwalia revealed the financial and salary rorting underway and presented the USP Council with a paper, “Issues, concerns and breaches of past management and financial decisions.”

BDO was hired to investigate.

In the report, BDO names 25 senior USP academics and staff who, it is alleged, were involved in payment manipulation. Most of the cases involved a system of allowance payments not usually seen in other universities.

While BDO dismissed some of Ahluwalia’s allegations, other unusual salary and allowance arrangements were found to be true: “When analysed critically they do not make commercial sense,” BDO said.

Payments were made as “inducement allowances’, “responsibility allowances” and “acting allowances” and bonuses.

It meant USP staff, funded by taxpayer dollars, were on their own gravy train.

“We are of the view that the oversight, governance and control of remuneration is a key weakness across USP,” the BDO report said.

“This was a key theme throughout our investigation as many of the matters raised in the (Ahluwalia’s) Paper, or the likely motivations behind those matters, relate to remuneration.”

BDO’s report reveals that “inducement allowances” had been paid extensively across USP, totalling $4,271,774 between 2016 and 2018.

The allowances had varying conditions and USP’s Remuneration Committee and Council were not fully aware of them.

“Responsibility and Acting Allowances have also been awarded extensively across USP, with payroll records indicating that $3,011,112.53 was paid to staff across the three years (2016-2018)… very little guidance exists to govern how these allowances are applied,” BDO said.

BDO said there was “a consistent theme of policy breaches” over allowances: “Specially, we have noted instances where staff members have been awarded ‘multiple’ bonuses which is not allowed under current policies.”

BDO reported that bonus payments worth $1,890,129 were made to some staff.

“We are of the opinion that the cumulative effect of this lack of oversight and control has resulted in breaches of policy (where policies exist) and numerous instances where staff members, particularly those in senior roles, are remunerated well outside Council approved salary bandings.”

BDO’s report graphed payments showing that USP’s 13 top staff, with the addition of allowances, all earned substantially more money than the top end of their salary bands.

Comments BDO: “Through our work, we have identified numerous instances which breach one or more of the conditions stipulated in the inducement allowance policy.”

In 2018, a total of 57 employees received “inducement payments”. Over the 2016-2018 period a total of 90 staff received inducement payments. These ranged between 35 and 60 percent of salary. The highest inducement allowance was $214,200.

“We have noted cases where employees have received an inducement allowance for many years, some tracing back over a decade spanning multiple contracts, promotions and pay increases,” BDO says.

“It seems commercially illogical that these employees would need an inducement allowance to stay in USP’s employment.

“In our opinion, and based on our experience, it appears that inducement allowances have been a systematic way of artificially inflating the value of certain roles and places a number of positions outside approved salary banding.”

BDO said inducement allowances were not paid in Australian and New Zealand universities. It was also an “enigma in the way that they are expressed as a percentage of salary rather than being a fixed sum as they will continue to increase each year in line with any salary increase.”

Twenty-four employees over three years shared $2,152,305.86 in “responsibility allowances” and $828,806.67 for “acting allowances.”

BDO said they had observed situations where these allowances were being abused.

“For example, we have noted some staff members who have benefitted from numerous Responsibility and Acting Allowances (at the same time) for long periods.”

Academic staff were providing “consulting” services through USP but with the staff taking 70 percent of the revenue earned. There was no formal policy behind the take.

BDO looked at the “unusual situation” of a senior academic in the School of Business and Economics. They say their “high level review” suggested his consultancy arrangements contravened USP policy, and recommend a full forensic audit of consultancy fees paid to the academic from 2013 to 2019. “The audit should focus on the nature of each arrangement, whether they were appropriately (independently) authorised, whether the correct policies had been followed, and whether the correct documentation exists.” 

BDO said the academic was paid five Responsibility Allowances as well as his substantive salary: “How is one person able to complete all these roles at one time competently?”

BDO said one of the Responsibility Allowances involved a conflict of interest as the role was responsible for the renting of university residences, and that the academic “owns properties which are rented out to students in Suva... hence creating the conflict.”

BDO said the academic’s total remuneration far exceeded that of other academic staff.

