US exchange for University of the South Pacific

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News from timeshighereducation

In a rare piece of good financial news for the world’s most pan-national university, the US government has vowed to bankroll a multimillion-dollar exchange scheme.

The Biden administration has committed $5 million (£4.4 million) to establish a fellowship programme involving the University of the South Pacific (USP), as one of about 50 actions flagged in the first US Pacific Partnership Strategy.

The allocation, which requires congressional approval, would finance educational exchanges with leading US institutions including the University of Hawaii and University of California, Santa Barbara. The aim is to boost Pacific leaders’ expertise in natural resource management, climate resilience, sustainable food systems, renewable energy development, water security and waste management.

The strategy also includes a commitment to establish Pacific studies programmes at home, as the US ramps up engagement with Pacific nations as a counterpoint to geopolitical competition from China.

The commitment comes at a pivotal time for USP, which has suffered years of defunding from its biggest member country and financial backer.

In early 2019, when Fiji’s economy contracted after years of solid growth, its government reneged on part of the F$33 million (£12.6 million) it had pledged to USP that financial year. Suva reduced USP’s budget by a further F$4 million in a March 2020 mini-budget triggered by the coronavirus crisis.

The university’s financial problems escalated from August that year, with Suva withholding all payments to USP over a dispute with vice-chancellor Pal Ahluwalia, who is now based in Samoa following his deportation from Fiji.

Unions say Fiji’s government has withheld more than F$78 million from an institution whose annual revenue rarely exceeds F$200 million. Noting its financial problems, the university’s 2022 annual plan outlined plans to “approach its major donors for additional contributions for the new triennium”.

“New development assistance partners will be pursued for special projects such as regional support, deferred maintenance and capital projects,” the document added.

To date, Australia and New Zealand have been USP’s primary development assistance partners, with smaller contributions from the European Union and Japan. But Tess Newton Cain, head of the Pacific Hub at Griffith University’s Asia Institute, said the US was an obvious contender.

“That would be a good way for them to demonstrate their faith in the future of the region and [its] leadership,” said Dr Newton Cain, a former USP law lecturer. “The US is looking for different opportunities to re-engage in the Pacific. They say that they want to support Pacific regionalism.”

Professor Ahluwalia said he was “delighted” with the US contribution to date. “Climate change and sustainable development continue to be major issues for the Pacific,” he said.

“We hope that by integrating our unique disciplinary strengths, we will be able to adequately support the needs of our region while also building the capacity of our rising Pacific leaders”.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com



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