Analysis

It Is Time For Constructive Resolution And Closure To The USP Saga

The saga is polarising nations, and this is destructive for the development of higher education in the region.
08 Feb 2021 15:07
It Is Time For Constructive Resolution And Closure To The USP Saga

The USP saga continues unabated and it is time to find an amicable and constructive solution.  All those involved should come together and iron out their differences in the spirit of Pacific regionalism.

We have so many challenges brought about by the pandemic and cannot be bogged down indefinitely with a regional conflict that affects our students, staff and their learning.

The saga is polarising nations, and this is destructive for the development of higher education in the region.

There are huge climate change issues to be tackled and sustainable development initiatives to be implemented and we cannot continue to be side-tracked.

In reaching an affirming resolution we must ensure that Integrity and Transparency are never compromised.

 

Media Affected

From the outset, the matter has been complicated by the shutting out of the media from freely reporting council meetings or of covering press briefings of staff or students held at Laucala Campus.

When Ahluwalia was suspended last year and deported last week, details had been sparse in the mainstream media. This had allowed social media innuendo to thrive.

We understand that Professor Ahluwalia was deported because he was a public risk and that there were “continuous breaches of the Immigration Act.”

There have been no specific details provided of the alleged breaches. Weeks earlier, social media had been rife with rumours that he would be deported.

It was reported that New Zealand’s foreign ministry has expressed concern at the implications of VC Ahluwalia’s removal, and said it would work with other USP Council members for a resolution.

 

Importance Of Media

The media is extremely important in helping the Fijian, Pacific and global public to understand both sides of the conflict.

They should be allowed to report objectively without restrictions. Since they have been effectively shut out of Laucala Campus and cannot cover Council meetings and press briefings by Staff and Students, the Pacific public has not been able to get a holistic picture.

They have been exposed mainly to Professor Ahluwalia’s narrative. He is very articulate and understands that mainstream and social media thrive on sound bites during prime-time radio and TV news segments. He has always clearly articulated his arguments pitching it as a narrative of integrity at USP.

I have chatted with four reporters from three Fijian media outlets and from their tone, they are infatuated with Professor Ahluwalia.

He comes across as a ‘larger-than-life’ character from a Netflix movie. He was abruptly suspended last year and last week he was visited in the middle of the night by 15 officials yet all his images from both incidents show him exuding inner calmness.

It is hard to demonise someone who after an ordeal says, “I praise the Lord and thank Almighty God for hearing the prayers of so many people throughout the region and for good governance, integrity and ethics to prevail.” (Fiji Sun 5-9-20).

 

Whistle-Blower

Ahluwalia has also shaped the narrative as “a classic case of beating the whistle-blower up.” This was a variation of his previous assertion that he was the victim of a witch hunt, after raising concerns about governance issues and financial mismanagement.

He had alleged widespread financial irregularities during the time of his predecessor and the current pro-chancellor.

An investigation substantiated some of his findings and called for stronger oversight by the university council.

The USP’s executive committee suspended him in 2020 when it came up with 33 allegations. There were protests from students and staff, and the suspension was later overturned by the University Council.

When VC Ahluwalia had raised his allegation, he had provided purported documentary evidence and had stated that he could provide more if required.

When the 33 allegations were made against him (resulting in his suspension by the Executive Committee in 2020) there was no mention in any of the mainstream media of documentary evidence being provided.

It was later reported that the USP Council looked at the allegations and that ‘A report from an investigation into allegations against Mr Ahluwalia, could not substantiate any of the 33 claims.’

I am not sure if the Media is inaccurately reporting the sentiments of Ahluwalia’s accusers. Their narrative sounds defensive and does not clearly attack the issues.

 

 Solution Needed

Going forward, it is important that the media is given access to report freely on the USP saga (or any other sensitive issues in future).

They should be allowed to enter Laucala Campus and attend press briefings by staff and students and should also be allowed to wait around for Council meeting briefings.

This is the only way that the Pacific public will get access to both sides of the conflict objectively.

Although there have been many attempts to demonise Professor Ahluwalia, he has continued to receive support from most Pacific nations in the Council including Australia and New Zealand who provide recurrent funding for USP while Fiji’s grant is currently withheld.

It is time for Fiji and Nauru, two awfully close partners who have enjoyed very cordial relations in the past to engage for the greater good of the region.

It is also time to follow the American adage that if you cannot beat them (your adversaries), you can do the next best thing; join them.

With this adage in mind, this is clearly looking like a lost cause and it is time to bite the bullet and work together for the greater good of Pacific regionalism.

If we keep prolonging this saga it will have long term negative repercussions.

Joseph Veramu is a policy analyst. He can be contacted on joseph.veramu@outlook.com

 

 

 



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