Sep 18, 2020 Last Updated 5:56 AM, Sep 18, 2020

When University of the South Pacific Vice Chancellor and President, Professor Pal Ahluwalia walked back onto USP’s Suva campus on June 22, he was accompanied by songs of celebration from staff and students who lined the path to his office.

The embattled VC was returning to his office three days after the full USP Council had reinstated him, at a meeting called on the insistence of USP governments, resolving that “it was not persuaded that due process was followed in [his] suspension”.

Two weeks earlier on June 8, an Executive Committee of the Council had suspended Professor Ahluwalia from duties with pay so that “an independent investigation”  into allegations against him could be conducted.  The Committee appointed Professor Derrick Armstrong as Acting Vice-Chancellor and President to manage the affairs of the University.

It was the latest salvo in a conflict that has come as the university has struggled to retain its place as a cradle of learning for future Pacific leaders, to recruit, retain and nurture academic staff, continue to deliver courses and support students through COVID-19,  put regionalism into practice, ensure it remains relevant and stay financially afloat. 

And while the reinstatement of Vice Chancellor Ahluwalia has brought joy and a sense of vindication to many staff and students, who see it as a victory for good governance, activism and regional unity, the matter is far from over.

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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.

Staff back Pal

A fresh protest at the University of the South Pacific's Laucala Bay Campus in Suva was quickly stopped by Police Tuesday when protesters were told they had to apply for a permit.

The protesters - angry at what they say was the illegal suspension of Vice Chancellor, Professor Pal Ahluwalia - were members of the University of the South Pacific Staff Union (USPSU).

"The main reason why we wanted to come out and protest was because yesterday, we were protesting for Pal to stay but we have now received confirmation that he has been asked to step down so we needed to protest and also to be heard," USPSU General Secretary Lima Finiasi told IB Online.

"The appeal we want to make today is to all the leaders of the region who owns the university. We believe that the Vice Chancellor was elected by the full council and it will need the full council decision to remove him. And we believe that the meeting yesterday is questionable in legality in terms of how it was called and how it was conducted and the powers it has to remove the Vice Chancellor," Finiasi said.

He said the protesters respected the law and withdrew their protests because the police were polite, but it did not deter their quest to press on with their resistance to what they believe is a sinister attempt by certain interests within Fiji's ruling elite to remove Ahluwalia.

Ahluwalia, who was appointed to the position last year, had compiled a damning report exposing alleged financial mismanagement at the university.

Yesterday, hundreds of staff and students held two separate protests at the Laucala Bay Campus as word got out that a meeting by a subcomittee of the university's ruling council was being convened by the USP Council chair Winston Thompson, and that the purpose of the meeting was to discuss allegations of misconduct against Ahluwalia.

Related protests were also taking place at the university's Alafua campus in Samoa.

"We have been writing for the past few weeks, appealing to members of the various councils, appealing to the various heads of states...and there have been responses from the various ministries of education in member countries including the incoming Chancellor, President of Nauru. But all these things couldn't avoid the meeting that took place yesterday," said Finiasi.

Established in 1968, USP is jointly owned by the governments of 12 member countries: Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Niue, Solomon Islands, Tokelau, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu and Samoa.

Fiji is USP's biggest member contributor. The University has campuses in all member countries with its Laucala Bay campus being its main campus.

The year-long leadership tussle at the sole Pacific owned university has flared again with reports of fresh attempts to dismiss besieged vice chancellor and president of the University of the South Pacific, Professor Pal Ahluwalia of Canada.

This new attempt to remove Ahluwalia reportedly stemmed from his decision a fortnight ago to terminate a senior USP manager for alleged plagiarism.

IB Online spoke to the university's controversial pro chancellor and USP Council chair Winston Thompson today, and while he confirmed that he is  convening a meeting of the executive committee of the council on Monday next week, the retired Fijian diplomat declined to reveal the meeting's agenda.

He also declined to confirm whether the suspension of Professor Ahluwalia will be discussed.

