‘Boomerang aid’ eroding our skills, says Pacific university leader

Western donors can best help South Pacific students by helping them stay put, Brisbane forum hears

June 3, 2023
Pal Ahluwalia University of the South Pacific

The head of the world’s biggest pan-national university has hit out at “boomerang aid” from well-intentioned donor countries, as the institution emerges from Covid disruption and a costly funding row.

University of the South Pacific (USP) vice-chancellor Pal Ahluwalia said he had grown weary of foreign aid contributions that ultimately found their way back to the contributors, exacerbating the region’s “brain drain” in the process.

An example was a Biden administration proposal to bankroll $5 million (£4 million) in scholarships for USP students to attend US universities. “That just accelerates…brain drain,” Professor Ahluwalia told the THE Campus Live ANZ event at the University of Queensland.

He said that while such opportunities were tremendously appealing to the students involved, they eroded talent from a region where 10 per cent or less of the population undertook higher education.

Such proposals were also an inefficient use of donor resources. Professor Ahluwalia told US State Department officials that USP could educate “probably seven people” for the same cost as sending one student overseas.

In the end the two sides decided to “split” the funding, with half used to educate students overseas and half to bring foreign staff to USP.

A similar bargain was struck with Norway, which offered a $6 million investment. Professor Ahluwalia said the money would be used to fund 25 “in house” PhD scholarships. “All the students will be educated at USP,” he said.

The South Pacific has become a magnet for foreign diplomats trying to curry favour in order to secure United Nations votes from small island nations, or to counter China’s influence in the region. As one of the key regional institutions, USP has been courted by emissaries from many parts of the world.

They include China itself, with the conference hearing that scholarships for study in Chinese universities were widely on offer.

“They’re doing what every other donor nation does,” Professor Ahluwalia told the conference. “We kind of get scared when China does this, but it’s no different from what any of the other donor countries are doing.”

He said 26,000 Fijians had left for Australia and New Zealand last year, including 16,000 hospitality workers. “Tourism is…the mainstay of the economy,” he pointed out. “We’re just losing lots of skilled labour.”

USP itself was not immune, with professional staff such as accountants lured abroad by the higher salaries down under. “It’s very cheap for Australia to just come in and take them away.”

He said USP’s member states would need to consider bonding scholarship recipients for periods after their graduation. “It’s the governments of these countries that are investing in their people,” he observed.

Professor Ahluwalia appealed to academics in Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere to collaborate with USP on research – particularly into “existential threats” like climate change.

He said “micro changes” in the South Pacific would eventually spread elsewhere. “It’s in our interests to make sure that we really understand climate change and oceans management in the region, because it’s the place where we’re going to find out what’s really going on.”


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