SPEECH FOR THE GRADUATION CEREMONY AT LAUCALA CAMPUS, THE UNIVERSITY OF THE SOUTH PACIFIC, 12 SEPTEMBER 2008
Professor Rajesh Chandra
1. Greetings and Welcome
The President of the Republic of the Marshall Islands and Chancellor of the University of the South Pacific, His Excellency Mr. Litokwa Tomeing and First Lady Mrs. Arlin Tomeing; President of the Republic of Kiribati, His Excellency Mr. Anote Tong and First Lady Mrs. Bernadette Tong; the Pro Chancellor, and Minister for Women, Community and Social Development, Government of Samoa, Hon. Fiame Mata’afa; the Minister for Education, National Heritage, Culture and Arts, Youth and Sports, Labour, Industrial Relations and Employment, Local Government, Urban Development and Housing, Fiji, Hon Mr. Filipe Bole; Ministers of the Government of Fiji; Your Excellencies and Members of the Diplomatic Corps; Heads of International and Regional Organizations; the Deputy Chair of USP Council, Mr. Ikbal Jannif; Permanent Secretaries and Senior Government Officials; Members of Council and Senate; invited guests; USP alumni (and here I wish to acknowledge the presence of Mr. Kafoa Pene, one of the graduates of 1971, our first graduation); staff, students, graduands; parents and spouses, ladies and gentlemen.The graduation ceremony of any university is the highlight of its academic calendar. I wish to thank all of you for gracing this occasion and making it all the more meaningful for our graduands. I am delighted to be speaking to all of you today as USP’s seventh Vice-Chancellor, and to say how pleased I am to be back at an institution to which I have given three decades of service.
2. Installation of the 15th Chancellor
Ministers, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, we have just witnessed a special and dignified installation of the 15th Chancellor of the University. The Chancellor is titular head of the University, who confers the qualifications of the University. We are privileged to have the President of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, His Excellency Mr. Litokwa Tomeing as our Chancellor. Mr. Chancellor, we welcome you warmly to the USP family, and we look forward to working with you to advance the work of the University. Your appointment and installation today amply demonstrates the true regional nature of this university and the importance the University places on all its Member Countries.
3. Graduation and Congratulations
We have 767 students graduating today. In April this year, we passed out another 1,100 graduates. We will also have graduations in December in Samoa and Vanuatu. Altogether, we will have graduated more than 2,000 students this year. We graduated only 33 students at our first graduation in 1971. This shows just how far the University has come from its humble beginnings in 1968. It should be a matter of pride for Pacific governments and people to have an institution that has developed so well since its establishment, especially as an institution that has been funded largely by member governments themselves.I would like to congratulate all those students graduating today. You have worked hard, and your parents, families, governments and sponsors have sacrificed much to get you here. You carry the flag of a unique university. We wish you the best for the future. Make the University proud through your contributions, especially by being hard working, innovative, committed, and ethical in your future work and leadership. I invite you to take a continuing interest in your university as we all join hands to contribute to the development of our countries.
4. Financial Difficulties of the University
There has been much media coverage of financial difficulties of the university. I believe that an open and honest assessment of the situation is the most helpful way forward. This is exactly what we have done. In discussions with both staff and the media, we have admitted to our difficulties. The University had a deficit of $4 million in 2006, $2.1 million in 2007 and is projecting a deficit of $0.6 million on its recurrent account in 2008. These deficits have consumed most of the reserves of the University and have left it very vulnerable to shocks and uncertainties.
These difficulties have arisen from a combination of factors that include the granting of salary increases to academic and comparable staff without these being covered by government grants; the establishment of new positions without these being provided for; granting of benefits such as inducement liberally without being provided for in budgets; lack of tight control on expenditure; falling enrolments resulting in loss of fee income; and the lack of increases in government grants for 2008 and 2009.
The Regional Ministers of Finance, when they met on 25th June this year, made it clear that the University needed to control its expenditure and to take decisive action to ensure its financial viability. While the observations of the Ministers were stern, we are grateful that they have agreed to the levels of funding for this and next year, giving the University much needed certainty for 2009.
The University has been making a concerted effort to curtail expenditure. Through these efforts, some involving difficult decisions, we expect the level of deficit for 2008 to be much less than planned.
