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“USP’s Fiji Bogey” (ed. in FT 31/10/2021)

31/10/2020

USP’s Fiji Bogey

No one ever accuses NZ or Australia from hogging the benefits of any of their universities, just because their students and staff are in the majority, while having students and staff from around the world.

But for decades now and again during this current USP crisis, Fiji keeps facing accusations that it derives unfair advantages in facilities, student numbers, graduates and staff, because of the presence of USP facilities on Fiji soil, and that the Fiji Government wants to “take over” USP.

In the seventies and eighties, these accusations (which I call the “USP Fiji Bogey”) used to come from a small “Pacific Islander” group led by the late Professor Ron Crocombe and a few entrenched elite expatriates.

They fought tooth and nail to limit the appointment of Fiji citizens to USP and especially Indo-Fijian academic staff, who they refused to include as “Pacific Islanders”, another bogey rearing its ugly head at Auckland University.

Nevertheless, this powerful group succeeded in pressuring USP to “decentralize” faculties (like Law and Agriculture) and Institutes (many) to other Pacific Island countries, where most staggered along, with the exception of USP Centers which were genuinely necessary.    Their lack of success has never been examined by USP Council, not even during the recent vacuous USP@50 celebrations which warranted a comprehensive stock-take of USP.

This “Fiji bogey” has been again renewed during the current USP crisis and surprisingly echoed by a former USP senior academic, who incidentally also was part of our group fighting the regionalization battles in the eighties.

Completely forgotten is that USP was created as a regional university in 1968 only because the departing colonial British tried to save resources by not having to create separate universities for Samoa, Solomons and Vanuatu, which their own governments did eventually.

Sadly, while commendably standing up to the bullying by the current Fiji Government, the smaller Pacific countries seems to forget the decades of generosity of successive Fiji Governments not just over USP but also other regional issues such as settlement in Fiji and employment at regional (CROP) organizations.

Why a regional USP?

Pacific people should ponder that British white settler colonies in Australia and NZ very sensibly saw the need for universities for their then equally small populations, a hundred years before USP was established in 1968.

The University of Sydney was established in 1851; the University of Otago (my first alma mater) was established in 1869; and Canterbury University was set up in 1873, just one year before Fiji became a colony in 1874.

Historians know that the British Government refused to “waste” scarce resources on universities for colonies, because they, like Fiji, were there only to serve Britain’s needs, and not to create a “Babu class of educated natives”, which was the view of racist white colonials.

But with the far more aggressive colonies of Jamaica, Trinidad,  Barbados and Guyana, Britain was forced to establish the University of West Indies thirty years earlier than USP.

Forgotten fact:  there was no real need for a “regional” University of the South Pacific. It would have been far simpler for the British to establish a “University of Fiji” which could have then accepted enrolments from all the other Pacific countries, just as has been done by Australian and NZ universities for more than a hundred years, with no complaints of Australia and NZ hogging the benefits of their university.

But largely as a result of British colonial neglect of the education of indigenous Fijians, the early USP saw a predominance of Indo-Fijians amongst the students, graduates and staff, purely a result of the historical thirst for education among Indo-Fijians in colonial Fiji.

That was deeply resented by the Pacific Islander and expatriate clique at USP.

The anti-Fiji and anti-Indian racism in early USP

In early USP, while the largest number of students and staff were from Fiji, the senior academic and administrative staff were expatriates, usually of the same nationality as the Vice Chancellor at the time.

This happened “naturally” because of USP’s application of discriminatory salary scales called “Schemes of Supplementation” funded by the respective donors- Australia, NZ and UK.

Until the now forgotten West Indian Vice Chancellor (the late Dr James Maraj) promoted many Pacific Islanders to senior positions.

These few Pacific Islanders in cahoots with an elite expatriate group fought tooth and nail to discourage the appointment, training and promotions of Fiji citizens, resulting in great grief and trauma for many of us, with our scars not healing for decades.

Understanding these conflicts might also help today’s USP stakeholders to partly understand why the previous USP VC (Rajesh Chandra) was so compromising towards the Bainimarama Government.

Read an article by the late Professor Ron Crocombe and Uentabo Neemia (a junior i-Kiribati subordinate of his) in the journal Pacific Perspectives and also in Fiji Sun (of 16 March 1985) accusing the Fiji Government of wanting to take over USP (so what’s new today?) and accusing Fiji citizens (and especially Indo-Fijians) of dominating USP positions.

