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

The University of the South Pacific's supreme body, the USP Council has established a team to investigate its vice chancellor and president Professor Pal Ahluwalia.

The formation of the investigative team was announced in a letter Pro Chancellor and chair of USP Council Winston Thompson sent to Council members. The letter was dated yesterday, 16 March 2020.

"I write to advise the Council that following legal advice and in accordance with the provisions of the ordinance to govern the discipline of the vice chancellor, and in consultation with the deputy pro vice chancellor, I have appointed a subcommittee to investigate allegations of material misconduct against vice chancellor and president Professor Pal Ahluwalia," Winston wrote in his letter, a copy of which was sent anonymously to Islands Business.

"The subcommittee comprises Mr Mahmood Khan (chair), Ms Fay Yee, Ms Petunia Tupou and Mr Semi Tukana," added Thompson in the letter.

That letter did not however specify the allegations against Professor Ahluwalia, or why two out of the four members of the investigative committee, including its chair, are Fiji Government appointees to the USP Council (Khan and Yee). Tupou is a Tongan lawyer, while Tukana is a co-opted member of the Council.

In addition, Thompson's letter sent out to all education ministers of the 12 countries of the Pacific that are owners of the university, was silent on who raised the allegations, and the perceived conflict of interest of his involvement and that of Khan in this new investigation.

It is also not clear how this subcommittee will operate, given that in its last meeting, the USP Council had formed a three-member commission to oversee the recommendations of an earlier investigation which Khan's former employer, BDO accounting firm in New Zealand had produced.

That BDO audit examined allegations of mismanagement and questionable appointments at the university that were raised by Professor Ahluwalia against his predecessor Professor Rajesh Chandra.

The BDO report has never been publicly released in its entirety. A summary released last September noted: “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.”

When this magazine broke the story in May last year about the secret Ahluwalia report, Pro Chancellor Thompson was so infuriated that he told Islands Business he regretted recommending the appointment of Professor Ahluwalia, and that he would have him sacked if he had the powers to do so.

Professor Ahluwalia has since been instructed not to talk to news media, and is in self-isolation this week following a recent trip to the United States.

As we reported earlier today, Ahluwalia's self-isolation at the university's VC residence came about through the instructions of Pro Chancellor Thompson.

Contacted today, Thompson declined to comment on the letter he had sent to members of the USP Council.

"I would neither confirm nor deny," was all he said.

The University of the South Pacific has invited four Auckland-based accounting firms to bid for the task of undertaking an independent investigation into allegations by the USP’s current Vice Chancellor and President Professor Pal Ahluwalia.

The allegations are raised in a paper “Issues, Concerns and Breaches of Past Management and Financial Decisions” which questions the circumstances around a number of appointments and financial decisions during the tenure of the previous VC.

Bids to conduct the investigation will close on Monday and the USP’s  Audit and Risk Committee will meet on Tuesday to appoint the investigator.

Meanwhile Fiji’s Attorney General, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum has told parliament it wouldn’t be prudent to comment on the matter. Fiji is USP’s largest funder and provides the majority of its students.

Australia’s High Commission in Suva has also declined to comment on the matter.

The report of the Independent Investigator is due by August 16.

For detailed coverage of the controversy at USP, pick up a copy of the June issue of Islands Business.

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