| Edited extract
VERONA - The executive committee of the University of the South Pacific council has decided to suspend the vice-chancellor for alleged 'misconduct and breach of rules and procedures'.
This action came after reports emerged about gross mismanagement and breaches of the rules of the university under the former administration and despite all evidence pointing in the opposite direction.
The current vice-chancellor, Professor Pal Ahluwalia, is a reputable academic with an impressive track record as a scholar, as well as an executive experience as deputy vice-chancellor at one of the better universities in the United Kingdom.
During his long and distinguished career, he developed specific technical expertise in innovation and research policies which are highly needed in the Pacific region.
Although there are many different governance systems for universities, it is generally agreed that academic freedom and a degree of autonomy, like a free and independent press, are essential for a democracy function properly.
There are two channels in which dirty politics, special or personal interests can seep into the texture of universities: one is by political parties using student politics; the other through university councils. Often we see a bit of both.
University autonomy is not absolute and has several dimensions, which is why the European University Association, for example, publishes an annual scoreboard on university autonomy.
Organisations like Scholars at Risk monitor threats to individual scholars and academic freedom. In case of serious incidents various human rights reporting mechanisms are used.
The price of liberty is eternal vigilance, as Thomas Jefferson allegedly said.
In the Pacific, the university system is usually based on the Australian system which favours strong university autonomy and independence. This regularly clashes with tendencies of Pacific governments who see university as government departments and want control over appointments and budgets.
Since universities are statutory organisations established by an act of parliament, governments shirk away from abolishing university autonomy de jure, rather than use a number of de facto mechanisms.
As professional international university executives, we add value by bringing our experience from world-class universities in how to get things done, how to access external funding and generate internal funding, and through our professional networks.
This type of know-how and experience is usually hardly available locally.
As vice-chancellor of the PNG University of Technology, for example, when I enjoyed the council's support from 2014 to early 2017, I was able to take big strides forward in establishing good governance, effective and efficient management, while at the same time creating productive partnerships with industry, mobilising international support and pushing the digitisation, accreditation and academic quality agendas.
However when foreign university executives are continually exposed to unwarranted attacks, often fuelled by a deadly mixture of envy, xenophobia, or fear to lose face, we cannot do our jobs. The education of the next generation of Pacific leaders suffers as a result.
University autonomy in PNG ended during the Peter O'Neill years with the Higher Education Act of 2014 which had as its only purpose the government to gain control over universities.
Article 109 stipulated the direct appointment of the chancellor and vice-chancellor to be made by the government of PNG.
Before this Act was gazetted I warned the then minister of higher education, asking him to scrap article 109 to no avail.
As co-chair of the PNG committee of vice-chancellors and university presidents, I was seriously concerned about this type of backsliding. From 2012 to 2018 there were no less than seven ministers of higher education, which also did not help to create good governance.
In 2016, the students of the University of Papua New Guinea in the capital Port Moresby, and the students of the University of Technology in Lae demanded O'Neill submit himself to questioning after credible and serious allegations of corruption.
O'Neill flatly refused and later allowed police to shoot hundreds of rounds at peacefully protesting students. An investigation was promised but never occurred.
At the University of Technology, the students' response was immediate but quick thinking by metropolitan police superintendent Anthony Wagambie and the university’s own mediation were able to contain the situation on campus.
There was more drama, much more, to some in PNG, but let me turn to the crisis at the University of the South Pacific, where, as co-chair of the Pacific Islands University Network, I visited regularly.
When he took over last year, vice-chancellor Prof Pal Ahluwalia asked the council to consulted him over senior appointments so as to be able to appoint his own independent executive team.
He was denied this common courtesy and subsequently reported to council about lack of accountability and various breaches of university rules involving the appointments of university administrators.
This seems to have set off the current crisis with the executive committee of Council suspending him for supposed misconduct without any primary evidence.
Rather all evidence points to mismanagement by members of the previous administration and current council.
In his report to the executive committee Prof Ahluwalia has written:
"It is incumbent upon USP to be critically aware of its fiduciary and legal duties and responsibilities, especially in regards to donors and authorities that demand transparent and accountable management in the disbursement of public funds. It is … recommended that EC take corrective actions with the highest priority accorded to these matters."
He then described a long list of irregular appointments, which in some cases led to excessive expenses and in all cases constrained his ability to lead the university effectively.
Fortunately, support for ‘VC Pal’ is strong and solid and we hope that this becomes clear to the council members and that they lift his suspension at the next council meeting.
The episode however in a regional perspective leaves a bad taste of corruption and xenophobia. The threat is that national dirty politics capture a regional university, which then goes down in political infighting.
In PNG meanwhile, since 2018, both the University of PNG and the University of Technology have plunged into an ever-deepening crisis. Student Representative Councils were rendered powerless or suspended and the student voices have been effectively silenced.
Both universities are unable to retain honest and professional staff, with Papua New Guineans being the first to leave, followed by expatriate faculty members with other career options. Others are desperate to leave, but often unsuccessful.
PNG universities may have a second chance if the council members appointed by Peter O'Neill lose their seats. It is imperative the students' voice and university autonomy be restored by revoking article 109 of the 2014 Higher Education Act, the only purpose of which was to establish strong political control.
The University of South Pacific can emerge stronger from the present crisis if it is short and the commission doing an independent investigation is independent and given a broad mandate.
Prof Pal Ahluwalia has indicated he will cooperate fully with the investigation, which is the right thing to do. He has no other option.
It is important, however, that the main stakeholders, and in particular Australian government, make their support for good governance and the vice-chancellor heard before this institution too succumbs to political infighting as has happened in PNG.