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Treasures of the Past – The Humble Beginnings of USP

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The University opened its doors for classes on 5 February 1968

In 1968, a regional university opened its doors to students from the Pacific Islands. The University of the South Pacific (USP), established in the Laucala Bay area of Suva, Fiji offered students the opportunity to pursue post-secondary education within the region.  This was a remarkable accomplishment during the last days of colonialism.

USP’s foundation was perceived as an important step towards the autonomy of the Pacific nations, and its growth in size and sophistication since has, in many ways, mirrored that of its Member Countries.  Certain factors gave rise to support for the development of the University which led to its establishment.

First, several Pacific countries were moving towards independence and they needed to train people to assume positions of responsibility; secondly, the mid-1960’s was a period of tertiary-level educational expansion, particularly in Australia and New Zealand; and, thirdly, the healthy economic climate through the early 1970’s made such expansion possible for Smaller Island States within those countries’ spheres of influence.

This article reviews the establishment of USP, highlighting the intentions of its founders and planners, and reminding readers of major milestones in its first years. After five decades, USP is a source of immense pride for the region, which has nurtured its development from simply being an autonomous university in the region to its current status as a world-class tertiary provider, research institution, and development organisation designed to meet the needs and address the priorities of its Member Countries in an affordable, future-oriented manner that values and celebrates Pacific history, cultures, and the natural environment. 

Planning for the University

The historical records reveal just how complex an operation it was to set up a university in the region. It was hard to establish a university, and even harder to establish it as a regional university owned by eleven (11) countries (the Marshall Islands Campus joined in the 1990s as the 12th member country). Many today assume that USP was the brainchild of colonial powers, who intended to create an institution that would provide higher education to colonies on the road to independence. The British Empire was quickly losing the financial resources required to support its vast colonial ventures.

However, records from the Legislative Debates of the Fiji Government in the early 1960s reveal that the idea of a university was, in fact, also nurtured by local citizens. Preliminary findings establish that debates in the Fiji Legislative Assembly in December 1962, and the push by lawyer and politician Mr A. D. Patel in the late 1950s to establish a university college in the South Pacific, set the stage for the actual planning of the University.  In the Legislative Assembly on 4th December 1962, it was discussed that a university in Fiji, and in the region for that matter, would help meet the social and economic needs of Fiji citizens.

In 1965, the “Higher Education Mission to the South Pacific”, was appointed, chaired by Sir Charles Morris. This mission was a joint activity of the Governments of the United Kingdom and New Zealand, though the Australian Government was also invited to nominate a member to it. The four-member Mission visited the South Pacific at the end of that year, and issued a report, known as the Morris Report, in May of the following year. Also during 1965, following the appointment of the Mission, it was revealed that  the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) intended to withdraw from its base at Laucala Bay in Suva.  Discussions followed on the feasibility of the site and its existing buildings for educational purposes.  

The Morris Report of 1966 is essentially the founding document of USP. Its purpose was to:

  • Investigate higher education possibilities in the South Pacific region;
  • Recommend the type of institutions necessary; and
  • Examine the extent to which the RNZAF base in Suva could be adapted to the needs of such an institution.

In the report, the mission unanimously recommended the establishment of a “fully autonomous university comprehending within itself, as well as Faculties of Arts and Science, the Fiji School of Medicine, the School of Agriculture in Fiji, a College for the education and training of secondary teachers, the Pacific Theological College, and, in so far its activities in the field of diploma courses are concerned, the Derrick Technical Institute”.  It further recommended that “steps be taken as soon as possible to establish such a University, to be called the University of the South Pacific.”

The publication of the Morris Report was followed by the appointment of Sir Norman Alexander as an Academic Planner, who was tasked with filling in the details of the Morris Report and the production of a preliminary Academic Development Plan. His report differed from the Morris Report, with the most significant differences being the:

  • Proposal that all the activities of the Derrick Technical Institute should be brought within the University, rather that only the higher level courses;
  • Suggestion that the relationship with the Pacific Theological College should be at the academic level, stopping short of complete transfer; and
  • Idea that the Regional College of Tropical Agriculture at Alafua in Western Samoa should, if possible, be incorporated within the University.

According to Sir Alexander, the principal goal of USP was to first attend to the manpower requirements of the region; then to balance the various levels of education; and, lastly, to adapt each country’s educational system to its environment by establishing a regional university.

