Analysis

USP Job Revelations:10 High-Level USP Appointments Allegedly Did Not Follow Processes

The renewal of the employment contract of Ms Traill as Director of Audit and Compliance was pushed through the Staff Review Committee by Professor Ahluwalia. The Vice Chancellor formally acknowledged a conflict of interest but did not recuse himself from the discussion or decision-making.
21 Feb 2021 08:21
USP Job Revelations:10 High-Level USP Appointments Allegedly Did Not Follow Processes
Jito Vanualailai and Giulio Paunga.

About 10 recent high-level appointments at the University of the South Pacific (USP) under Professor Pal Ahluwalia’s leadership allegedly did not follow USP processes.

And, the minimum qualification requirement in a number of appointments, appeared written so as to exclude other meritorious candidates.

All these allegations have been gathered from numerous well-placed USP sources. They come amidst continuing controversy following the deportation of Professor Ahluwalia.

The USP communications team was made aware of each of the allegations, but have not responded.

Allegations:

1. Appointment of Rajni Chand as Director of the Centre for Flexible Learning (CFL)

From 2016 the Centre for Flexible Learning was led by a Pro Vice Chancellor (Professor Som Naidu) who has received international recognitions and awards for his work in Online and Distance Learning and is a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.

At the end of Professor Naidu’s contract in December 2020, this leadership role was downgraded to a Senior Lecturer.

This was not mentioned in the restructure approved by the University Council even though the advertisement for the position claimed: “As a result of the reorganisation of the USP that was approved by Council at its 90th meeting held on November 18 and 19, 2020, we now seek to fill the role of Director Center for Flexible Learning”.

A three year contract was awarded to Rajni Chand, but her position was only advertised internally despite Professor Ahluwalia and his human resources team insisting in other cases that all appointments for more than one year must be advertised externally.

There were three other applicants who applied for the position which was ultimately given to Ms Chand.

Of the three other applicants who applied:

  • One was an Associate Professor with substantial research and publications in the field of technology enabled learning,
  • A second was a Senior Lecturer who had previously held the position of Faculty Associate Dean Learning and Teaching and had extensive experience of Faculty and University level management in this field,
  • The third was a senior female member of staff within the Centre for Flexible Unit who has a doctorate and significant research and publication outcomes in Online and Distance Learning as well as being a long-standing departmental manager within the CFL unit.
Rajni Chand.

Rajni Chand.

Ms Chand was selected above all of these candidates.

We asked Ms Chand and the USP whether:

  • Ms Chand has experience of University management.
  • She has expertise in the field of Online and Distance Education, or in Education more broadly, outside of her specialist area of Linguistics.

Apart from the experience all USP academics have of teaching their own courses through the University’s Learning Management System (Moodle).

We further asked Ms Chand and the USP whether her only experience in this field was her participation in a Commonwealth of Learning (COL) Women and Leadership in Online Distance Learning training programme.

The Appointments Committee was chaired by Professor Ahluwalia and other members of the committee included Professor Jito Vanualailai (acting DVC Education) and Akanisi Kedrayate (former Dean of the Faculty of Arts Law and Education).

None of these panel members have any expertise, qualifications, or published research in Online and Distance Learning.

USP Communications Department had not responded when this edition went to press. Ms Chand’s lawyer, Richard Naidu, who is a partner at Munro Leys, responded on her behalf.

He said: “Munro Leys acts for Dr Chand and her husband, Professor Biman Prasad.

“Dr Chand will not be commenting publicly on any of your questions. On 17 February I communicated with Ms Pratibha and Mr Lomas, noting that the Prime Minister had made defamatory comments about both Dr Chand and Professor Prasad; that they were taking legal advice on their options; and advising the Fiji Sun to take appropriate legal advice on what it intended to publish. Please treat yourself as similarly on notice.”

2. Appointment of Acting Deputy Vice Chancellor Jito Vanualailai

Professor Vanualailai was appointed to the position of acting Deputy Vice Chancellor in early 2020 following the retirement of Professor Richard Coll.

The Vice Chancellor does have the authority to appoint an acting Deputy Vice Chancellor but Professor Ahluwalia took no steps to replace the substantive appointment.

It is alleged that Professor Ahluwalia established a committee to assist him with the selection for the acting role. The names of those involved have never been publicly made known.

Along with Professor Vanualailai there were three other candidates for the position.

  • One of these held the position of Pro Vice Chancellor Flexible Learning and had extensive experience in this field both in Fiji and Australia as well as being internationally recognised in the field through Executive membership of international bodies including the Commonwealth of Learning. This candidate had extensive research and publications in the field of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education.
  • A second candidate was a current head of school, and
  • A third was a Professor of Management.

We asked USP and Professor Vanualailai whether it was true that his previous management experience comprised a period as head of the School of Mathematics and IT and a number of years as the Director of Research reporting to the DVC Research.

