NEWS | Opinion

University: Visions And Revisions

USP brought many of us together, not always in the best spirit of a developing composite regional culture: we argued and dissented with some ideas and against discriminatory policies.
17 Jun 2020 15:38
University: Visions And Revisions
“The University opened its doors for classes on 5 February 1968” Source: 2018. Treasures of the Past – The Humble Beginnings of USP
  • Emeritus Professor Satendra Nandan joined USP in February 1969, as one of the first two local lecturers with Mr Jo Nacola. He left Fiji in December 1987, after the two coups, and came to the Humanities Research Centre, ANU, on a fellowship. He returned to Fiji in 2005 to help establish Fiji’s second university and was subsequently invited to join the Fiji Constitutional Commission to help draft Fiji’s fourth constitution after four coups.


In my opinion, the three most relevant modern gifts of the ‘West’ to our contemporary world are: parliamentary democracy, the idea of a university, and the English language.

With flawed knowledge of these, we muddle along in islands and continents, in individual lives and collective identities.

The single most creative individual is, of course, William Shakespeare–a shrewd businessman and a wonderfully endowed human being who died at 52. Some claim his original name was Sherpa Iyer; who else could write such English?

The world has not produced a second Shakespeare in more than 400 years.  He’s still the most comprehensive soul of our frail humanity shaped by good and evil, creativity and corruption. Just as well he never went to a university.

The universities I’ve valued most are where I’ve studied: Delhi, Leeds London and the ANU. I’ve, needless to say, visited, lectured and attended conferences and courses in a score of others. It’s been a great privilege for me and my small family. Universities and Parliaments are my places of pilgrimages.

In between my wife and I’ve taught hundreds of students and made lasting friendships in several universities and colleges. The life of the mind instilled a sense of liberty and sustained our shared creativity in an exilic existence believing the best is yet to be.

Universities have enriched our lives as nothing else: and today I live in a city full of universities–in fact I’d call it a city of universities rather than the political capital of our region.

Economic spin

COVID-19 has put several universities in Australia into an economic spin for most depended on international students from various countries but mainly from mainland China.

To my knowledge, hardly any university vice-chancellor raised his or her voice against the atrocities being committed in that vast country of heroes and villains, hidden behind the great wall of a bamboo curtain or lines of steel tanks and big business.

Hong Kong is just the tip of a shipwreck with floating debris. Nobel laureates and thinkers have died imprisoned by the State. Our academic silence has been a violence and violation of our institutional integrity.

We, of course, continue to sacrifice our values for those thirty pieces of silver, now called inducements, bonuses ,etc., while asylum seekers and refugees are sent to detention centres in our region: out of sight shouldn’t be out of our minds.

Culture of cruelty

A culture of cruelty develops below the waves, behind the barbed wire fences, and can shipwreck us all unless we develop not only a consciousness but a conscience.

So I value a university for personal reasons, above all. And have written about my journeys in several books and many articles. Joining USP in February 1969, a year after USP began, was a bit like jumping from a well into a river and floating towards an ocean like a frog on a log.

I’ve described this experience in my book FIJI: Paradise in Pieces.

In one sense no university has meant more to me than USP. Politics intervened and my university career was checked and my political adventure became a checkered roller-coaster ride.

Life depends so much on luck, and sometimes on bad luck. I resigned on Monday; the colonel staged his gas-masked coup on Thursday. Today we’re all wearing masks to save ourselves from an invisible virus.

Once I resigned from USP, I never went back except to meet friends and attend conferences and launch a couple of books. But USP has been a critical institution in more than my life: Jyoti, my wife, and Kavita, our daughter, taught there.

For me it opened a region in my imagination: here I met lecturers and administrators from many worlds. It was founded with great hope, belief and a visionary generosity, both from within and outside Oceania.

In the middle fifties, I’d studied at SVHS–88 in a class under a tin-shed without shoes or a uniform–but we ploughed on and somehow passed the ubiquitous Senior Cambridge examination.

