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Professor Chandra Tells: How USP Was Turned Around, How It Now Thrives

Professor Chandra Tells: How USP Was Turned Around, How It Now Thrives
Professor Rajesh Chandra
September 08
11:00 2017

 

Professor Rajesh Chandra in an exclusive interview revealed how he steered the region’s premier university away from an uncertain future.

The outgoing Vice-Chancellor and president of the University of the South Pacific since 2008, Professor Chandra detailed a list of extensive changes he implemented at the University of the South Pacific, including a planned decrease of Government funding.

Major infrastructure upgrades, a shift in teaching methods to accommodate the digital revolution and a more efficient staff management system were also part of the drastic changes implemented.

He said the university now stood quite tall internationally, with their highly qualified graduates able to secure jobs across the globe at a rate that was slightly lower than Australia and New Zealand.

Professor Chandra said he planned to retire next year, by than he would have completed ten and a half years at the university’s helm.

Established in 1968 and one of the two regional universities in the world, USP, with its main campus in Suva, spans 12 countries with no less than 14 campuses.

 

Here are excerpts from the interview:

What are your major achievements as Vice Chancellor?

When I came to the university, it had very serious problems. Since the arrival of the former vice-chancellor, the university went into a deficit. Any time an institution goes into a deficit, a lot of people get unnerved.

Not only that, the university was full of negative publicity around the broken relationship between the vice-chancellor, senior management and staff.

The governments were saying that the university was living beyond its means. There’s a famous saying by the then minister of finance saying we won’t give money to USP unless it gets a better handle on its cost structure.

The enrolments had begun declining – in 2006 and 2007 enrolments went down and they continued in 2008/09- and when something begins to decline it takes a while to recover.

The donors had become concerned about the future of the university and they had basically put their aid on hold. With the emergence of national universities, especially the Fiji National University, given that we are headquartered here, the situation with the university was that, for the first time, it had become unnerved about its future because the thinking was that now we have a national university, where does the regional university get its future.

And then when you have deficits, your enrolments are going down and you’re losing staff a lot of people become unsure about what will happen to the university.

My first major achievement was actually to give the university confidence, not only overcoming the financial difficulties, but that the future of the university was very bright.

I turned the university from operating deficits in 2006/07 and July 2008, the year I came, I delivered an operating surplus. I had a record of managing the university’s finances quite well. In 2009 I delivered a very large operating surplus.

People who felt that 2008 could be a fluke, and said you can’t really say you’ve solved the problem, which is true because I myself wasn’t so sure whether the following year, we will have that under control; but we did

My second contribution was that there is no future unless you drastically reform the university. So reform and restructuring became my major theme.

Deep restructuring and not superficial changes because I knew that the university had to reinvent itself. We had succeeded as a university when we were a monopoly.

We certainly had not faced a situation where, in our biggest market and our most important member country in terms of contribution, we had a national university. So we had to think about what kind of future we can navigate for USP in this new configuration.

I think that is where, people will feel, the legacy that I will leave which was to develop a type of thinking and articulate the thinking that USP had more relevance with the national university than before.

And the relevance was mainly as the premier provider because these are new universities. They needed a model, and so, the university would shift towards being the highest quality provider and that our job was not to see the national universities as competitors but as essential components of a synergistic ecosystem; and USP was never going to be able to do everything that every country wanted but it was setup to provide the major requirements of the region in tertiary education.

We reversed the enrolment in 2010 and in six years we basically had almost a 40 per cent increase in university enrolment. So we went from roughly 20,000 to 28,000 last year. This is a big increase and despite the fact that we have active national universities and very active international groups recruiting here.

When I took over, we were just having about 2200 people getting qualifications from the university. Last year, we had 2800 people, which is quite a significant increase. We have totally re-engineered our teaching and learning. My legacy there would be placing the university’s teaching and learning on a platform that is comparable to the best universities – 72 per cent of our graduates now get employment within four months of graduation, which is roughly 2-3 per cent lower than Australia.

We introduced some new programmes that are responding to the market and we introduced accreditation. Before I came, the university had no accreditation. We got our first accreditation in 2010.

The university had a zero accreditation and we went from one in 2010 to 23 in 2017. Universities don’t generally move that fast but that is an indication of the momentum that we had built.

