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USP Academic Tells Of 'Crisis Of Conscience'

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USP Academic Tells Of 'Crisis Of Conscience'

Staff Reporter Pacific Journalism Online

SUVA: The University of the South Pacific has been praised for its role as a defender of good governance and human values in the face of mounting political crises and pressures such as the Solomon Islands ethnic upheaval and the coup in Fiji.

Speaking recently at the New Zealand Association of University Staff annual conference, USP economist and staff union leader Dr Biman Prasad said: "Apart from teaching and research, the university has in a way become the critical conscience of the region."

He said USP had become the centre of excellence in the region but faced growing pressures such as the Fiji political crisis, erosion of academic freedom, globalisation, management styles based on market forces such as in neighbouring Australia and New Zealand, and shrinking funds.

"As [a centre of excellence, USP] is expected to engage in debate and provide appropriate information, research and criticisms of government policies - and indeed act as an institution which promotes good governance and human values in society," Dr Prasad said.

Dr Prasad, president of the Association of USP Staff (AUSPS), said the 12-nation regional university had done well and was likely to remain the premier educational institution in the Pacific for some time to come.

His paper was published in the weekly NZ Educational Review under the title "Crisis of conscience".

He said the role played by academic staff at USP was critical in upholding the rule of law and promoting universal principles of democracy and human rights in the South Pacific.

"The most serious threats to security and progress are the internal conflicts in many of the South Pacific countries," he said.

"These conflicts arise largely out of the false belief in some quarters of the South Pacific - including Fiji - that democracy is a foreign concept or foreign flower.

"The guarantee of democratic principles based on respect for the rule of law and human rights is a fundamental requirement for progress and development, not only in Fiji but in all other countries in the region.

"Universities and their staff will play a critical role in this area."

But Dr Kumar said USP faced many pressures.

"These pressures are the result of increasing globalisation and a move towards managing the university based purely on market forces," he said.

"The models of management being applied to universities in Australia and New Zealand are rapidly permeating into USP and it may not be sustainable in the long run."

While the university is funded by the 12 member nations, the Fiji government foots the largest bill. Australia and New Zealand are major donors for the university.

Low salaries compared with Australia and New Zealand are a serious concern.

Dr Prasad also cited "political pressures which affect the university's teaching, research and indeed academic freedom".

Quoting Indian novelist Salman Rushdie as saying, "Writers and politicians are natural rivals", Dr Prasad said it was the duty of academics to deny the politicians' version of the truth.

"This is where academic freedom becomes a crucial issue. Unrepresentative politicians are especially sensitive to criticisms," he said.

"Academic freedom in fact is under attack from both official and unofficial quarters. Thugs can wear a variety of garbs - soldiers and police off or on duty, interim ministers, civil servants in positions of power, and plain and simple thugs used by those who have hidden agendas."

Since the May 19 coup, the university had suffered a traumatic affect, including disruption of classes, the loss of about 40 staff, and administrative actions "bordering on curbing academic freedom".

Among examples cited were the unilateral decision "in a panic" by the administration to close the journalism website Pacific Journalism Online on May 29.

"The journalism students had been provided with a fabulous opportunity to practise, in a real life situation, the skills they were learning about in theory. Their reporting on the crisis was appreciated around the world," Dr Prasad said.

"The administration's drastic move to shut the website down was rather regrettable from the point of view of both staff and students of journalism."

Dr Prasad said the AUSPS protested vigorously over the closure, and it resumed operating a month later.

"When one talks about USP, one has to consider that it serves 12 countries, and that is why it is more important for the university to take a proactive role in condemning all acts of violence and supporting the rule of law and good governance in all its member countries," he said.

Dr Prasad described USP as the only Pacific institution well-placed to provide leadership in developing the human resources needs of the region.

He appealed for continued support from Australia and New Zealand.


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