Providing Tertiary Education For All Students: Misir

In our final installment of interviews with university vice-chancellors in Fiji, we take a rare look inside The University of Fiji. The university’s vice-chancellor Professor Prem Misir said its biggest
25 Sep 2017 14:01
Providing Tertiary Education For All Students: Misir

In our final installment of interviews with university vice-chancellors in Fiji, we take a rare look inside The University of Fiji.

The university’s vice-chancellor Professor Prem Misir said its biggest draw card was making higher education accessible to students from low socioeconomic status in the country.

Professor Misir took up the reins in 2015 and has guided the university through two years of progress with efforts to acquire international accreditation for all its programmes gaining particular momentum.

It has since recorded an increase in enrollments through which the university hopes to substantially contribute to Fiji’s educational needs, particularly on the western front.

Leading the university is a professor who obtained a PhD at the age of 26, and is a well-published researcher with a total of 10 publications to his name.

Currently the Guyana-born vice-chancellor is in the process of writing a manuscript for an international HIV & AIDS study.

The University of Fiji was established in December 2004 and has its main campus in Saweni, Lautoka, with another in Suva.

Question: Can you tell me a bit about how you came to this job?

“I was invited to apply for this position. Apparently they had an advertisement out – I hadn’t personally seen it myself. I got a letter from the university here asking me if I would like to apply for this position; they knew about me from before and that’s how I came into it. I was in the Caribbean at the University of Guyana and I was the pro-chancellor there – that was more of an executive-chancellor position where you have to play a role in running the university on a day-to-day basis. They asked if I would like to apply so I applied. They interviewed me through Skype and here I am.

“I had a special interest in Fiji in terms of the similarity in history between Guyana and here. I mean it has to do with India in terms of the indentured system. There was that connection plus Ganesh Chand, the previous vice-chancellor of FNU (Fiji National University),who I had met in India before had been encouraging me over the years to come to Fiji. He is a good friend and he has encouraged me to stay here. I know quite a few important people here.”

Question: What would you say has been some of your major challenges?

“The challenge is money; as I told Minister (Aiyaz) Sayed-Khaiyum. I said this place needs about $10 million. He had come here to do the Fiji National Budget consultation with students a few months back. Then he came back and did the vice-chancellor public lecture for us. I think he is coming a third time in terms of doing a National Budget roadshow. When he had come to the consultation, he had asked me how much money I needed here and I said we needed quite a lot – I probably said $5 million dollars and not 10. But they have been (Government) quite generous in what we have got.

“We don’t have the same number of students as other places and the Government’s grant is generally based on something called the Full Time Equivalent (FTE) for students, so, because our numbers are 2500, or thereabouts, our grant will be in relation to our number of students; so in that sense we are happy with that.”

Question: USP is moving away from Government funding while FNU just received a significant subvention. What is University of Fiji’s funding formula?

“They can afford that. They are moving away from Fiji Government funding but they have 11 other Governments. It’s one of the only two regional universities in the world. We can’t afford to say that; in fact, this place has about 75 per cent of Government funding right now. We are very thankful to the Fijian Government for helping us.

“The funding formula is the same for all three universities and it’s done through the Fiji Higher Education Commission (FHEC) and a lot of it is based on FTE. It’s based on the number of full-time students you have but it’s not to do with headcount. You can have a large number of students but not all are full-time. You have to have a formula that you’ll use to work-out what your FTE is.”

“Now, we can’t have that amount of money that you just quoted for FNU because we don’t have that number of students. It comes down to the number of students. And we are comfortable with that because we don’t have a large number of students to deal with. In simple language, if you have a large number of students, and Government is satisfied that you are accountable, then you’ll get a fair amount of money by virtue of your numbers.”


Question: What would you count as some of your major achievements since you’ve arrived?

“One of them was the (student) numbers.This university is the only university on the island that attracts people who may not be able to afford other universities. We allow them to come so long as they are qualified – even if they don’t have the money.

“It (student admissions) was less than 1500 when I got here so we began to build up the numbers. It has grown, not because of any special thing that we have done; it’s through hard work and a proper targeted marketing strategy. There was a lot of visiting schools – most of our students come directly from the schools. I have sent some people to Labasa and the marketing woman came back with about 3000 completed forms for admissions. I would not be surprised if in semester one, 2018 we hit the 3000 mark. We have been able to build a rapport with the school system and that has helped us draw a lot of students.

“There are other things like for instance the Institutional Review Board which has to do with research ethics. We never had that so I got that in place. Now, if you want to do research and you’re dealing with human subjects, before you get any money and before you start your research, the research ethics committee has to approve your research proposal and plan.

“Another thing is academic advisement. We are a very young and new university and I don’t think anything like that was in place. As a student, you should have an academic advisor and we don’t have that. If it was happening it was happening in a very informal way. Now what I’ve done is I’ve tried to formalise things. So now, if you come here, you have an academic advisor. In the British system I have been through academic advisors all the time. It helps a lot with your academic performance; sometimes you have personal problems too and it’s good to have somebody to talk to. And because our students come from a very poor socioeconomic status – some of them don’t even have breakfast when they come here and that can affect their cognitive functioning – we pay attention to that.

“We have recently become a member of the Association of Commonwealth Universities that will bring us into engagement with all kinds of benefits that bigger universities get.

“When you’re relating to us, we’re very small. We don’t have the infrastructure and Governmental money that the other people have. When I say we have Wi-Fi across campus now, it may be a bit surprising to you but all small ones don’t have it.

“Unlike many other places, we have a high level of democratisation here. For instance, our handbook and calendar are being revised. And we’ve had what’s called a university-wide consultation. Most other places would have a small group of very senior people sitting down and working it out then presenting it to the people. We’re doing it the other way around.

“For a small university, we have already produced in last December’s graduation,109 medical graduates; 100+graduates from the School of Law, some of whom are in the Attorney-General’s office.

“We have had very good internal reviews – academics coming from outside to see if our programmes are up to standard.”

Edited by Rusiate Mataika


Part 2: Tomorrow


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