Another focus was regionalising this university very significantly, focusing on the fact that we have 14 campuses and ensuring that the divide between Laucala and regional campuses is not that strong. We have renovated nearly every campus.

We have a new campus in Kiribati; in Marshall Islands; we did the groundbreaking ceremony last week for a completely green field campus in Solomon Islands worth about FJD$34 Million.

I think that we’ve put the focus on excellence and accreditation as a means of demonstrating one of my strongest achievements.

 

What are some other challenges you’ve faced since you arrived?

One of the big challenges of USP is that it is a multicultural and multinational place.

That means that you have to work extra hard on cohering the institution around central values. Remember we have gone through periods of racism; we’ve gone through periods where questions were asked whether you were from Fiji or another country.

Sometimes they have overtaken logic and rationality because there are emotive things. I think one of the big challenges that we have dealt with is that, today there is no room for racism in this university.

Absolutely zero tolerance – zero tolerance for sexual harassment; zero tolerance for physical abuse.

I think we have also had to deal with the culture of legacy. We had to deal with trying to change the staff to focus on their core work which is teaching, research and engagement broadly with the communities, governments, business sectors, with NGOs.

Basically that meant making sure that the place is not for idle gossip; and I used to say to the staff that one of our problems was there was too much gossip going on.

I’d appreciate when people get together and they’re talking about research projects or articles they want to do or the book they are writing. I think that people will probably say today that people are doing less of that and more of the other. We are all appointed and Governments spend a lot of money on paying us to do certain things and that is our priority. We are here to teach; we are here to think; we are here to research; and we are here to solve problems – focus on those.

We had to then reform our performance management system.

 

A recent survey revealed high amounts of sexual harassment among students in Australian universities. Do you think such a study is warranted in Fiji universities?

When I first heard it, the very first thing I did when I came back to office, I brought it up with senior management and said: look, if it is showing up strongly in Australia, there is no reason to assume that we are possibly not having the same problems. We have sexual harassment policies but it is notoriously difficult in a collegiate system because you have to prove beyond doubt something happened. But we are going to have a very good look at what we can do. We’ve talked about creating a hotline, about getting in some senior women who can act as confidants for people who feel harassed. I think that’s an area we will need to do more work.

 

Some commentators including a former education minister has said the quality of USP graduates has in recent years declined. What’s your response to that?

That is not borne out with any kind of objective evidence, absolutely none. If anything, the quality of USP graduates has gone up, because we have all these international accreditations. Our MBA programme, for instance, is accredited by the Association of MBAs, which is the largest accrediting body for MBA. If you say that your graduates have not been getting jobs, we have data to show that roughly 72% of our graduates are getting jobs – and I know that people want USP graduates.

This is not to say that the quality of English and level of numeracy is not a problem; it’s a global problem. You read the American Higher Education Report, they all complain about graduates not being able to write properly. These are native English speakers. This is a problem that also comes up in Australia and New Zealand.

So my response is generally that we are on an upward trajectory. Some of our graduates are doing exceedingly well everywhere; many of them are professors at big time universities. Our staff can move around in different universities. I would take issue with anybody who says the quality is going down – it’s not going down. But I would agree that all universities are facing the issue around declining standards in English worldwide and this is made worse by social media in which people are abbreviating everything so that the writing of good English is becoming extinct and unlike many other people who grew up writing well, we think, the newer generation isn’t that committed or capable of writing.

We have introduced the ELSA; this is the test for diagnosing the skills; we have introduced remedial programmes to improve English; we have introduced an online test for mathematics skills and we are sharing that in the region. There is no secret that the standard of English and mathematics in the region is low. We are trying to work with the ministries to get that up

 

What is USP’s top priority in the coming years?

We are now at the tail-end of our strategic plan. We have also begun to think about what our priorities should be for the next six years so that we don’t come to a situation of, having created major momentum of improvement, we haven’t thought about the future ahead of time. Speaking as a person who led the development of the first strategic plan after I came to stabilise the university, and then led the development of the current strategic plan in a very direct way, I would think that this focus on excellence will remain, because there is no alternative.

The University must continue to be a regional university – that is the main reason for its success. It must continue to ensure that people value our graduates and that means while we continue to get accreditations; we deal decisively with this issue about how we can make them better – in terms of change management, language skills and working in teams.

