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University of the South Pacific

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repsteinusa
1/19/2015 19:35 EST

I wrote this a few months ago, at the end of my first year in Fiji. I just realized that it's not doing any good sitting on my hard drive, so here goes...

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If you're thinking about moving to Fiji to work at USP, it might help you to know the following:

1) STUDENTS. The students are wonderful - friendly, respectful, and eager to learn. Some do have trouble writing in English, because it is their second or third language, but that is usually not a serious problem.

2) ADVERTISEMENT. Be cautious about what the job advertisement says - and doesn't say. The ad I saw said nothing about founding, heading, and teaching advanced courses in a counseling program, but that's what I was asked to do, even though I have no background in counseling.

3) CONTRACT. Be cautious about your contract. Mine turned out to be misleading. It said, for example, that I would be teaching a "maximum" of 4 courses per year. Soon after I arrived, I learned that I was supposed to teach 4 courses per year, period. Some people might call this a "bait and switch."

4) AIR CONDITIONING. If heat & humidity bother you, be cautious. Although I had been told that everything is air conditioned at USP, in fact, most classrooms and offices are not. My wife and I were charged FJ$4,000 (about US$2,000) to have three air conditioners installed in the house we were renting from the university. When I offered to pay to have an air conditioner installed in my office, as well, I was told that was "impossible" because none of the other offices in the building were air conditioned.

5) ACADEMIC FREEDOM. If you are a scholar or scientist, you should be aware that academic freedom as we know it does not exist in Fiji, in part because the universities are afraid of the government. To read more about this, Google "academic freedom in the south pacific" to read my recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

6) CONFERENCES. If you are used to attending academic conferences, beware. You need multiple approvals months in advance, and you might find that either money or permission to attend are denied. In April 2014, I was scheduled to present five papers (oral presentations, not posters) at a prestigious, century-old scientific conference in the US. About three weeks before the start date of the conference, I received a letter from a dean saying I could not attend, even though attending would not have interfered with any of my campus responsibilities. I learned from other staff members that this kind of thing is not uncommon at USP.

7) PAPERWORK & PERMISSIONS: For some of the expats I know at USP, this has been the hardest adjustment - an endless stream of unnecessary multi-part forms requiring multiple signatures. I was later reprimanded by an administrator when I had to leave Fiji suddenly to attend my father's funeral in Connecticut. I hadn't completed the appropriate form and gotten the required signatures.

8) GRADING/MARKING papers & exams: If you are used to have teaching assistants help you with grading, think again. If you lobby and, of course, complete forms, you might get some help, but here's the kicker: USP has a strict rule that instructors can NOT have people help them grade final exams. I thought I could I could at least save some time by using a multiple-choice exam, but it turns out that USP doesn't use scanners. Multiple choice answers must be graded by hand.

9) EXAMS. Final exams must be approved beforehand and submitted to the administration weeks before the final exam period.

10) FINAL GRADES. They must be DEFENDED. Your supervisor and a dean must approve them before they can be filed. No matter how much teaching experience you have and no matter what your credentials, USP does not trust you to give a fair grade. Bear in mind that the officials who examine your grades would almost certainly be unable to pass your course.

11) STANDARDS. Students who earn a numeric score of 85% or above in a course are given an A+, and 50% is high enough to pass with a C-. The grading standards are much lower than I have seen elsewhere, which I think is unfortunate for USP students.

12) MOSQUITOES. If you have a problem with bugs, and especially mosquitoes, be cautious. In March 2014 alone, the Fiji government reported that 11 Fijians had died from dengue fever - which is carried by mosquitoes - with 10,000 suspected cases. No matter what I tried - insecticides, repellants, electric zapper fans, vacuums, etc. - and no matter how many times USP tried to plug holes in my house, every night I worked at my desk I was surrounded by a cloud of mosquitoes and other small flying insects. Not everyone I knew there had that problem; I was told it depends on your skin.

13) RESEARCH TOPICS. To be safe, make sure your research is about the South Pacific region. Mine was not, which is why, I was told, I could not attend that April conference, even if I paid my own way. My ongoing research projects - some in progress for decades - and related publications were known to USP administrators when I was hired, of course. To my amazement, though during my first few months at the university, I was advised by two administrators to abandon my ongoing reserach – yet another violation of academic freedom, in my view.

14) SUVA. Although the outer islands in Fiji are among the most beautiful places in the world, Suva, where USP is located, is noisy and polluted, mainly because there are lots of old vehicles and no emission standards. The ocean water around Suva is also polluted. I tried swimming in it - big mistake. On the bright side, USP has a well-maintained swimming pool which is nearly Olympic size.