Affronted by the unfair and racist attacks, dozens of Fiji academic staff signed public petitions  (I urge Fiji Times readers to read the last paragraph and the many signatures, which include Vijay Naidu, Rajesh Chandra, Subramani, Dick Northcott, Steven Ratuva, Leba Savu, Judith Titoko and many others).

One junior economist then also wrote a comprehensive reply (Fiji Sun of October 30 1986 “Fiji staff at university upset with expatriates”) pointing out the blatant unfairness to Fiji staff  and racism of alleging that there was no benefit in replacing expatriate white academic staff with “Fiji Indians and Asians”, even though their qualifications were from the same Australian, NZ or British universities as the expatriates.

USP stakeholders should be clear that it is quite unfair to claim that Fiji has gained an unfair advantage with respect to USP staff, students and graduates, and facilities.

The staff bogey

For decades, Fiji has been accused of hogging academic staff positions at USP and the powerful Pacific Islanders and expatriate clique USP fought tooth and nail to prevent Fiji citizens from being appointed to high levels, even though that was due entirely to the relatively large number of Fiji graduates with higher qualifications and experience.

One sad result of the anti-Fiji bias was that the former VC was bypassed when expatriate Tony Tarr was appointed as USP VC, and he felt (perhaps correctly) that he owed his eventual appointment only to the intervention of the Bainimarama Government, which then resulted in him subsequently acceding to their every wish for academic and student censorship.

Unfortunately, that former VC’s attempt to cling to the position despite two renewals of contract encouraged him to promote pliant subordinates, discourage possible regional competitors to the VC position, and he therefore failed to groom a regional successor to himself.

Then when an expatriate VC had to be appointed, there was a disgraceful handover to Ahluwalia, whose “clean up” campaign did not meet with the approval of some who were the leading lights of the 2006 “Clean Up” coup.

Today’s USP stakeholders forget that for decades, Fiji senior staff at USP have always attempted to appoint senior staff (academic and management) from other Pacific countries wherever and whenever we could.

I can personally attest that in the School of Social and Economic Development (now the Faculty of Business and Economics) we appointed many Pacific Islanders later well-known in the region such as Sitiveni Halapua, Malama Maleseaia, Iosefa Maeva, Siliga Kofe, and others. Unfortunately, most left for greener pastures in regional CROP organizations.

But whatever may have been the animosity of that clique towards Fiji staff, I will not forget the many friendships with USP regional staff such as Aquila Talasasa, Steven Halapua or the many great expatriates such as Ross Renner, HM Gunasekera and David Forsyth.

The bogey of Indo-Fijians not being “Pacific Islanders”

This bogey reared its ugly head on Stuff.co by journalist Brittanny Keogh (16 August 2019) and aired also on Pacific Newsroom by Michael Field.

Readers might want to ask Auckland University to explain why they are using an ethnic criterion to deny Indo-Fijian Shaneel Lal (a NZ Youth MP) a scholarship intended for “Pacific Islanders”.

No such test is ever applied to the many Cook Islanders, Samoans and Tongans who have varying mixtures of white and Chinese DNA (which incidentally seems to be often allied with their entrepreneurial success in their home countries).

Surprisingly, even Bainimarama and Khaiyum, despite their mantra that “we are all Fijians”,  have declined to comment on the Auckland University discriminations against Shaneel Lal.

Let it be recorded here that many CROP organizations have also done their best to exclude Indo-Fijian applicants to senior positions, including one brilliantly qualified female who was at the top of the Screening Committee list. But then, she has also been banned by the Bainimarama Government from entering Fiji, for no reason other than being married to a critic of the 2006 coup.

The student and graduate domination bogey

Another USP bogey was that the Pacific Islanders and expatriates elite group accused Fiji of dominating the student enrolment and graduate output at USP, especially of Indo-Fijian students.

I admit that we Fiji academic staff and especially Indo-Fijian staff would also feel uneasy at every USP graduation watching thousands of Fiji and specifically Indo-Fijian graduates parade up to receive their certificates.  Then there would be loud cheers when the occasional Pacific Islander or indigenous Fijian graduate came up to receive their certificate.

But that skewed output of USP graduates was purely a reflection of USP’s national and ethnic mix of students coming through the secondary school system then, nothing to do with USP entry policies.

I recollect that when I was USP’s Director of Planning and Development (1994 to 1996) I felt compelled to do a statistical study to verify that the grades of USP students at USP were exactly according to their grades as incoming students and that there was no evidence of bias by Fiji lecturers in favor of Fiji students by nationality or ethnicity.

