Mar 04, 2021 Last Updated 5:10 AM, Mar 4, 2021

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.

An urgent call by the President of Nauru, Lionel Aingimea for an end to the leadership battle at the University of the South Pacific has triggered an avalanche of concern from other member governments, as well as students and staff of the university.

Samoa’s minister for education Loau Kaneti Sio has gone one step further, by calling on the Pro Chancellor of the university and chair of the USP Council Winston Thompson to step down from the role.

Minister Sio says President Aingimea, as the incoming Chancellor of the USP, should succeed Thompson in the interim.

Thompson, a retired Fiji diplomat, has been at loggerheads with USP’s Vice Chancellor Professor Pal Ahluwalia since the later took office and raised concerns about governance at the university. This led to the commissioning of an investigation and report by BDO New Zealand.

“It is clear that the relationship between the Pro Chancellor and the Vice Chancellor has broken down irretrievably, and that the Pro Chancellor has not abided by his agreement with Council, nor with the Sub-Committee appointed to oversee the Commission, to work with the Vice Chancellor for the benefit of the USP,” wrote Samoa’s minister in a strongly-worded letter similar to the one sent out to USP Council members on Friday by President Aingimea.

He agrees with President Aingimea’s position that a meeting of the executive committee called by Thompson at the USP’s Laucala campus for tomorrow does not have the mandate to discipline VC Ahluwalia.

Emeritus Professor Pat Walsh, who is New Zealand’s representative on the council, also sent in a letter of concern on Friday.

As one of the major financiers of the USP, the New Zealand government has one seat in the Council.

Under USP’s own ordinance, the executive committee of the Council does not investigate the vice chancellor, so any “meeting which purported to dismiss, suspend or otherwise discipline the VC would have no standing,” warned Walsh.

He added ‘sound governance principles’ have not been observed by Thompson and his allies, revealing in his letter that minutes of two Council meetings convened last year specifically to map out ways to resolve the row between Thompson and Ahluwalia, as well as at least two Council committee meetings, have not been circulated to members.

“The net effect of these actions and inactions is that Council has been unable to exercise effective governance of the University for 7 months and lacks documentation of events for several months prior to that,” wrote Professor Walsh.

“This has occurred at a time when the University was already being challenged by a critical financial situation which has now been made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic. “

Meanwhile, in a show of solidarity for VC Ahluwalia and President Aingimea, the staff of USP joined their student body in calling for an end to the hostilities.

The future of the university and the students’ academic programmes are threatened each day, said the joint letter of support for Ahluwalia, warning that everything should be done “to protect this institution as boiling point is on the horizon.”

The statement by staff and students expresses concern about the impact on students, taxpayers and donors as a result of the controversy, and says the matter has been taken to a “very personal level.”

The staff and students of USP also endorsed calls by President Aingimea and supported by Samoa and New Zealand, that a full (online or virtual) council meeting should be convened to resolve the matter once and for all.

Islands Business understands that the Pro Chancellor remains determined to hold tomorrow’s meeting, despite the concerns raised from Council members, staff and students.

The Council of the University of the South Pacific has appointed a committee to implement the recommendations of BDO Auckland, which had been brought in to investigate allegations of mismanagement and abuse of office at the regional university.

In a statement released tonight, the Council says the BDO report  resulted in a "range of findings and recommendations that will need to be addressed to ensure the sound operation of the University."

BDO Auckland was engaged to  investigate the allegations raised in a paper by the Vice-Chancellor & President, Professor Pal Ahluwalia titled “Issues, Concerns and Breaches of Past Management and Financial Decisions.”

The statement tonight does not specify what BDO's recommendations are, but says the Commission's work will relate to:

  • Remuneration policies and control
  • Inducement Allowances
  • Responsibility and Acting allowances
  • Bonuses
  • Consultancy Arrangements
  • Succession Planning
  • Human Resources
  • Transition Arrangements
  • Governance and Oversight
  • Operation of Senior Management Team
  • Interface between Governance and Management
  • Committee Structure and Responsibility

The Council  has promised transparency, saying it will develop an action plan that will be made publicly available, and that a summary of the BDO Auckland report will also be made public "in due course."

The Commission will report to three members of the USP Council; Committee Chairman Deputy Prime Minister of Samoa  Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, Cook Islands Prime Minister  Henry Puna and Fiji's Attorney General  Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum.

 

By Samisoni Pareti

Members of the University of the South Pacific Council have ended the first day of their two day meeting in Nadi, Fiji with still no official word on the outcome of their deliberations about the special investigation report on allegations of gross abuse and mismanagement by the previous management of the university.

IB Online has established that USP's pro chancellor, retired Ambassador Winston Thompson, did not chair today's session. The role went to the deputy chair of the USP Council, Alioma Johansson of Tonga.

Members of the university staff had called for Thompson to recuse himself from the investigation or from the role of pro chancellor as he was also implicated in the matter.

We have also established that Fiji's Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, who was minister for education for some time last year also attended today's closed door meeting at the Tanoa International Hotel, not far from Nadi International Airport.

Also present were members of the investigating team from BDO accounting firm in New Zealand, who took Council members through the findings of their investigations. They also took questions from the Council for most of today.

IB Online is advised that for the final day tomorrow, the USP Council meeting will deliberate on actions the university ought to take in light of the recommendations of the report.

We had reported earlier that this week's meeting of the Council is strictly a hard copy paper only, with the university forbidding the distribution of electronic copies of meeting documents. This has been done apparently to avoid any leak of meeting papers.

In May this year, Islands Business had reported on the content of a confidential report questioning the speedy appointments and contract renewals for at least eleven senior members of the USP, most of them Fiji nationals working at the main campus in Suva.

The report also raised questions about the payments of professional and development leave, as well as the deferment to this year, of back pay due to the former VC. The document states that the university is now concerned that it might be cited for tax evasion by Fiji's tax authorities as a result of the deferred back payment.

At least three of those implicated in the report have close ties with the ruling Fiji First Party of Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama.

By Samisoni Pareti

The supreme body of the University of the South Pacific, the USP Council is meeting in Nadi, Fiji from today to discuss the report of the investigation into allegations of gross abuse and mismanagement at the regional institution.

The two-day meeting at the Tanoa International Hotel is however shrouded in deep secrecy, with reports circulating that the University Pro Chancellor, retired Ambassador Winston Thompson of Fiji directing that no electronic copy of meeting documents should be made available.

IB Online has also been reliably informed that copies of the investigators’ findings have not been circulated to council members beforehand as is the usual meeting practice. All Council members will get their copies when they attend today’s meeting.

Such a directive has got the university staff association worried, and they have told Islands Business they fear that attempts could be made to tamper or water down the content of the investigators’ report.

USP staff have repeatedly written to the USP Council to voice their concerns about the so called independence of the investigation, but these concerns have been largely ignored. They had also submitted that Thompson ought to step aside during the investigations because he is among those implicated in the allegations.

A New Zealand accounting firm, BDO was invited by the Council in July to conduct an investigation into allegations of abuse and mismanagement by the previous USP management that were highlighted in a confidential report that was authored by the university vice chancellor, Professor Pal Ahluwalia.

Staff had even questioned the appointment of BDO as investigator, given that the chair of the Council’s Audit & Risk Compliance committee was a former BDO partner.

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