5. Future Plans
Most importantly, we will produce a balanced budget for 2009 as required by the Finance and Investments Committee. This will entail a large number of changes at the University, such as the reduction of a number of courses and programmes that have very small enrolments; the reduction of the number of faculties from four to three; introduction of a formal workload policy for academic staff; reductions in expenditure in a number of areas, including travel, utilities, and internet charges—and a general tightening of control on expenditure throughout the University to lessen the burden on governments.
In seeking to balance the budget, the University will also examine ways of increasing its non-Government income from its trading accounts, better marketing of its facilities, and from increased professional development courses on a fully funded basis.
The University is also re-orienting itself towards an output based budgeting and reporting. Performance and productivity become prime reporting parameters for the University. These changes are not comfortable, and they will generate tensions and difficulties. These are natural in times of rapid change and indicate that difficult decisions are being taken. I should emphasize that these changes are essential for us to balance our budget and to reduce the burden on governments which themselves are facing difficulties, and to ensure financial viability of the University. These changes are also needed to build greater confidence in the university as a more cost-effective and responsive university, which will become more attractive for both governments and donors to fund in the future. I seek the understanding and co-operation of all the stakeholders as we reposition the University for a better future.
In this regard, let me say that the behaviour of the Intermediate and Junior Staff Union recently has been both unfair and unhelpful. The Union went on an unauthorised walkout recently, and yesterday went on strike despite the dispute being under process by the Ministry of Labour. The Ministry declared the strike illegal at 1.30 pm yesterday. We are working closely with the Ministry to ensure that the Union works within the provisions of the Employment Relations promulgation. I urge the Union to take a more constructive approach to the changes that are being brought about for the good of the whole university, and to act within the law and the provisions of the ER Promulgation.
The most important message I wish to convey today is that the University is dealing with its financial difficulties decisively and that most of these difficulties would be over by 2010. The fundamentals of the University are very strong—it has insured assets of $320 million and it does not have any long term debts. We will be working fully all of the University’s assets to create a more sustainable future. And we are confident that we can deal with our problems and that out of our difficulties, the University would emerge as a stronger institution well placed to face the future.
6. Fortieth Anniversary
As you all know, this is the 40th anniversary of the USP. In the last 40 years, the University has made an invaluable contribution to the development of all its member countries. Its alumni are now occupying the highest levels of Government, civil society, the private sector and academia. The University has been a world leader in the application of technology in distance and flexible learning and teaching. It is widely respected for its research on the Pacific islands and it is well placed to make a significant contribution to the development of the Pacific Plan. There is much that the Member Countries and people of the Pacific Islands can be proud of in their regional University’s 40th years of consistent development and service and its commitment to inclusiveness and quality education.
We wish to build on these successes to re-shape it for even greater contributions in the next 40 years. We will ensure that the University works closely with governments and other stakeholders through active feedback and advisory mechanisms. We will ensure that it listens more to member governments and works closely with their plans for higher education and with national institutions of higher learning. We will also become more involved with the public policies of member countries, providing them with high quality technical advice and services. The University will also provide more focussed and development related research in the future, again working with national systems of research. The success of the USP will be in the success of member countries in the achievement of their development objectives, and in raising the participation levels of member countries for higher education.
I would like to thank the member countries for their confidence in the University through their contributions, despite their difficult economic situations. This sense of ownership of and pride in their own university among member countries has been invaluable, and I wish to thank them for their contributions. I would like to especially thank the Government of the Republic of the Fiji Islands for its contributions which, despite the many challenging periods it has faced in the recent past, has remained strong and steadfast in its support of the University. Without this strong support from member countries, the University could not have come this far and without this strong support; it will not be able to go far into the future. This is why it is so vital for the University to continue to demonstrate its value to member countries—and for members of staff to work with management as we change to achieve this.
The success of the University has been the result of committed and competent members of staff, and I would like to thank them.
I would also like to thank our donors, especially Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the European Union for their continuing and significant contributions to the University’s development, and hope that our partnerships will intensify as the University increases its engagement with the development of Pacific islands countries.
8. Concluding statements
Mr. Chancellor, Pro Chancellor, Ministers, graduates, ladies and gentlemen. Mr. Chancellor, I congratulate you on becoming our 15th Chancellor. I also congratulate all the graduates today and wish them well. The future is what we make of it; much is expected of you; make us proud by your contributions.