On the basis of the Morris and Alexander Reports, the British Government agreed to provide up to £1.25 million towards the capital and recurrent costs of the first five (5) years of the University’s operations.  The New Zealand Government agreed to the transfer of the buildings at Laucala Bay, and, in June 1967, after consultation with other Governments, the Fiji Legislature passed an Ordinance establishing an Interim Council of USP, including members from New Zealand, Australia, the United States of America, Western Samoa, Tonga, the Gilbert and Ellis Islands (now Kiribati), Solomon Islands, the New Hebrides (now Vanautu), and Cook Islands. This Council was constituted over the next few months and held its first meeting from 18 – 20 September 1967, under the chairmanship of Sir Morris.

According to Professor Brij V Lal, in a book titled, “A Vision for Change: A.D Patel and the Politics of Fiji” published in 1975 titled, “the Morris Report and subsequent establishment of USP was an event that marked one of the most important points not only in Fijian but in wider Pacific islands history in the twentieth century”.

Dr Colin Aikman was the first Vice-Chancellor of USP

Location - The Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) Laucala Bay Base

In 1942, during the second World War, the Royal New Zealand Air Force established a flying boat base at Laucala Bay in Suva, Fiji. While its core function was to serve as part of the NZ Air Defence System, that base also ran “mercy flights”, air-sea rescue operations, and supported land-based aircrafts, which replaced flying boats. The base remained operational until the University was established.

The site was 140 acres in size, located approximately three (3) kilometres from the centre of Suva. It was an attractive parcel of land that sloped down to the sea, enhanced by around 200 buildings of all types. The buildings were all made available to the Government of Fiji to establish USP in 1968.

The University used the base’s buildings to house staff and accommodate up to 250 students in residences with kitchens, dining rooms, and cold storage facilities.  One of the base’s largest buildings was converted into a library, and many other large buildings on the site were readily converted into lecture rooms and laboratories. The buildings alone were valued at £1.5 million at the time of USP’s establishment.

 In an excellent example of the repurposing of land and facilities, the site of the Royal New Zealand Air Force’s Laucala Bay Base was successfully converted into what is today known as the Laucala Campus, the largest campus of the University.

First Vice-Chancellor of USP

Sir Alexander Norman, who had been Vice-Chairman of the Council, was appointed to act as Vice-Chancellor Designate until a substantive appointment could be made.

The second meeting of the Council, which was held on 4 January 1968, saw the appointment of Professor Colin Aikman as the Vice-Chancellor Designate. Professor Aikman had been a Professor of Jurisprudence and Constitutional Law at the Victoria University of Wellington. The first substantive Vice-Chancellor of USP assumed his duties in April 1968 and served for seven years.

Professor Aikman attained his Master of Laws from Victoria University and his PhD from the London School of Economics. His knowledge of the South Pacific was already extensive when he joined the University, for he had played a prominent part in devising forms of constitutional development for Western Samoa, the Cook Islands and Niue. He was well-qualified for the pioneering work of establishing a new University, and was instrumental in drafting the Charter of USP, under which the University is governed. Professor Aikman was granted USP’s Honorary Degree of Doctor in 1992.

Beginning of Classes

At its first Council Meeting, it was decided that USP would open in February 1968 with preliminary classes only. The commencement of degree courses and the opening of the Secondary Teachers’ College were planned for 1969.

The University began its teaching operations by offering two (2) years of Preliminary Courses. The first-year courses (known as Preliminary I) required a School Leaving Certificate for entry, catering for the less-developed territories that did not have sixth forms in their Secondary Schools. The second-year courses (known as Preliminary II) constituted the main channel of entry into degree courses.

On Monday, 5th February, 1968, USP began classes for 200 students with a special introductory English course which lasted for about six weeks.

By its second quarter, there were around eighty-five (85) admissions to Preliminary I and seventy-five (75) admissions to Preliminary II.

Inaugural Graduation Ceremony

At 3pm on 2nd December 1971, the University held its inaugural graduation ceremony, which saw forty nine (49) students receive degrees, diplomas and certificates. The graduation took place at the Laucala Bay hangar and was attended by more than 2000 people. The awards were conferred by His Majesty, Taufa’ahau Tupou IV, King of Tonga and USP’s first Chancellor. In her address, Ms Masiofo Mataafa, Pro-Chancellor of USP, said that, in 1971, there were 630 students enrolled in full-time studies.  She noted that this number was expected to reach 1000 by 1974.

