U.S.P. Vice Chancellor to retire

His humble beginnings growing up in a cane farm in the western part of Fiji was the trial that motivated outgoing vice chancellor of the University of the South Pacific, Professor Rajesh Chand to strive for excellence. 

Entering the gates of the university as a student to study geography, history, education and English in 1971, Prof. Rajesh never dreamt of becoming an academic, let alone being tasked with overlooking what many consider the region’s most successful organisation. 

Thirty-nine years since he first took on the role of pro-chancellor at the age of 37, Prof. Chandra announced his retirement during the Alafua campus graduation last week. 

“The initial trial was to really do well and get out of the farm, my parents used to say if you don’t study then you will be like your elder brothers, you don’t want to be harvesting or growing cane,” he said to the Samoa Observer.

“I got a job as a research assistant at the university and I did my Masters. And then I became a preliminary lecturer, and then I wanted to do my PhD and I just became interested in being a professor. Being a vice chancellor was not part of the equation, I just wanted to be the top of what my field was, which was academia.

“And then Jeffery, the vice chancellor at the time, supported me to become the head of school very early in my career, I was only 34 at the time, and then he appointed me as pro vice chancellor at 37, and once I became that I started being interested in the regional education. When the university advertised for a deputy vice chancellor, fortunately I was the only applicant so I became the deputy vice chancellor.”

Prof. Chandra did his Masters at the university, part of it at the University of New England and his PhD at the University of British Columbia. 

“I am committed to education, because it is absolutely the foundation stone. Nothing good in a country can happen unless you have very educated people, and as the world becomes more competitive and open, the way to survive is your creativity, innovation, clarity of mind, problem solving, for that you need good education, not just a bachelor degree,” Prof. Chandra said. 

During his time at the helm, the university has gone from financial deficits to operating surpluses, zero accreditation before 2010 to more than 20 to date, improving enrolment and reputation. 

“When I took the position as vice chancellor in 2008, the university was having a very major problem with financial deficits, and the Governments of the member countries and development partners were quite unnerved because you are not supposed to have deficit,” Prof. Chandra said. 

“The second issue was the reputation of the university had been badly affected by many scandals that were coming out in the media. 

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“Aligned with that was with the feeling of the establishment of the national universities, USP’s future was in some doubt. So in a way these were the difficult times because the university people had lost some confidence in their own institution and development partners were threatening to cut their aid to USP unless the university made major changes and got rid of the deficit.

“So I think to that extent, the first achievement was that by the end of 2008, we had produced a small surplus, and everybody expected a deficit, the university budget projected a deficit and in fact on that basis, I had asked the staff for a 5 percent salary cut. So that’s how serious it was.”

Prof. Chandra said he put all sorts of breaks on expenditures and by 2009 the university had a surplus of about $16 million. 

“The enrolment was declining from 2006-2009 throughout the region, so in 2010 we reversed that. I made the decision that the way to protect the university both in terms of future strengths and competing with everybody was to have a major focus on international accreditation, making it quality. 

“If we look at the achievements, we have gone from deficits to operating surpluses in every year and over the last 10 years about $80 million in operating surplus. Our aid began to increase, more than doubled we had in 2008, and in the last 10 years we have got over $500 million dollars in aid. 

“We improved the enrolment from about 18,000 in 2008 when I took over to now around 32,000. We also decided that the university needed to increase its reputation through publication, and that these publications needed to be ranked according to international criteria. 

“In the last five years, we have published over 1,000 ranked publications. So we build the reputation around academic quality, research and publication, innovation.” 

Because of the worry of financial mismanagement, the university has continued to strengthen its governance and risk management. 

“We knew that in order for the university to be valuable to the region, we started on a very major programme of improving the regional campuses. So in the last 10 years, we have a new campus in Nauru, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, we are building a new campus in the Solomon Islands,” he said. 

“All the other campuses they are getting a lot of capital expenditure money to renovate, and we’ve invested a huge amount of money in technology. We have introduced lecture capture systems, which means lectures in our major campuses, Laucala, Alafua and Emalus they have to be recorded and we are recording them. And within 48 hours they go on Moodle and students can have a look at it. 

“Just over one third of our programmes are online, and we want to go to 100 percent in the next two-three years. Every programme at the university needs to be flexible, that means they are on Moodle. And we are building quite a strong combination of what we called blended learning. We have started the cohort based in country entire degree programme.”

Professor Pal Ahluwalia, originally from Kenya and now an Australian citizen, will take on the role of vice chancellor. 

“I will have lots of rest, no formal employment. I will be involved in the Pacific from time to time,” Prof. Chandra said. 

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