Apr 10, 2021 Last Updated 4:12 AM, Apr 8, 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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USP Council meets today

The University of the South Pacific Council is scheduled to meet again today to discuss the status of Vice Chancellor, Professor Pal Ahluwalia, who was deported almost two weeks ago by the Fiji government.

The meeting comes as the Commission appointed to implement the recommendations of the BDO report into operations at the regional university, found the USP Council secretariat reports to the Vice Chancellor and not the Pro Chancellor.

"[The] Vice Chancellor (in consultation with Pro-Chancellor) appoints a Secretary to Council," the Commissioners wrote in their report. "Although the Vice Chancellor consults the Pro-Chancellor, the decision is that of the Vice Chancellor.

"The Council Secretary as head of the Secretariat reports to the Vice Chancellor (or to a senior staff member nominated by the Vice Chancellor as part of the arrangements for the portfolios as assigned to the Senior Management Team) and works with the Pro-Chancellor and Council."

The clarity offered by the Commissioners addresses a major cause of the on-going conflict between Vice Chancellor Ahluwalia and Pro Chancellor Winston Thompson.

As PC and therefore chair of the USP Council, Thompson had insisted that the Council Secretariat should report and work for him. 

Thompson reportedly made the same assertion in a paper he sent the Commissioners, arguing that it was wrong in principle for the Secretary of the USP Council to work under the direct control of the VC because "it would make the Council subservient to an office it supervises and would allow the Vice Chancellor control over the governing body to which he is accountable."

But the Commission disagreed.

"A Pro Chancellor has no executive function in the management or administration of a University. This observation applies also to chairs of Council committees," said the report of the Commission.

"There is nothing in the charter or statues of USP which supports a contrary interpretation to this principle.

"Based on our discussion above and reference to best practice principles adopted in universities, we do not agree with this assertion. Council Secretaries in all universities work closely with the Chancellor (Pro Chancellor), but as employees of the university, they report formally to a member of management (often the Chief Operating Officer) and, ultimately, like all members of staff, to the Vice Chancellor."

While the Commission's report has been submitted to the USP Council, it has yet to be discussed by the Council itself. Senior academics from Australia and New Zealand were invited to form the Commission after the completion of BDO Auckland's investigation into allegations of financial abuse and mismanagement at the USP raised by VC Ahluwalia.

The clear demarcation of the roles between the two senior offices in the University was raised again last weekend when Pro Chancellor Thompson apparently advised a Solomon Islands-based USP union leader, Joseph Sua, that he was ineligible to be a Council member.

The USP Students Association had objected to Thompson's decision, coming as it was on the eve of today’s special council meeting. Sua has since resigned from the USPSA Presidency, and the association will be represented by  Lepani Naqarase at today's Council meeting.

Tomorrow's meeting will discuss the report of a Council sub committee that looked into the status of VC Ahluwalia's work contract. Fiji insists that the contract became void the moment the Fiji Government cancelled his work visa and deported him and his wife, Fiji National University academic Sandra Price,  out of the country on 4 February.

It is also expected to discuss pending matters from its previous meeting of 5 February, which included the dismissal from the USP Council for alleged insubordination of Pro Chancellor Thompson and chair of the Council's audit and risk committee, Mahmood Khan, both of Fiji.

The meeting is taking place as sharp divisions between current and former academics both in favour and in opposition to Professor Ahluwalia play out in the local media, and students prepare for their new academic year.

Documents tabled at yesterday’s special meeting of the University of the South Pacific suggest that plans to amend the contract of the university’s vice chancellor and president, Professor Pal Ahluwalia, prompted his forced deportation and that of his wife by Fiji Government authorities on Thursday.

Nauru’s President Lionel Aingimea, who is the Council’s interim chair, had authored the proposed amendment to Professor Ahluwalia’s contract.

But Fiji got wind of the proposed amendment when it featured on the agenda of the Council’s virtual meeting last Friday, 29 January.

The Council could not deliberate on the amendment at that meeting however, as the Head of Fiji’s delegation, Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum called for a one-week postponement.

He said Fiji was in a state of emergency due to the then-approaching Tropical Cyclone Ana, and the meeting should be adjourned for a week. In the period between meetings, the government deported Professor Ahluwalia and his wife, Sandra Price.

In so doing, Fiji triggered what President Aingimea had wanted to avoid: the cancellation of the vice chancellor’s contract the moment the Fijian Government revoked his work permit.

In his paper to the USP Council, the Nauru President drew its attention to the urgent need to amend the work contract of the VCP, de-linking the work contract to that of his work permit.

He was spooked–it now appears –by a brief article the Fiji Sun newspaper, which is strongly supportive of the Fiji government, published on 24 January which had speculated about the expiry of the work permit of a ‘foreign head of a big school’ in Fiji, adding that his “days may be numbered.”

“It is not reasonable that a decision by Council on the employment of the VCP should be able to be overturned at the behest of a single member country,” wrote President Aingimea in a paper to the Council.

As Chair of the sub-committee formed by the USP Council yesterday to look into the changes to the VCP’s contract, it seems likely that President Aingimea’s paper will inform their work.

The Nauruan leader’s paper recommended the removal of specific mention of Fiji in two clauses of the VCP’s work contract, replacing it with “at least one of the member countries of the University.”

One clause concerns obtaining a work permit as well as residency, while the other amendment centres around police clearance.

“There are two issues that would cause the VCP’s contract to fail as currently drafted,” wrote President Aingimea.

“The first is cancellation/non renewal of his residency and work rights in Fiji, and the second is failing to get a police clearance for whatever reason.”

To change these, the proposed amendment was that the VCP must “obtain a work permit and the University is obligated to obtain (and maintain) a permit to employ him.”

He added that it would be a failure of the University’s duty to the VCP if the maintenance of his work permit were not supported.

Yesterday’s Council meeting ran out of time and was unable to decide on the amendments to VCP Ahluwalia’s contract.

His work contract remains void, and while he and Sandra Price undergo the compulsory 14 day quarantine requirements in a hotel in Brisbane, Australia, USP’s deputy vice chancellor, Dr Giulio Masasso Tu’ikolongahau Paunga will act as VCP.

Professor Ahluwalia and Price were deported after the Fiji government claimed they had both breached the Immigration Act, although no specific details of what those alleged breaches are, have been revealed.

The Council will next meet on 16 February.

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.

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