15) ADMINISTRATION. I had been told by USP expats I was corresponding with in the months before I went to Fiji that the USP administration is highly dysfunctional. I developed a similar impression. One indication is that USP administrators will sometimes act arbitrarily. One example: after our next-door neighbor - an expat from NZ and the deputy vice-chancellor of USP, no less - submitted a complaint about other staff members she felt were partly responsible for a murder-suicide involving a USP student - she was suddenly locked out of her office and cut off from the USP email system. Someone also came by and took away the car the university had provided for her and her husband - all this without due process of any kind.

By the way, if you do run into any serious problems at USP, assuming you signed your contract while still in your home country, you probably have a right to take legal action against the university in the courts in your own country.

That's about it for now. Good luck! Sincerely, Robert Epstein, PhD

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mjm0090
9/30/2015 12:32 EST

THANK YOU! I thought I might be the only American! I signed the contract which I thought was too vague, no start date, no classes listed... but I signed it and did the visa paperwork. They let me pick my start date so I picked January 18 2016. I don't know when classes start. I don't know if there is new faculty orientation. I think I report to Dr Goldfinch. They said in the interview I will have 4 months in faculty housing but that wasn't for sure. I would greatly appreciate ANY help. I have never been to Fiji. My BS is in Finance, MA in Human Resources, PHD in Applied Technology Performance Improvement. Conference presentation topics: MOOCs, OCOPs, Virtual Learning Communities, Workplace learning etc but not Pac specific (or even close) find me on linkedin. I really appreciate your post, and please tell me more! Maureen Murphy PhD

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repsteinusa
9/30/2015 17:52 EST

Avoid shipping things, if possible. It can take 3-6 months for a shipment to arrive, which you will find to be especially annoying when you leave. Sometimes shipped items are subject to surprises taxes, too - big ones. Our neighbor was forced to pay FJ$500 because a wooden shipping platform violated some sort of regulation. Check the latest Fiji immigration rules carefully; a lot of what we brought on the plane was confiscated. Most of all, keep your expectations low regarding just about everything. Given your background, the degree of bureaucratic incompetence that will surround you will make your head spin at times. Don't even think about making this move unless you truly have no other options. With very few exceptions, the expats I knew at USP were miserable there. If you do go, it's critical that you attend every kind of orientation session they offer, and be sure to listen carefully.

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mjm0090
9/30/2015 18:13 EST

Are you still there? did you sign a 3 year contract? my plan is to rent a furnished place there. It's only me, I live low and cheap. So I'll take your advice and bring as little as possible. I keep reading about a place called pac or pacific harbor, how far is that? is it a good place? maybe I can find a family with a spare room I can rent. Did you find that they work 40 hours a week? or less? I find the lack of testing to be very odd, not sure how I can support a grade without evidence of learning. They said in the interview they put 500 students in a class.

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mjm0090
9/30/2015 18:17 EST

oh and this is a very basic question but do you know what day the term starts? and ends? I cannot find that on the website. I think it starts Feb 18, but I am guessing based on last year.

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repsteinusa
9/30/2015 19:42 EST

Yes, 1st semester starts early/mid February. 2nd semester starts early/mid July. You're basically off for the month of January (their summer break). But you need written permission to leave, even during summer break. You accumulate leave days based on how many days you worked.

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repsteinusa
9/30/2015 19:58 EST

No. My wife and I left after a year; we're back in California. They won't give you exact stats, but I'd estimate that about half of the expats don't last the 3 years. Some just split; some give the required notice (usu. 6 months) so they can try to get the university to cover their return expenses (varies with contract). Yes, the Pacific Harbour apartments are great - very modern, fairly secure, and also within walking distance from campus (about 25 minutes) - but fairly expensive. We have a friend who lives there. You shouldn't need to live with a family; there's plenty of cheap housing if you look around. A roommate at Pac Harbour could be good too. I don't know how many hours your department will make you work, but you're expected to be on campus M-F 9-5 (varies with department) year-round unless you have applied for and have been granted a leave. Exams? There are all the usual exams; it's the grading policies that are bizarre - and the low standards. 85%+ is an A+. No need to buy a car, by the way. There are lots of cheap cabs everywhere, and some are even in good shape. Many are smokey and rickety, however - like the buses. An American friend got his wallet stolen on the very first bus ride he took in Suva.

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tafkira
1/17/2016 12:33 EST

Another former-USP expat weighing in - I'm guessing you've arrived and hope you're sorting out the ropes. It would be very interesting to get your fresh impressions of the place. I'll just add a couple of things to others who might be reading this:

PROS of USP:
1. Gorgeous tropical foliage campus, basically a botanical garden, a photographer's dream. