25 Sep 2020

Fiji Opposition slams govt's suspension of funding to USP

6:19 am on 25 September 2020

Fiji's opposition National Federation Party has condemned the government's decision to suspend its funding grants to the University of the South Pacific.

Pio Tikoduadua

Pio Tikoduadua Photo: Fiji Government

On Thursday, the government said it was concerned at the "lack of adherence to the principles of good governance" at the regional institution.

NFP President Pio Tikoduadua said the USP was a legal entity, governed by a number of Pacific Island countries including Fiji.

Tikoduadua said the government was legally obliged to fund the university.

He said Fijian taxpayers' money earmarked for the regional institution should not be withheld by the government.

It's the latest twist in months of conflict between the governing council and the university management.

Attorney-General Aiyaz Saiyed-Khaiyum said the government was "particularly and deeply concerned about the lack of investigations into serious allegations identified by the USP Executive Committee" led by Pro Chancellor Winston Thompson.

Thompson and chair of the Audit and Risk Committee Mahmood Khan - both from Fiji - were expected to front a special council meeting called by Chancellor and Nauru President Lionel Aingimea.

The Nauru leader accused both men of undermining the USP Council and its authority after they held a press conference on 11 September.

Thompson told media the USP had lost "significant revenue under the leadership of Vice Chancellor Professor Pal Ahluwalia".

He also claimed Ahluwalia was trying to restructure the institution without following the proper channels.

Professor Pal Ahluwalia.

Professor Pal Ahluwalia. Photo: supplied

In June, Ahluwalia was suspended by the USP's executive committee, led by Thompson, over alleged malpractice, in a decision that was widely derided as politically motivated.

He was reinstated after weeks of protests by students and staff, when the university council - which includes most of the region's governments - ruled due process had not been followed.

But Sayed-Khaiyum said the USP Council had ignored the recommendations of the executive committee.

He claimed that at least 14 of the 33 allegations against Ahluwalia required an independent investigation.

However, the NFP said the USP's financial accounts had been audited by credible accounting firms registered to practice in Fiji.

It said the university's audited accounts for 2019 were unqualified and there was no basis for the government to withhold any funds.

Pio Tikoduadua said if the government is not happy with the way its grants are being used at the USP, there are provisions in the Finance Management Act under which it can audit the funds it has contributed.

Tikoduadua said without this, ceasing any grant is "bordering on the illegal and absolute bad faith".

The regional institution had been mired in allegations of corrupt practices, which were the subject of a report by New Zealand-based accounting firm BDO.

Tikoduadua said the BDO had confirmed confirmed massive instances of abuse of funds, which were uncovered by Ahluwalia.

He also called for the BDO Report to be made public as public funds were being used at the USP, and that the public had a right to know what were the BDO's findings.

Almost $US13 million had been allocated to the USP in Fiji's 2020/2021 National Budget announced in July.

USP's Suva campus

USP's Suva campus Photo: wikicommons