Education funding | Deregulation, some key developments at tertiary level – Part 8

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Some USP staff who weathered the storm. Picture: SUPPLIED

Last week, we discussed how provision of public services by private firms becomes complicated because of internal tensions between the profit motive and public service values.

The garbage collector engaged by Suva City Council was primarily concerned about easing its work while being totally impervious to the discomfort and hassle its experimental rules were creating for the citizenry.

Serco, the giant professional global firm managing a prisoner remand centre in New Zealand on the other hand, was ignoring key requirements of professional management as it engaged in cost cutting and using prisoners for profit via the fight game.

It was obvious that Serco was “cutting corners” to not only minimise its inputs into the proper management of Mount Eden Corrections Facility (MECF), but also to set up a lucrative fight business involving prisoners.

The focus was clearly on minimising costs (even if it meant using dishonest means) while looking for business opportunities to capitalise on (even if this was illegal). This is not an uncommon orientation within the framework of “business think”.

This is also why private provision of public services is such a complicated and tricky exercise.

It is the contract that operates as the instrumental of control in the provision of contracted public services and the expertise in drawing up contracts of this type is usually skewed in favour of the business entity involved.

We will look at controls later in this series.

Here, let us look at deregulation in the education sector and some key developments at the tertiary level in Fiji.

Provision of education amid deregulation

THE private provision of tertiary education was once a highly exclusive and expensive exercise that involved a small number of reputable providers. With reforms in the sector largely involving a removal of regulations to open up space for the entry of more providers, the number of private and public providers has proliferated worldwide. In Fiji, the University of Fiji (UniFiji) was established in December 2004 under academic leadership of the Fiji Institute of Applied Studies. Its financing came from the Arya Pratinidhi Sabha of Fiji, a Hindu religious organisation dedicated to education. I remember how the use of the word “Fiji” in its name was vehemently objected to at the time as being presumptuous and insensitive to traditional concerns. Then we had the Fiji Institute of Technology (FIT) acquire university status in 2010. Now it is a full-fledged university with a catchy name, Fiji National University (FNU). It also attracts considerable funding from the Fiji government. The Free Bird Institute entered the scene with private capital in 2014 to primarily teach the English language to Japanese students. It has now expanded its customer base and is listed on the South Pacific Stock Exchange just like any other publicly listed company. The latest addition to this sector is Pacific Polytech which was established in March 2021. It is largely involved in providing skills-based courses. Each of these institutions was registered and established through set government processes. Each has its own approved governance structure to ensure integrity in its decision-making processes. The long-established University of the South Pacific (USP), one of only two multilateral universities in the world, had been the premier incumbent in the sector since 1958; it now faced competition. This competition appeared on a number of fronts.

Competition for government funding

It is no secret that influential figures in government have their preferences when it comes to tertiary institutions of learning. This was seen in no uncertain terms

over a number of years in Fiji. Prior to late 2018, USP appeared to be on the correct side of the then FijiFirst Government. Funding flowed in, spending reflected this, and all was well.

It needs to be noted that USP is owned by 12 countries. Every one of these, funds the university with amounts that are linked to their involvement with the institution. Fiji has always provided more than 60 per cent of the funding.

The benefits that have flowed into the Fiji economy because USP is planted here, far outweighs Fiji’s outlays to the university. These benefits take a number of forms that we leave out for now.

In 2019, when Fiji’s first Indo- Fijian VC’s unprecedented term came to an end, a damning report detailing allegations of widespread financial mismanagement, abuse of entitlements, and millions of dollars improperly spent under previous administrations surfaced.

With its focus on questionable decision-making and unsustainable practices at the institution, this formal report appeared to have been surreptitiously leaked out into the public domain shortly after it was tabled.

Frantic finger-pointing followed amid political scrambling before a counter report appeared on the scene alleging that the new regime at USP had themselves indulged in questionable practices.

Few wanted to accept that the first report needed to be dealt with before focusing on the second one. Few wanted to acknowledge that the second report, even if had some substance to it, was aimed at rubbishing those who wanted the first one debated by the authorities.

Few wanted to accept that the first report had much more to it then the second one.

The whole saga then hit a protracted tug-of-war. The end result was that the new regime at USP found itself on the wrong side of a government that was used to having its way.

Unhappy elements in power began to plot and around midnight on February 3, 2021, 15 government officials swooped into USP Campus at Laucala and unceremoniously whisked VCP Pal Ahluwalia and his wife to Nadi International Airport for quick deportation.

The official reason given for this heavy-handed removal was that the couple had acted in a manner prejudicial to the peace, defence, public safety, public order, public morality, public health, security, or good governance of Fiji.

I pursued this in private with a senior member of that government and he told me that there were recordings of the VCP’s wife telling someone at a function that “nobody should vote for FijiFirst”.

Apparently, that personal opinion of the spouse of the VCP shared with one or two others at a function was seen as being prejudicial to Fiji’s wellbeing. It looked more like being prejudicial to the wellbeing of FijiFirst from this end.

Anyway, coming back to the issue of funding, the FijiFirst Government cut off funding to USP as soon as VCP Ahluwalia pushed back on their demands to prioritise scrutiny of the second report in 2019.

In 2020, the unions agreed to a number of cuts amid management initiatives to help tide USP through. Fate appeared to play a hand when student numbers rocketed in 2021 to offset punitive moves by the government.

In 2022, everyone knew the upcoming general election was critical for USP. In the meantime, the FijiFirst Government began pumping glorious amounts of funds into FNU in order to boost its competitive presence.

Unprecedented infrastructural developments dotted their Nasinu Campus. In the meantime, in an effort to choke USP even further, in addition to withholding government funding, scholarships were either reduced or removed from programs where USP had dominance. It was a “game to the death” until the providential lightning strike in the form of the now famous and mystical “glitch”.

Vote counting stopped, all eyes, international and local, suddenly moved to the counting process and the trajectory changed. With that, many fortunes also changed. Some for the better, some for the worse.

For USP, government funding that had been held back by a vindictive government began to flow in like a fresh spring over parched earth.

There were sighs of relief all around and life once again got back to business as usual. I will take us deeper into the education sector next week.

• DR SUBHASH APPANNA is a senior USP academic who has been writing regularly on issues of historical and national significance. The views expressed here are his alone and not necessarily shared by this newspaper or his employers subhash.appana@usp.ac.fj.

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