“We are of the view that while the allowances that have been paid may have been approved per USP policy and by Professor Chandra, the quantum and amount that has been paid…for the number of roles appears unrealistic in their ability to be performed,” BDO said.

The reports states “we do not understand” why the academic “continues to be paid an inducement allowance since 2002.”

Another senior figure who is suing USP over his recent removal from office, was promoted without reference to Ahluwalia, which BDO “partially substantiated.”

The report shows when he first received an advertised post in 2015 he was on a salary of $69,258.  He was then offered his most recent post: “The salary now went to $202,810,” said BDO. “There was no advertisement or any appointment committee or selection committee established.”

By 2019 the executive’s salary had again jumped, to $228,936.

“There are some very serious breaches noted in the appointment, review, promotion and responsibility payments” to the executive, said BDO. “It should be noted that his position titles have been changed at rapid pace without any advertisement and formal recruitment or selection process.

“This is very peculiar for USP renewal processes.”

Another senior administrator was identified to be “breaching his salary band which is unusual…” for receiving various allowances totalling over $106,000. BDO repeated there seemed no formal policy in paying out allowances but added that the multiple allowances being paid to the administrator “are fiscally irresponsible and that it would be very difficult to deliver all these roles adequately.”

Chandra himself was at the centre of controversy when he wrote to Thompson to request professional development leave so he could spend time writing a book on USP at RMIT University in Melbourne.

He took four weeks of professional development leave at the end of his employment contract and received professional allowance totalling $20,041.07. In short, BDO says this should not have been paid and he was not entitled to it: “Professor Chandra is effectively performing consulting work by writing a book with the intention of personal commercial gain…. We consider there is potential for profits to be generated from the sale of the book written during USP time. Arguably this is property of the USP that has not been fully considered or addressed.”

Staff hirings were made that appeared improper. One of the more detailed cases examined by BDO was of a middle manager.  BDO noted “serious irregularities” in her promotion and so-called “back payments” made as she started the job: “The position was not advertised and the backpay she got was never discussed with her supervisor.”

She started work with “backpay” of $63,008 and an annual salary of $77,748.

BDO said the high-level managerial involvement in the appointment was a misuse of position “and a breach of USP policies.” It said it did not understand why the highest levels of USP management were involved in the payroll affairs of a mid-level staff member when  “there are supposedly adequate processes in place.”

This week’s decision to stand down the Vice Chancellor and investigate counter-claims against him, has angered several Pacific governments, with Nauru’s President Lionel Aingimea saying the university had been “hijacked’. Australia’s Foreign Minister, Marise Payne, has called for a special Council meeting in the wake of the leadership saga.

Ends

*All dollar amounts are in Fiji dollars

While the BDO report names specific individuals, Islands Business has chosen not to publish specific names on legal advice.

The Executive Committee of the University of the South Pacific's Council has resolved that an independent investigation into the allegations against Vice Chancellor Professor Pal Ahluwalia be conducted.

In a media statement authorised by Aloma Johansson, Deputy Pro-Chancellor of the USP Council, the Executive Commitee also resolved that the VC be suspended from duties on pay, and without withdrawal of privileges.

As earlier reported, Professor Derrick Armstrong has been appointed as Acting Vice-Chancellor and President, to manage the affairs of the University.

The statement does not reveal who will undertake the investigation into allegations against Professor Pal.

Nauru's President and incoming chancellor of the University of the South Pacific has called for an urgent meeting of the full USP Council.

In his third letter issued to university council members in less than one week, President Lionel Aingimea labelled the Winston Thompson's convening yesterday of the Council's executive committee in Suva as "appalling."

"The hostility and a lack of duty of care to a Council appointed Vice Chancellor shows what a small group of members, who are not direct members, have hijacked Council processes and failed to afford duty of care and natural justice to a council-appointed vice chancellor," wrote President Aingimea.

"These actions represent a personal vendetta against the Vice Chancellor. It is now high time that the entire Council coalesce and begin a process to remove the Pro Chancellor and conduct the election of the deputy pro chancellor."

The Nauru leader adds that the "future of our regional Pacific university is now seriously in jeopardy," and that the full Council ought to meet urgently to "reverse this illegitimate decision."

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