Leadership crisis besets University of the South Pacific

Oceania’s pan-national university enveloped by scandal, duelling governance bodies and tit-for-tat accusations

July 14, 2020
A large Lemon Shark gulps down a large tuna head in front of a crowd of divers, Fiji.
Source: Getty
Feeding frenzy: ‘In most places, whistleblowers are protected. Here I have been thrown under the bus,’ says USP leader Pal Ahluwalia

A leadership crisis at the University of the South Pacific (USP) shows no signs of ending quickly, as one of the world’s most distinctive institutions finds itself enmeshed in payment scandals, governance disputes and diplomatic tensions.

Last month, vice-chancellor Pal Ahluwalia, a Kenyan-born social scientist who took the helm at USP in late 2018, was suspended by the university council’s executive committee over allegations of misconduct.

Professor Ahluwalia, a former pro vice-chancellor of the universities of South Australia and Portsmouth, said the accusations against him were a “by-product” of a report he had presented to the USP council in May last year. It alleged mismanagement and abuse of office by former vice-chancellor Rajesh Chandra and current pro chancellor Winston Thompson, who reportedly heads the executive committee that ousted Professor Ahluwalia.

“I have had to endure about 10 investigations since I wrote that paper,” the vice-chancellor told Radio New Zealand. “In most places…including Australia and the UK, whistleblowers are protected. Here I have been thrown under the bus.”

Professor Ahluwalia’s suspension triggered protests from regional leaders, and Australia – the second biggest financial contributor to the university after Fiji – called for a special meeting of the full USP council.

When the council convened, it reinstated Professor Ahluwalia. Far from ending the matter, however, his restoration signalled a new phase of a saga that pits the reformist vice-chancellor – who has the support of staff, students and alumni – against the leadership of Mr Thompson, a veteran Fijian public servant and diplomat who chairs the USP council.

This is occurring against the geopolitical backdrop of Australia’s “Pacific pivot” – an escalation of Australian aid for the region, partly to counter China’s growing influence – and resentment of Fiji among its smaller neighbours.

With campuses in all 12 Pacific member nations that own it, USP is one of only two pan-national universities of its type in the world.

Its complex structure is reflected in the council, which includes the education ministers of all 12 member states, senior Fijian and Samoan public servants and representatives of the governments of Australia and New Zealand.

In January last year, Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, announced A$84 million (£46 million) in new funding for the institution over six years, during a visit to the university.

But Professor Ahluwalia has alleged that millions of dollars of USP revenue, including Australian money, have improperly lined university administrators’ pockets.

A July 2019 investigation by New Zealand accounting firm BDO was unable to make a judgement about 13 of his allegations concerning appointments and promotions during a two-month transition period at the end of 2018.

But of the other 14 allegations, BDO fully substantiated six and partially substantiated another four. Many concerned questionable back pay, bonuses, allowances and consultancy fees.

The report tallies F$4.3 million (£1.6 million) in inducement allowances, F$1.9 million in bonuses and F$2.2 million in “responsibility allowances” – paid to employees taking on extra duties – over a three-year period.

Inducement allowances, intended as one-off incentives to lure foreign staff, were sometimes paid for more than a decade. And some staff collected up to six responsibility allowances simultaneously, prompting questions about how they managed multiple full-time jobs.

Another F$2.3 million had been paid in “consultancy fees” for staff who were in essence subcontracting work to themselves.

Last November, it emerged that Australia had withheld A$10.5 million of USP funding. The ABC reported that the university and Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) had “jointly agreed to modify the schedule of payments to support reform actions by the university”.

It said DFAT had released an initial tranche of A$3.5 million after the university appointed an independent commission to implement BDO’s recommendations, and expected funding to “return to normal” in the first half of 2020.

Times Higher Education understands that the outstanding Australian funding has not yet been released. Enquiries to DFAT went unanswered.

Former Australian National University researcher Jonathan Pryke said the government’s silence on the issue was not unexpected.

“In the past, we have been seen as a bit overbearing or patronising,” said Mr Pryke, who now directs the Pacific Islands Program at the Lowy Institute thinktank. “People in the Pacific have such strong and passionate opinions about the university. Australia has to work in the background to help guide this to a better outcome, but getting on the pulpit is not going to help.”

Mr Pryke said it was “upsetting” to see a governance scandal envelop an institution that had “traditionally been one of the beacons of regionalism in the Pacific”, but resolving it would take time. “There are so many stakeholders in this university. It’s a challenging governance situation.”

But Professor Ahluwalia’s re-endorsement by the council had helped shore up his “moral authority”, Mr Pryke said. While the pro chancellor had the support of the Fijian government, a subcommittee was working through the findings of the audit. “They are going to have to carry through on these reforms, and if the pro chancellor continues to try and block them, he’s going to be in a bit of trouble.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Jewel of the Pacific beset by leadership crisis

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