It will also have to deal in a very agile way with what is called the digital revolution because right across the world, the biggest changes that are occurring are coming around from digitising everything and the introduction of artificial intelligence. The universities are not immune from that.

It will also mean a much greater focus on innovation and creativity. And we have to significantly move towards doing more research because for 50 years we have been largely an undergraduate university.

 

FNU has increased staff salaries and staff development programmes to improve quality and retain staff. What is USP’s strategy?

The university’s policy is to review salaries every three years – it’s called a triennial review of salaries. Every three years we have quite a rigorous system of comparators to get an independent person to look at the salary of the comparators and we look at where USP’s salary is at that moment and we see what adjustments we need to make to keep a salary that can attract good people and retain those good people.

In that sense, FNU had a bigger challenge because it brought in multiple national colleges together and their salaries at that time might have been packed to those that were in training centres, colleges and FIT. I think Government wants better quality from FNU and I think FNU might have said look, we need to increase salaries and the Government’s given them funding for that and we support it. I mean you can’t deliver quality without resources.

I’m not saying that’s not important for us, but we did not ask the government for any extra funding because the kind of things FNU wanted we already had. For example: they wanted a management information system; we already have ours. They wanted better bandwidth; we already have ours – so in that sense the situation was a bit different. But we have spent a lot of money and I wanted to tell you that every year we spend around one and a half million dollars on staff development. We do that and we also spend close to two million dollars in giving discount to staff children (etc.) from tuition so we have invested quite heavily.

 

How much money is allocated for infrastructure development given that enrolment has increased?

We have been spending more and more money on infrastructure. When I came, the university was spending about $2.5 million on capital expenditure (CapEx) for the whole university in any one year.  We have increased it now to roughly $15 million a year and since I took up this position, we have added $180 million worth of assets so we have made sure that we are adding facilities -like the new Japan Pacific ICT Centre. We have made sure that maintenance gets enough attention because assets need to be maintained. And we’ve made sure that we can expand where needed; and that we are also investing heavily in equipment. And we continue to invest in ICT very heavily. The challenge now is changing; there is more emphasis in learning on collegial group work, online learning, and digital learning – learning anytime you feel like learning.

With the net result that the tendency of people who go to lectures has declined. All our lectures are on Moodle, which means that whether you are in the country or whether you are outside, you can access your lectures. We have invested a lot of money in what we call the Lecture-Capture programme. Every lecture at Laucala, Emalus, and Alafua – these are the main places from where we teach – are captured and they are put on Moodle the next day. If you are sitting in Niue or Tokelau and you can’t come to Laucala, you can do that course from there because the next day you will have the same lecture that was delivered. We have also invested in a programme of giving out tablet computers to all degree one, full-time students who have paid their fees and we are continuing that for next year and eventually everybody who comes to USP will have a device of their own. That means they carry with them most of their study materials.

 

Professor Nigel Healey (FNU vice-chancellor) said USP was entering FNU’s territory with Pacific TAFE. Is USP trying to duplicate what FNU is doing?

I find this a very interesting question because USP was there when national universities were not. Many of the things national universities do are duplicating what USP was already doing. Second, I think that the areas of operation between FNU and USP are quite distinct. There are some fields in which they operate, like medicine and nursing, which we don’t get into. They are heavily focused on sub-degree training and into the very basics of apprenticeships and electrical and plumbing training which USP is not involved in. We both do agriculture and in fact we had been doing agriculture from the time the university was established in Samoa.

In Pacific TAFE, what has happened is that we’ve always had pathway education which is essentially, preliminary foundation; in fact, when the university was established that was a big programme because everybody came to do preliminary and foundation before they could enter USP or go anywhere else. We had a College of Foundation Studies doing that and everybody accepted it and that programme was before FNU was established.

Now Pacific TAFE is involved in significant pathway creation; it is involved in a few areas of what we would class as vocational education such as cookery. And the reason why we’re involving is that ours is the only accredited programme – FNU doesn’t have accredited programmes in cookery etc., as far as I can see. We are also providing some of the programmes where we have strength – like we have huge strength in ICT.