He has had no senior leadership in the field of Education (such as a Dean might have). Nor had he any specialist qualifications as an educator.

Following his one-year appointment, the appointment was subsequently extended for a further 12 months without external advertisement.

Neither Professor Vanualailai nor USP have responded to questions.

3. Appointment of Giulio Paunga as Deputy Vice Chancellor

This position was changed from Vice President to Deputy Vice Chancellor by Professor Ahluwalia.

However, Fiji Sun has been informed that no contractual amendment was made and no application made to change his work permit. His most recent work permit still states that Mr Paunga’s position is that of Vice President.

These two roles are very different. A DVC role involves academic leadership whilst a Vice President role concerns Administrative leadership.

Any change requires Council approval which has not been secured.

Mr Paunga and the USP communications team were asked to respond to this. They chose not to before this edition went to press.

4. Appointment of Executive Director HR – Hilary Faulds

While the position of Executive Director HR was internationally advertised, Ms Faulds’ highest certification was a TAFE Cert IV.

She had very limited experience in a Human Resources role. She had formerly been Professor Ahluwalia’s Faculty Manager at the University of South Australia.

While Professor Ahluwalia declared this at the interview, he did not recuse himself from the appointment decision.

Concerns were raised at the meeting of the appointments panel and her appointment was not universally endorsed by the committee.

She subsequently left from the university and the country without giving any notice of her intention to resign.

No response came from USP on this issue.

Hilary Faulds and Hilary Faulds.

Hilary Faulds and Hilary Faulds.

5. Appointment of Director of Research, Sushil Kumar

Professor Kumar is a non-Fiji citizen, resident in Fiji on a work permit. He was appointed to a position of Professor of Physics. In December 2020 the full-time position of Director of Research was advertised internally in USP, available to Professors only.

Professor Kumar was appointed to a three-year term without external (Fiji /Pacific wide) or international advertisement.

This constitutes a breach of USP policies and may also be a breach of the conditions of his current work permit. He did not respond to questions on this before this edition went to press.

6. Appointment of Poonam Singh who is the spouse of Sushil Kumar to the position of Lecturer in the School of Education.

This job was not advertised and this appointment did not comply with university policies and processes.

No response came from USP or Ms Singh on whether this role was advertised or not.

Sushil Kumar

Sushil Kumar

7. Appointment of USP Heads of Schools

Under the restructure of the university approved by the University Council, six head of school positions were advertised internally, only available to Professors.

These are identified as Senior Management positions (they are members of the senior management team) equivalent to Dean positions.

There is evidence in some cases that suggest the strongest candidates were passed over in favour of those who openly supported Professor Ahluwalia.

Four positions have been filled and two remain unfilled with acting appointments made.

Of the four, three are non-Fiji citizens who have been installed without review of or amendment to their existing work permits.

One consequence of these appointments is that of the 11 members of the university senior management team only three, including the Vice Chancellor, have been appointed through an external appointments process – the Vice President Regional Campuses and the Executive Director Finance being the other two).

8. Re-employment and Contractual payments to Morgan Tuimaleali’ifano

One of the most serious matters has been the allegations against Mr Tuimaleali’ifano.

Mr Tuimaleali’ifano is considered one of Professor Ahluwalia’s strongest supporters. In January 2020 the university’s post-retirement committee, chaired by the Professor Ahluwalia, recommended a new contract for Mr Tuimaleali’ifano.

The committee was not properly constituted as per the regulations and did not have the support of the applicant’s head of school (a requirement of the policy). The head of school was bypassed and was subsequently dismissed from his role by the then Vice Chancellor.

A whistle-blower complaint against the renewal decision made by the then Vice Chancellor Professor Ahluwalia was investigated by Ernst & Young and the complaint was upheld.

The offer of continuing employment to Mr Tuimaleali’ifano was therefore rescinded.

On March 26, 2020, a causal teaching contract was issued to Mr Tuimaleali’ifano by the Vice President Regional Campuses signing the contract on behalf of the then Vice Chancellor.

It is alleged that this contract and payments were backdated to February 3, 2020, which was the start of semester, even though another member of staff had allegedly taught the students for the first half of the semester.

The course was an entirely online course, but it is alleged there is no record of Mr Tuimaleali’ifano accessing the Moodle platform (the only way that teaching could occur) between February 3, and March 24.

9. Irregularities in respect contract renewal of Dulari Doras Traill

The renewal of the employment contract of Ms Traill as Director of Audit and Compliance was pushed through the Staff Review Committee by Professor Ahluwalia.

The Vice Chancellor formally acknowledged a conflict of interest but did not recuse himself from the discussion or decision-making.

The Staff Review Committee in the absence of key documents, including a report from the chair of the Council Audit and Risk Committee, did not support the renewal.