Of course, the ethnic mix is getting better every year slowly, while some Pacific countries very sensibly not just graduate their students in their own countries, in front of their families and communities, but also have started their own national universities to teach tertiary courses nationally, whatever their quality.

Nor will I forget the many great students I have had the pleasure of teaching like James Lin, Aisake Eke, Cliff Bird, Hala Hingano and many others who we tried to hire at USP.

Then of course there have been the wonderful students who went on to themselves become professors like Professor Biman Prasad (so committed to Fiji) or academic entrepreneurs like Dr Ganesh Chand who established not just University of Fiji but also Fiji National University.

What hogging of facilities?

Largely because the power elite demanded that USP facilities be “fairly shared” between all the USP Member countries, the School of Agriculture was decentralized to Samoa, the Law School decentralized to Vanuatu, and several Institutes to the other smaller Pacific countries.

Given its stagnant enrolments, no one will accuse the School of Agriculture in Samoa of being a “raging success” in the teaching of agriculture or agricultural research, despite the oft-stated importance of agriculture to most Pacific countries.

While the Emalus Campus School of Law in Vanuatu has had many achievements, it has survived only because of the compromise of having many of the lower level courses taught in Fiji from which the largest number of law students originate, while tax free salaries compensate the expatriate academic staff for the academic isolation.

Similarly, most of the Institutes in the smaller Pacific countries have struggled to achieve their objectives, often ending up with a few staff who enjoy their protected “comfort zones”.

I suggest that if a through study was ever done of all the decentralized institutes, you would be forced to conclude that the contentious contract renewal at Alafua documented by the BDO Report during the current USP crisis, is but the tip of a large iceberg.

What if USP were a factory

People forget that if USP was considered just as a “graduate canning factory” no one would question that it should be located closest to its largest source of inputs and consumers,

That USP factory’s faculties, departments and institutes would all be located in Fiji, and not some distant small country which would be unattractive to quality expatriate staff who have always been a large proportion of the academics at USP.

On the financing side, I doubt if the Governments of Samoa and Vanuatu have ever thought of the extra that they pay USP because of USP’s funding formula, by which a “Campus Grant” component (a half of their total bill) charges them more, is shared among the countries, according to how much USP pays in salaries in their country.

Ultimately, if the objective of USP is to produce the best quality graduates at least cost, it is not to the benefit of either the students or the sending countries to have USP facilities decentralized just for the empty objective of being “fairly shared” between all the USP Member countries.

It was therefore quite surprising to read (Fiji Times 23 June 2020) former USP academic Professor Vijay Naidu stating that “There is also a need for more equitable distribution of resources, facilities, equipment and staff across the region to the other 11 member countries”.

USP graduate Sadhana Sen also made the astonishing claim (Fiji Times 24/10/2020 and ANU Development Policy blog) “a recent survey showed that for every dollar spent by the Fiji Government on USP, the country receives eight dollars in return”.  Perhaps the Fiji Minister for Economy, instead of withholding $30 million from USP, could “disappear Fiji’s Public Debt” by giving a mere $1 billion to USP which would magically return $8 billion.

USP Council Governance

It is a pity that the region has rarely acknowledged the generosity of successive Fiji Governments which have accepted that small Pacific countries have a large say in USP Council and being appointed to senior management positions, despite contributing little financially.  Such influence by a minority shareholder influence would not be allowed in a private company.

The Pacific often forgets that Fiji has always been generous to the smaller PICs.

Rabi Islanders were able to buy an entire island to resettle them when their Banaba Island was virtually destroyed by phosphate mining.

Citizens of Tuvalu have for decades been allowed to freely settle in Fiji and make use of Fiji’s better education and health services.

Kiribati has been allowed to purchase a large block of land (in Vanua Levu) which is a fantastic backup for an alternative settlement if the ocean levels rise enough to make Kiribati uninhabitable.

Fiji has even allowed the smaller Pacific Islands to dominate the top management of most of the CROP organizations, even allowing USP to have the first regional VC (Samoan Esekia Solofa, who I worked under as his DPD).

So it is a tragedy that just a few mediocre representatives of the current Bainimarama Government are dissipating the goodwill that Fiji has built up over decades, or for that matter, by attempting to set up a poor vacuous alternative to Forum Secretariat.

Having worked at USP for decades, I would urge all the shareholders in USP, to remember  my favorite line from a Joni Mitchell song which was voiced long before Steve Job’s last bit of advice to the world “you don’t know what you have got till it is gone”.

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