Free India, thanks to Pundit Nehru, the first PM, and the first remarkable Education Minister, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, close companions, extended a few scholarships to many Third World countries. I was given one.

So, I had, unlike my many contemporaries, who studied in NZ, had hardly any contact with other island groups of the region. It’s really at USP I discovered my native Fijian students and others and many delightful expatriate colleagues.

I thought USP was a marvellous idea for a university. It transcended national boundaries and had a ring of universality– re-defining and living its original meaning.

It gave us the life of the mind and the freedom of the imagination, so marvellously mentioned in Fiji’s current constitution.

I’ve written about these experiences in my poems, short stories, essays and memoirs in books like NADI: Memories of a River and Requiem for a Rainbow.

But truly it was USP which opened the world in many special ways for me and many a young family of at least two generations.

It also opened a region in my mind: the South Pacific. Suddenly having met so many colleagues from Australia and New Zealand, one wanted to go to these countries to study. Instead I went to England in search of Shakespeare, so to speak!

USP brought many of us together, not always in the best spirit of a developing composite regional culture: we argued and dissented with some ideas and against discriminatory policies.

Race and religion, ethnicity and ethics, featured in our daily conversations.

We began teaching, learning and writing: the argumentative ‘Indians’ were always at the forefront of many compelling issues that were necessary to be confronted.

The University, however, was like a magnet attracting some of the most learned minds of the region and a bit beyond from what I often call Australasia, and elsewhere.

In the past more than 50 years, USP educated a remarkable crop of professionals who in their own ways shaped, some even misshaped, the lives of their peoples in little and big island communities.

Sometimes the winds of change blew into a gale. The waves became cyclonic touching shores of islands and lives of peoples. But it was, for so many, beginnings of a journey towards freedom and thinking your own thoughts.

Even writing them where little was written.

Ideas of freedom, democracy, justice, free press, parliaments, national universities and institutions: these seedlings were planted and the South Pacific was changing with coups, cyclones and conflicts that Shakespeare understood and portrayed better than anyone.

The Tempest, set in the Caribbean seas, is his swan song of divine grace and renunciation, among colonial explorations.

USP was the nursery of new ideas and new horizons. We swayed like palms but we were siblings on the shores of the same ocean.

USP enhanced our lives, exalted our existence as people with deepening self-awareness and self-evaluation.

In the last few days, the unsolicited reports I’ve received from a dozen sources are not the best: something seems to have gotten rotten in the state of Denmark.


Cancer-culture of ‘corruption’, ’vendetta’ and ‘mismanagement

The cancer-culture of ‘corruption’, ’vendetta’ and ‘mismanagement’, (not my expressions), I’m informed in garbled versions, seems to have infected an institution.

All institutions, like individuals, generally die from internal malaise.

Therefore, it’s time to institute a high-level Higher Education Commission in Fiji: we now have three universities funded mainly by a government that wants its people educated for the present and future challenges in a rapidly transformational world.

One hopes out of the current crisis a new vision will emerge to educate and create new ideas for which such an institution was first created almost a thousand years ago.

COVID-19 is not the only problem: there are other diseases that debilitate our lives and leave wounds that take so long to heal. Universities are funded to find the vaccine.

As a footnote, I may add that last year one of my daughters gave me a book: it’s titled How Democracy Ends by David Runciman, a professor of politics at Cambridge.

Its blurb puts it bluntly: Democracy has died hundreds of times, all over the world… but history never repeats itself.

Academics do.

It’s our decaying institutions which pose severe risks.: unless they are renewed with verve and vision: a phenomenon we can witness in the two greatest of democracies today.

A university is a noble expression of the ideas and a crucible of the ideals of a community.

And our universities can be the lights on the streets on which caring people march with creativity, wielding pens, not guns.

It comes down to a single word: Integrity.

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