Creations of the University Grants Committee

The University Grants Committee (UGC) is essential to the governance of the University.  It is independent of the University and its Member Country governments, and was created in 1970 to advise the University on its management practices and finances.  Its original functions were specifically to:

  • Advise Ministers of Finance in various countries of the University’s funding and recommend any changes needed;
  • Issue a statement of affordability for the various USP programmes; and
  • Meet every year to ensure that USP complied with the Committee’s recommendations.

The overarching structure of the University was provided by the Council and its Committees. The UGC provided the pillar of financial accountability and planning, giving much confidence in the governance and management of the University. 

Fifty Years On

Fifty years on, the University has become the premier tertiary education provider in the region.  Spread over 33 million square kilometres of ocean, USP is one of only three (3) regional education institutions in the world.  Its regional character, reflective of its twelve Member Countries, makes USP a dynamic centre of learning, teaching, and research. With at least one campus in every Member Country and a world-class ICT infrastructure, USP gives Pacific Islanders access to a high-quality educational experience.

The first graduation of USP students in 1971.

USP was set up to be an autonomous tertiary institution in the region; few present at its establishment would have dared to imagine the University as it is today, a modern institution with more than 30,000 students and around 44, 876 successful alumni as at November 2017, who are highly-respected internationally for its research and academic standards and judged to be just as good academically as the top institutions in Australia and New Zealand. 

Few in 1968 would have dreamt that USP would also grow to operate as a regional organisation capable of providing policy advice, guidance, and vital support to its Member Countries as they navigate international relations and shape the future of a region threatened by Climate Change, but also presented with the positive opportunities that have arisen from new technologies.

Quality has always been a hallmark of USP’s growth and development. The international accreditation of USP’s programmes is evidence that, as the University has increased enrolments, it has also methodically improved the rigour of its academics, using ICT tools, international linkages, research projects, collaborations, and benchmarking to continuously improve teaching, assessments, and outcomes. To date, the University has been awarded twenty-six (26) international accreditations, and has ten (10) programmes that are internationally recognised.

Governance has been another key pillar of USP’s success. The University developed a Strategic Plan in 2010 for the period 2010 to 2012, which has served as a guiding document to achieve USP’s key objectives.  Strategic planning has ensured that USP’s growth and development priorities reflect Member Countries’ needs and ambitions, and are wholly supported by staff and students. The current Strategic Plan 2013-2018 took a bold and imaginative approach to the future of the University. It built on the experience of the previous plan and took account of measures that helped achieve the University’s goals. It has since then significantly improved the quality of learning and teaching and regional engagement measures taken by the University for the development of its member countries.

All of USP’s staff, students, and stakeholders share in its success, and have much to celebrate during the golden jubilee year of 2018. 

Some of USP’s accomplishments that will be marked include the fact that student enrolment is at a record high; there is more research being produced than ever before, with the highest ever number of  A/A* publications by USP staff and students achieved in 2016. The University has a total of 26 international accreditations; five (5) patents for USP inventions have been secured; the University is on the path to WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC) accreditation, which is not only a quality assurance exercise but will also open up the United States student market and improve the access of USP graduates to US employment and education; and has strengthened ties with a wide range of development partners.

The Laucala Campus, headquarters of the University, is admired for its distinctive flora and provides a pleasant and welcoming atmosphere to students and staff. Alongside beautiful natural surroundings, the Laucala Campus is home to state-of-art Information and Communications Technology (ICT) facilities and serves as the hub of the University’s internet system, known as USPNet.

The University embodies the aspirations of the people of the Pacific Islands and serves as a repository and promoter of knowledge about their history, culture, and natural environments. The University has consistently responded to the needs of its Member Countries’ and has been instrumental in providing the education, training and policy advice needed to successfully address new and emerging opportunities and challenges.

The year 2018 is not only a time for USP to celebrate its achievements of the past but is an opportunity to also reflect on its plans and prospects for the future of higher education in the region. 


This news item was published on 5 Feb 2018 04:03:09 pm. For more information or any High-Res Images, please contact us on email communications@usp.ac.fj


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