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Need for U.S.P. questioned

An academic has questioned whether there is still a need for a Pacific Islands university in the latest edition of the Journal of Samoan Studies. 

The research follows a particularly turbulent time for U.S.P. which has been beset by allegations of millions of dollars in improper salary payments and expenses, and disturbing claims of a “sex-for-grades” scheme that was covered up. 

Earlier this year the university council decided to bring to a close a long-running internal feud at the highest levels of the university by stopping an initiative to investigate the U.S.P.'s Vice-Chancellor Professor Ahluwalia, which was initiated by Pro-Chancellor Winston Thompson.

The article, written by Eric Clem Groves of the National University of Samoa (N.U.S), canvasses the history of the emergence of the University of the South Pacific (U.S.P), due to small Pacific Island states being trained overseas or simply unable to afford to offer tertiary studies.

But Mr. Groves' article tackles the questions of the U.S.P.'s relevance from a broader historical perspective and in the sense of its member countries' financial developments. 

“For this reason U.S.P immediately established pre-degree bridging programmes to provide university entrance certificates leading to diploma and degree level programmes,” Mr. Groves writes.

But by the 1980s, U.S.P satisfied most of the higher educational needs of its member countries: “In some of the larger island states there was a growing need for local higher education, to train secondary school teachers, nurses, technicians, and administrator.

“The cost of exporting all this training was expensive and also posed a risk of brain drain with graduates in some fields such as medicine, often opting not to return home for work when overseas opportunities at higher salaries existed.

“There was also a need for more emphasis on national culture in teacher training, as exemplified in 1975 by the establishment of the Atenisi Institute in Tonga, a brave effort to establish a post-secondary college without support from the state or aid donors.

“The desire of individual Pacific Island states to establish their own national institutions of higher education were constrained by the on-going commitment of the former colonial powers and U.S.P donors to channel resources to one institution for the whole region or to fund a scholarship in the countries of the donors.

“This limited the government’s economic capacity to redirect the majority of aid-funded scholarship toward building and sustaining their own national higher education and postsecondary training institutions.”

According to the article, it was more cost-effective and convenient for donors to fund one institution for the region compared to funding separate national institutions.

The article also revealed that concerns began to be voiced about the disproportionate benefits U.S.P. offered to its headquarters in Fiji in the 1980s, which included numbers of enrolments and consumers, taxation, and employment opportunities.

U.S.P and its aid donors established "university extension centres" to spread the benefits across its member countries, “and later decentralised its Faculty of Law to Vanuatu, its Faculty of Agriculture to Samoa, and had established an Atoll Research Unit in Kiribati".

They were set up to deliver continuing education and programmes of study by correspondence which used a satellite to broadcast tutorials which would later become online learning modes when member countries were able to access the internet.

“The extension centres did not equally satisfy all the member countries higher educational needs as they did not offer the full facilities to study for a degree in-country,” the article said.

“This came at a cost for students or their governments outside Fiji because students enrolled by distance education are usually required to spend part of their learning time at the main Laucala Campus in Fiji for varying periods of time during their degree studies.”

According to the article, N.U.S was established on the 14th of February 1984 after the Government of Samoa had announced its intention the year earlier to establish its own institution of higher education.

Soon after, national institutions were established in the Solomon Islands and to islands outside of the U.S.P. region in French Polynesia, New Caledonia and Guam, which offered secondary teaching training, general, technical, and advanced study in various fields.

The U.S.P headquarters remains in a country that has had a series of military coups since 1987 and according to the article “considerable political instability between coups.”

“For many years now most of USPs staff at all levels have been Fijian nationals. In 2020 it is in turmoil over allegations of mismanagement, Fiji government interference, and, so far, the member states appear powerless to resolve the situation,” the article said.

“It may be a time to rethink the role of USP as a more specialised regional institution. Perhaps it might become a regional institution for post-graduate studies and research, allowing more aid-sponsored and government investment in the under-graduate programmes of national universities and Pacific inter-country student exchanges."

The article sound that partnerships were not as strong as they could have been if supported with development assistance funding from New Zealand and Australian universities to develop accredited professional programmes and build capacity in technical and vocational education: “There are countless opportunities that can be achieved at a larger scale if donor assistance can be disbursed throughout the regions national institutions. Maybe it is time for a change. Let us ask ourselves, do we still believe that the Pacific Islands need a regional university?”

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