Satellite helps Fiji campus ride out coup disruption

December 8, 2000

David Jobbins and Philip Fine at the Commonwealth education ministers' meeting, Halifax

The dispersed multicampus University of the South Pacific was able to harness the latest satellite technology to cope with the impact of this year's coup in Fiji.

After a brief interruption, students forced to flee Fiji to escape from the violent coup led by local businessman George Speight were able to complete their studies, while administrators continued to manage the institution.

But the university has been badly scarred by the effects of last May's coup. Almost 50 of its 350 academics have left, most of them senior teaching staff from other countries, and the institution's standing has been dented by an ugly row over the appointment of a new vice-chancellor. After initially appointing Rajesh Chandra, the deputy vice-chancellor, the university council reversed its decision and selected Savenaca Siwatibau, a former head of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia.

An appointment that would avoid inflaming the anti-Indo Fijian feelings rampant after the coup was needed, according to Fiame Naomi Mata'afa, education minister of Samoa, one of the 14 governments that support the university. Ms Mata'afa, a member of the appointments committee, said: "We needed the kind of leadership that would put the university in good standing."

But, speaking in Halifax at the Commonwealth education ministers' conference, Ms Mata'afa added: "The university is still in a precarious situation." Professor Chandra remains deputy vice-chancellor and was a delegate to the symposium running parallel to the Halifax conference despite the suspension of Fiji from the Commonwealth. He confirmed: "The political crisis has shaken the foundation of a regional university. There is a loss of morale, and staff feel constrained in expressing themselves. People are being very careful about what they say and do."

USP has three campuses and covers 12 countries - mostly remote islands spread over 33 million square kilometres of the South Pacific. Despite the now largely resolved crisis in Fiji at the hub of the network, Professor Chandra said donor organisations see USP's pioneering satellite communications technology as the only viable vehicle for distance education in the region.

USPNet is designed for distance learning and for managing the dispersed university. But the coup gave Esther Williams, USP's librarian, a chance to see the unexpected value of USPNet's communications capabilities. At the Laucala campus in Fiji, she immediately became the link between senior administrators attending a key meeting on Vanuatu and their families when phone lines were cut. Similarly, students forced to leave were able to continue classes by distance learning on USPNet. "This would not have continued if we had not had this technology."

As normality returned, the university offered students who chose not to return to campus the opportunity to continue their studies by distance learning. Professor Chandra explained that the university decided to eliminate courses taught both by distance learning and through face-to-face tuition.

"Irrespective of the political crisis, we would have had to examine whether it made sense to duplicate courses."

Fiji's interim government regards education as a priority and a degree of normality is returning to the university. The first graduation ceremony since the coup is scheduled for mid-December.

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