Tensions between the two surfaced in public more than a year ago after the leaking of a report that was critical of several appointments and payments made by the university during the term of Ahluwalia's predecessor, Professor Rajesh Chandra of Fiji.

Ahluwalia authored the report, and his critics, including Thompson and Chandra, accused the Canadian academic of leaking the report to the news media.

Attempts by Thompson to sack Ahluwalia on at least two occasions last year were foiled by the USP Council, which instead formed two groups of experts to look into the issues raised by both vice chancellor Ahluwalia and a BDO New Zealand report. The Council had commissioned the accounting firm to review the allegations Ahluwalia had raised.

In March this year, Thompson launched another attempt to remove the vice chancellor by writing to Council members to say that he has formed a committee comprising of mainly Fiji-based councillors to investigate Ahluwalia on allegations of misconduct.

The status of this investigation is unknown after several education ministers from Pacific Island governments that co-own the USP with Fiji, wrote in to warn Thompson to stop his investigation and his constant interference in the running of the university.

Just yesterday, IB Online published the story of Hasmukh Lal, the previous CEO of Pacific TAFE who has taken legal action against the university for what he claimed was unfair dismissal.

He is accusing his previous employer of breach of contract, of negligence and breach of duty of care, and is claiming damages as well as reinstatement.

IB Online has established that Lal's termination was over a dissertation for a doctor of business administration he was pursuing at an online university, called the Atlantic International University on 21 May 2019.

Called the 'Processes & Impact of Strategic Mergers in Higher Education; Study of Pacific Technical and Further Education of [the] University of the South Pacific,' Lal allegedly  plagiarised elements of the paper from one of his former employees at the USP.

Students of the University of the South Pacific have weighed in on the leadership row surrounding the university by calling on the USP’s top decision making body, the USP Council to reign in its chairperson who’s also the university pro chancellor, retired Ambassador Winston Thompson of Fiji.

Expressing ‘disappointment and outrage’ at Thompson's actions, the USP students say they support the call by Samoa’s education minister that the USP Council should “clearly instruct the PC” (Pro Chancellor) to cease and desist from pursuing a new investigation against besieged vice chancellor and president (VCP) of the USP, Professor Pal Ahluwalia.

“I am calling on the rest of the members of the University Council to clearly instruct the PC to refrain from such actions and cease investigations that have been initiated by him against the VCP,” says USP Students Association President Joseph Sua and Vice President Viliame Naulivou.

“The [students] body further joins the Hon. Member from Samoa in cautioning the PC that his action does not carry the intents of the Council and that we will not be held back from joining the council in initiating the proceedings to remove the Pro-Chancellor from Office.”

Both student leaders signed their letter dated 7 April, which was addressed to members of the USP Council. They urge all council members that included representatives of the 12 Pacific island countries that own the university to support Samoa and Professor Ahluwalia.

“The student body has had enough of this rift, we have already seen the grave mismanagement in the past and we cannot risk this governance body to fail from taking actions to protect this very institution that brings pride to the region and to the people of the Pacific.

“We are encouraged by this support from Samoa and call upon other member countries to join us in this good cause of saving our Pacific Institution from the actions of one individual that can seriously put this prestigious organisation at risk.

“I am further endorsing the point that the PC has seriously undermined the Council’s authority by continuing to disrupt and obstructing the VCP from fulfilling his duties as the Chief Executive Officer of the University.

“I note that the Council had sought a commitment from the PC and VCP to work together for the advancement of the University.

“However, the entire student council is disappointed and outraged with the PC’s actions in continuing to seek VC’s suspension.

“I have read the PC’s paper that was submitted in August 19 special meeting that called for the removal of VCP and now with yet another investigation being implemented seriously begs the question of what intentions the PC has?

“The Council did not endorse or approve PC’s paper as pointed out by the Hon. Member from Samoa.

“Additionally, the minutes of the Special Council Meetings have not been made available.

“We sincerely hope that the council takes this matter seriously and looks the actions of the PC in light of all these.”

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