USP saga focus of campaign rally

People’s Alliance Party Leader Sitiveni Rabuka

People’s Alliance Party Leader (PAP) Sitiveni Rabuka said the USP saga, which has seen the Fiji government withhold funds from the university and deport its vice chancellor, has brought shame to Fiji.

Rabuka said the matter “is one of the most scandalous episodes that has blighted Fiji’s landscape of academia”, while PAP’s coalition partner, the National Federation Party leader, Biman Prasad, called it “an attack on academic freedom.”

Speaking at a campaign rally focussed on higher education last night, Rabuka says PAP will rectify this “shame” if the party wins Fiji’s upcoming election. “The People’s Alliance Coalition will engage immediately with the university; we will settle as quickly as we can the payment Mr. Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum refuses to release; and we will arrange for the vice chancellor to relocate from Samoa to Laucala Campus, where the vice chancellor should rightly reside from the day of its inception.”

Prasad added that, “No government in the history of this country since the inception of the University of the South Pacific in 1968, has ever interfered with the governance structure of the university.”

Rabuka says a traditional apology will be offered to the region’s governments (co-owners of the university), to Vice Chancellor Professor Pal Ahluwalia, and to the students.

“Then we will start to restore trust and confidence in Fiji and rebuild our regional reputation,” he said.

Rabuka said this is one of the many areas they hope to improve. PAP’s manifesto addresses the issues of the Tertiary Education Loan Scheme (TELS) and the National Toppers Scholarship (NTS). “We’ve declared publicly that we will cancel debts totalling over half a billion dollars in student loans,” Rabuka reaffirmed.

“This is because we do not want our university and tertiary students to come out with massive financial burdens as they are just starting life,” he says.

The Tertiary Loan Schemes and National Toppers Scholarship, according to Rabuka, will be replaced with full scholarships with bond conditions equal to the number of years the student studies in tertiary institutions.

While this is all a promise of what might happen if the parties are voted in, concerns were raised regarding what would happen to those who have finished school and are still paying off their student loans and whether the reintroduction of the old scholarship with the bond will perpetuate racially based scholarships.

Rabuka clarifies, “More tertiary scholarships will be offered to all Fijians, regardless of race or religion, than ever before.”

He continued that recipients, “will work in Fiji on average for three to four years, in the private or public sector, even with NGOs,” he says.

“The NFP and the People’s Alliance will work towards, ensuring that every person above the age of 16, regardless of race, creed, gender, or ability to pay, will have the ability to acquire at least one basic qualification from a tertiary institution,” said NFP leader Biman Prasad.

Rabuka said the debts of current students or alumnae still paying off their student loans will be wiped clean and replaced with the bond conditions.

USP and student fees and loans have emerged as a critical issue of concern for young voters.

The incumbent FijiFirst Party has made its own undertakings on loans but remains firm on its position that no grant will be released to USP until another inquiry into its operations is undertaken.

Fijians go to the polls on December 14, with pre-polling already underway.