USP Council votes to bring controversial VC back to Fiji

University of the South Pacific (USP) vice-chancellor and president Pal Ahluwalia. Photo: USP

Controversial University of the South Pacific (USP) Vice Chancellor and President, Professor Pal Ahluwalia, will return to be based at the USP main campus in Fiji following a decision by the University Council. The VC’s return to Suva was a key demand of unions embroiled in an industrial dispute with the University.

Council members voted 21 to 4 in favour of Ahluwalia returning to the Laucala campus following a much-awaited meeting in Vanuatu this week. It comes as USP and its two unions – the Association of the University of the South Pacific Staff and the Administration and Support Staff Union – remain locked in mediation after the unions voted for strike action in March over backdated salary adjustments totaling around FJ$13.8 million, and other grievances.

Ahluwalia has been operating from the University’s Samoa Campus since 2021, following a short stint in Nauru. That followed his deportation from Fiji in February of that year by the then government of Voreqe Bainimarama.

Union leaders earlier told Islands Business they had major concerns about the cost overruns from Ahluwalia remaining in Samoa and travelling to and from Fiji, despite a new Fijian government lifting the ban on him last February. 

Administration and Support Staff Union President, Reuben Colata told Islands Business, the unions “are happy to hear the news he is coming back to Laucala.” 

“That will save money for the University,” he added.

Colata also told Islands Business that a combined staff union paper was given to members of the USP Council before this week’s meeting.

Among other things, the paper raised concerns about a new expense account that was created for Ahluwalia in 2021 during his deportation from Fiji and stint in Nauru for six months, before he was relocated to Samoa. 

Colata said that account is recorded in USP’s 2024 Annual Plan under the title ‘VC’s Contingency & Strategic Initiatives’ – and the amount spent in 2021 was $1.3 million. 

“This year (2024) the amount allocated to that account has shot up by 90% to $2.5 million.”

There’s also uproar among the unions over recently revised per diem rates which they say, are higher than what the United Nations pays its staff in Fiji.

Islands Business has sought comment from Ahluwalia and his management team on the expense account and the per diem rates.

Ahluwalia’s current contract expires in August. In November, the Council voted to give him an extra two-year term until August 2026.