It is not our intention to get into the vocational bits like apprenticeships, plumbing or electrical work; but it will be in our interest to do things in areas that exploit our advantage – we have a very good accredited electronic and mechanical engineering. When we have those it makes sense to then say: well, what about picking up and creating a pathway for that.

The other thing is that Pacific TAFE is a regional provider, FNU is a national provider. It’s true that in the Fiji market FNU can reach out to those areas but it is not a regional provider. And because we are developing these programmes we will not deny the Fiji market the benefits. I personally don’t feel that Pacific TAFE is duplicating anything that FNU does. FNU has had a longer history of doing that and ultimately what will decide is the quality and there is no question that Pacific TAFE quality is demonstrably better because we can fall-back on the accreditations.

 

What is USP’s current international standing and has it improved under your vice-chancellorship?

I think it’s improved enormously. I am constantly reminded by Australia and New Zealand vice chancellors that USP is such a wonderful and unique institution. We have total acceptance of our graduates and of our staff internationally. We have people all over the world. I was in the Asian development bank a month ago and one of our graduates had become an Assistant Director General of the Asian Development Bank as a whole. I was in Solomon Islands when the president of the ADB gave a glowing speech about USP. I attend the Australian vice chancellors group meeting as an observer – I got to New Zealand too – and I think everywhere there’s a respect for what the university is able to do. And in some fields, we are well-ahead of the average Australian or New Zealand University. I think I would be quite clear in maintaining that the national standing of USP has never been better right across the world.

Broadly speaking, the quality of students we get from secondary school everywhere, including Fiji, are not as good as they should be, coming to a university. What that means is that if you are keeping your eye on international standards then you have to work extra hard to take these students, put them through all the remedial work and extra effort so that when they leave, they are given the same standing as the graduates of other universities. My attitude generally is we need to be flexible in letting people come in but we need to control the exit: nobody gets through the university qualification unless they are demonstrably good and that may mean occasionally a lot more people fail because they started off with a poor background

 

Who are your major funders and by how much has USP’s funding increased during your term?

“I think our biggest funders are students. In that, we are counting scholarship money, so, it’s what is paid to university for tuition. Then you have Governments and donors – roughly equal. And around 6-7% of other income like the income we make from book centres or trading accounts. Our big achievement has been that we have reduced the burden on Government, compared to FNU for instance. I’m not criticising FNU but I’m really saying that USP has moved to a funding platform that is very sustainable for the future. It relies on its ability to sell its products which is really our best position.

During my term, the university has got $312 million assistance. Annually we have more than doubled what we used to get. Government funding has decreased as a planned part of the university and tuition funding has increased. I have delivered $57 million dollars operating surplus during the time of my vice-chancellorship.

“USP belongs to 12 countries and as part of their public obligation and ownership I’m sure they’ll continue to fund the university in a way that is commensurate with their ownership.

“We have a very strong financial management and we have continued to look for ways in which to bring the cost down, so: doing more with less by doing it smartly.”

 

There have been allegations that academic freedom at USP has been repressed. What’s your response to that?

Not true at all. Now let me explain this: academic freedom means: your freedom to be hired at this university; it means the freedom of the university to develop any programme that it feels is appropriate; it means your freedom to teach in the manner you want but subject to standards; it means you can research any topic you want; and it means that you can publish anything that you research subject to codes and standards. Nobody has ever put pressure on us not to hire anybody. Senate has never been constrained from approving any programme that people want. The only constraints are: is it needed; is it sustainable. There is no pressure on us to avoid any research field. Government will tell us we’d like you to research climate change and that’s perfectly reasonable. And there’s been no pressure on us publishing it so I cannot see where this criticism is coming from.

We allow our staff to stand in elections – we have a policy on it- and if they win the elections then they are deemed to have left the university; if they lose they are welcome to come back. But what we can’t have is staff that is engaging in political activities at the expense of the university.

Academic freedom doesn’t mean that freedom is when you feel I am an academic of the university then I can say whatever I feel like saying.

But I think that I need to constantly say to the academics: we pay you to do your research, do your teaching and to be academics. If you want to be a politician, there is a process to follow. You can’t mix the two. And I must say that I myself am absolutely committed to academic freedom because without it there is no university really worth its salt.

Edited by Mohammed Ali

Feedback:  sheldon.chanel@fijisun.com.fj

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