Analysis

USP Council: Deal With Issues

Some of the University of the South Pacific’s Intermediate and Junior Staff reached out to the Fiji Sun yesterday asking us to investigate a few rumours flying thick and fast
30 Sep 2020 09:43
USP Council: Deal With Issues
From left: President Student Union Elizabeth Fong, Executive Director Finance Kolinio Boila, Executive Director People and Workforce Strategy Jone Maritino, USP Vice Chancellor Professor Pal Ahluwalia, Deputy Vice Chancellor Jitoko Vanualailai, Deputy Vice Chancellor Regional Campus Giulio Masasso and President USP Staff Union Tarisi Vacala. Photo: Kelera Sovasiga

Some of the University of the South Pacific’s Intermediate and Junior Staff reached out to the Fiji Sun yesterday asking us to investigate a few rumours flying thick and fast amongst them.

What are these rumours? That the Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum has told the USP Council to reduce the retirement age of the Intermediate and Junior Staff and that he has said the grant which has been withheld from the USP will only be released if contracts of the 62 cleaners currently employed by the USP are not renewed.

These are outright lies.

Neither Mr Sayed-Khaiyum nor any member of the Fijian Government has ever put any such ridiculous conditions.

Mr Sayed-Khaiyum cannot and has not dictated to the USP to reduce the retirement age. He has not and cannot tell the USP not to renew the contracts of cleaners or to outsource its cleaning services.

It is absolutely false. We of course investigated and informed the staff who had reached out to us that these were lies. The question is why is this being spread?

Is it being done to perhaps cover up plans in motion not to renew contracts expiring this year and next year? Is that not a direct job loss? What is that going to be dressed up as?

A new Intermediate and Junior Staff agreement will be signed in mid October that will see the increase in retirement age from 60 years to 65.

But this has nothing to do with the Fijian Government.

One more question was posed to us by the Intermediate and Junior staff- where will Professor Pal Ahluwalia save $8.9 million from which is being claimed to be savings from Intermediate and Junior staff.

Professor Ahluwalia has categorically stated that no staff would lose his or her job. However, he has said nothing about the contracts which are expiring this year and in 2021. He has said nothing about why he left out the slide which had details of the 62 cleaners and revealed that most of their contracts expire in 2021.

Interestingly, Fiji Sun was also provided a document which was emailed to Intermediate and Junior staff last Friday around 3pm. This email seemed to have been sent to staff after the Fiji Sun had reached out to USP Communications person Vineeta Nand requesting for Professor Ahluwalia’s comments on possibility of job losses.

The document – 2020 Financial Overview and Future Outlook – blamed the Fijian Government’s decrease in grant for USP’s cash crisis.

Why was the Fijian Government singled out in this document? Why was there no mention of all other regional Governments and the pittance they give towards USP yet they demand that they have equal vote rights?

Australia and New Zealand have also not given their grants for this year. But, there was no mention of how much they withheld. The only mention of Australia and New Zealand in this document was: “The University’s financial position during the first eight months is largely driven by two major factors, firstly the financial impact of the COVID 19 pandemic and the timing in the development assistance receipts driven by new conditions introduced by the two major development partners, Australia and New Zealand.”

This is a rather glossed over analysis of Australia and New Zealand withholding their grant. Australia did not give their AU$10.5m (about FJ$15.16m) from last year. Out of this year’s pledged assistance of AU$10.5m, they have ‘indicated’ that they will give AU$3.5m (about FJ$5.3m). But, Australia cannot be faulted here. They withheld their grant and got in people to do their financial due diligence. Fiji has now done the same. Why should Fiji not demand financial and governance best practices?

Regarding Fiji:

“Income was above budget by $5.3m or 4.6 per cent. This was largely driven by the revised budget approved by the Executive Committee in August due to the impact of COVID-19 pandemic causing decrease in Fiji’s government grant…”

Why is Fiji being shown as the bad guy by the USP management? Does this email have anything to do with the rumour mongering going on in this once esteemed establishment? Or was Fiji’s supposed decrease mentioned in this manner to feed into the Opposition’s false narrative that “Government has no money”?

Cost saving measures outlined in the document:

1. All non-academic staff recruitments are on hold, unless approved by the VC on the endorsement of the EDF and EDPWS;

2. Reduction of staff annual leave to 10 days for the year 2020;

3. Restrictions on local and international travel;

4. All SP and Capex investments are on hold until further notice;

5. The Staff Review Committee (SRC) process for May 2020 has been deferred until further notice;

6. Any decision on staff salary adjustments for the current triennium is on hold;

7. Staff development costs and training are deferred until further notice;

8. Withhold all consultancies except for teaching and projects (externally funded);

9. Withhold any form of entertainment and courtesy expenditure. This delegation for fund controllers is temporarily suspended;

10. Suspend all stationery purchases;

11. No printing of flyers and newsletters, and provide these only through electronic means. There will be only limited printing of other USP documents like Annual Reports, Calendars, etc;

12. Procurement purchases centralized to the Finance Section except at Commercial and Regional Campuses; and

13. All overtime payments suspended effective immediately, except for emergency situations. While these controls may have been necessary in the short term, they are not sustainable for more than 12 months as they can further frustrate the delivery of quality education and research and student experience. The immediate controls that have been put in place increases the University’s risk exposure…”

Ball in your court, USP Council:

The Fijian Government has not once said they will not give in their grant. They have said that they are concerned about the continuous question marks about the lack of adherence to the principles of good governance in the day to day administration of USP.

They have said that USP needs to hold a thorough and independent investigation into all the allegations by the Pro-Chancellor and Chair of the Audit and Risk Committee.

The above analysis on cost savings done by Professor Ahluwalia and executive finance manager Kolinio Boila had not factored in the Fijian Government withholding its grant.

Now what more will the USP Council do? Instead of wasting time and dilly dallying, the Council should have put USP before their own egos and started the process to have an independent investigation underway.

This is all they have to do and Fiji would give its share of grant. The onus is on USP. No amount of subtle blame game and making the Fijian Government out to be the villain will change USP’s cash crisis.

Feedback: jyotip@fijisun.com.fj

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