The Vice Chancellor then withdrew the application and said that he would refer it to the commission, even though the commission had no authority or role in relation to such matters.

A whistleblower complaint was made against the Vice Chancellor and an independent investigation by Ernst & Young upheld the complaint. Nonetheless, Professor Ahluwalia subsequently issued a 12-month renewal of contract to Ms Traill without referring the matter back to the Staff Review Committee, and without distributing the report of the chair of the Audit and Risk Committee that had been requested by the Staff Review Committee.

It is alleged that in December 2020 the then Vice-Chancellor supported an application for a three-year contract renewal for Ms Traill and in a personal letter of support he recommended the award of bonuses and increments, even though he had previously informed all staff that no bonuses or increments would be paid due to financial constraints.

No response came from Ms Traill or the USP on questions sent.

10. Appointment of Akanisi Kedrayate as local Director Confucius Centre

The position not advertised – internally or externally.

USP and Ms Kedrayate did not respond to questions sent.

11. Promotion to Professor Gurmeet Singh

It is alleged that Professor Singh was promoted to Professor within one month of Professor Ahluwalia’s appointment. Apart from the haste with which this personal promotion was made, the composition of the committee allegedly did not conform to USP policy and therefore adequate consideration was not given to all aspects of the applicant’s performance, especially in research.

No comments came from Prof Singh or the USP.

Gurmeet Singh

Gurmeet Singh

12. Rosiana Lagi promoted to Senior Lecturer in 2021 allegedly without going through the promotions procedures set out in University policies

Rosiana Lagi was initially employed by the university as an Assistant Lecturer and then Lecturer in the School of Education. She subsequently applied for and was given a new position as Campus Director Tuvalu.

This appointment was a non-academic appointment.

In December 2020 she indicated that she was resigning from the university. However, Professor Ahluwalia then appointed her to the position of Deputy Head of the new School of Pacific Arts, Communication and Education, a position she had allegedly not applied for.

On accepting this position, she was promoted to Senior Lecturer but this appointment did not comply with the policy on promotions or appointments.

13. Continuing payments to Pal Ahluwalia for “consultancy services” subsequent to the termination of his contract

Yesterday Professor Ahluwalia was made his full salary in his Westpac bank account. Money is believed to have been cleared. This is despite not holding a valid contract or work permit.

14. Payments to Arvind Patel

The BDO report identified Professor Arvind Patel as receiving a payment in excess of $200,000 signed off by Professor Ahluwalia in June 2019.

This alleged payment was separate from the $1.4m backdated consultancy payments identified in the report.

Alleged irregularities in respect of Arvind Patel had not been identified in Professor Ahluwalia’s initial “dossier” to Council which led to the BDO investigation.

However, the BDO team identified concerns about this particular payment to Mr Patel by Professor Ahluwalia and concluded that no one could explain to them what this payment had been made for.

Arvind Patel

Arvind Patel

15. Dismissal of Hasmukh Lal

A section head was summarily dismissed by Professor Ahluwalia in 2020.

Fiji Sun obtained information from USP staff and those who know the process and also sighted Professor Randy Thaman’s letter to the council. Former VC dismissed CEO of Pacific TAFE, Hasmukh Lal on the allegation of use of USP document and later plagiarism.

According to Professor Thaman such allegation needs a proper Research Committee to investigate. Such committee will use expert judgement to detect intellectual property and advise HR and VC for necessary actions.

This process was avoided. Fiji Sun obtained a letter in 2020 which was covered by other media that was written by Mr Lal to council to do independent investigation using proper process and he will pull the case out of Court and accept final decision. We ascertain this was not done and case is proceeding.

In that letter, Mr Lal stated that he denied the allegation and was not given a chance to prove himself (no natural justice).

This is breach of employment contract. Professor Ahluwalia had a deep conflict of interest with Mr Lal on various matters.

Professor Ahluwalia did not complain to the awarding institution which was the rightful authority to investigate.

Fiji Sun also found through social media that privileged documents with official records were leaked to humiliate and vilify Mr Lal.

16. Director Communications and Marketing:

It is alleged that this position was tailor-made for a person who is currently holding a similar position in another tertiary learning institution.

One part of the minimum qualification requirement for the post was allegedly lifted from the LinkedIn profile of this lady who may be the only person in Fiji affiliated to a certain international organisation, a requirement which found its way into the MQR.

USP:

A release from USP earlier stated: “USP will not engage publicly on its recruitment processes or recruitment policies in respect to individual contracts. Staff contracts are matters between an employer and employee and not for public scrutiny.

“All recruitments at USP are on merit in compliance and consistent with policies and procedures.”

However, no response was made after Fiji Sun presented new allegations to them.

Feedback: shalveen.chand@fijisun.com.fj



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