Supporters of the University of the South Pacific (USP) are optimistic that a change in the Fiji government will end the funding crisis that has plagued the regional institution for more than two years.
The three parties that agreed to form a coalition government have pledged tens of millions of dollars to the league that Fiji has withheld since the league’s leadership’s relationship with its largest member state collapsed in 2020.
Prime Minister-designate Sitiveni Rabuka has pledged to “settle” the underpayment of at least US$78m (£29m) “as soon as possible”. Candidate and former USP academic Peyman Prasad, who leads the National Union Party, also promised to get the money back.
The Liberal Social Democratic Party (Sudilba), whose decision to align with Rabuka’s People’s Alliance Party gave it the numbers needed to form a government, has accused the former First Fiji government of “bullying tactics” to withhold university scholarships.
Former University of the South Pacific Lecturer of Law Tess Newton-Cain, who heads the Pacific Center at Griffith University’s Asia Institute, chirp that pledges by the PAP and NFP to repay USP grants had helped persuade Sodelpa to join their alliance.
Political sociologist Stephen Ratova, a USP graduate student who directs the Center for Pacific Studies at the University of Canterbury, said he expects the three parties to make good on USP funding promises.
“Not only is it a way to contribute to the region, but it will also support the Fijian students who make up the majority at the university,” said Professor Ratova. “It will go a long way in ensuring that USP is able to carry out its research and teaching responsibilities in the 12 countries in the region that it has.”
New Zealand Foreign Minister Nanaya Mahuta Congratulation The three parties to form a ruling coalition. But their rise remains uncertain, with a planned parliamentary session – at which Mr Rabuka was expected to be formally voted – failing to go ahead on 21 December.
Sudelba’s general secretary, Linitasi Doro, also resigned over the decision to join the coalition, which reportedly had the support of only 16 of the party’s 30-member board. Fijian politics is notoriously volatile, with Mr. Rabuka being promoted – if it continues – and replacing one former coup leader with another.
USP Vice-Chancellor Pal Ahluwalia, who leads the university from Samoa after being expelled by Fiji earlier this year, said the institution’s treatment was a “contributing factor” to the election’s outcome.
“The three opposition parties are committed to… releasing USP funds. We will work with anyone in government to see that we get the ground running so that we can continue to improve the university. There is a lot of work to be done, particularly in terms of deferred maintenance and capital expenditures , which – if all goes well – we should be able to start working on.
“It’s a historic day, no matter what. You can’t take the people’s will away.”
Professor Ahluwalia said that while the institution would “survive” in either case, the release of money owed would be particularly important for universities outside Fiji where the facilities were “in very poor condition”. He said the money would allow the foundation to “fix a lot of things and hire some very good staff”.
While the coalition government will also allow Professor Ahluwalia to return to Fiji, he said the University Council will decide whether to re-establish his headquarters there.