Foreign scholars ‘will avoid Pacific universities’ after Fiji row

Deportation of University of the South Pacific vice-chancellor Pal Ahluwalia is latest crisis to afflict a Western administrator in region

February 15, 2021
Pal Ahluwalia
University of the South Pacific vice-chancellor Pal Ahluwalia was deported from Fiji

Islands in the South Pacific will struggle to lure any more top-flight foreign administrators to run their universities after Fiji deported a serving vice-chancellor, an expert has warned.

Jonathan Pryke, who directs the Pacific Islands Programme at Australia’s Lowy Institute thinktank, said political “meddling” was undermining the prospects of attracting international leadership expertise to the region. “It’s going to be very challenging to get high-calibre academics to come and do anything beyond just teaching,” he said.

His comments follow the deportation of University of the South Pacific (USP) vice-chancellor Pal Ahluwalia from Fiji, where the institution is headquartered. A subcommittee of USP’s governing council has been considering whether he can remain leader and where he should be based.

Professor Ahluwalia said his expulsion was triggered by a proposal to vary his contract so that he could run the institution from any of its 12 constituent countries, instead of just Fiji.

The crisis follows similar experiences faced by Western academics who have led universities in Papua New Guinea. In 2018, John Warren, vice-chancellor of the University of Natural Resources and Environment, escaped the country in the dead of night and fearing for his life after a catastrophic falling-out with the institution’s council. That same year, Albert Schram, who was ousted as vice-chancellor of Papua New Guinea University of Technology, fled overseas after his efforts to root out fraud at his institution triggered false counterclaims that he had forged his PhD and led to his being charged with false pretence.

In the case of Professor Ahluwalia, a former pro vice-chancellor of the universities of Portsmouth and South Australia, the drama stems from a dispute that has pitted him against some council members for almost two years. Professor Ahluwalia had written a report alleging abuse of office and financial mismanagement at the institution.

But Mr Pryke, a former Australian National University researcher, said the council’s apparent division was a “microcosm” of broader regional tensions between an assertive Fiji and smaller neighbours that resented its size and sway – tensions since highlighted in the five Micronesian countries’ withdrawal from the Pacific Islands Forum after their candidate for secretary general was snubbed.

“The fundamental problem is that the Fijian government, [as] a primary funder of the university and host of the main campus, sees it as a national institution that they should control,” Mr Pryke said. “The view of many Pacific nations is that this is the beacon [and] heart of regionalism, co-owned by 12 members.

“The worry, if this continues to play out, is that the whole institution is going to wither on the vine. It behoves all parties to take that risk seriously. It’s a unique organisation [with] campuses all across the region. If it dies, it cannot be replaced. This is bigger than domestic politics [or] personal disputes.”

Mr Pryke said that while it was “hard not to have sympathy” for the vice-chancellor, his position appeared untenable.

“Clearly he and the Fiji government are at such loggerheads. There needs to be a circuit breaker where you just clear the decks at the top levels of the university, put it into some form of administration [and] bring in someone completely independent to try to clean this whole thing up,” he said.

Professor Ahluwalia said he was interested only in the council’s view. “If council believes I’m the right person to lead the university, I will respect that decision. If they say, ‘We think that you should go,’ I’ll have to respect that decision.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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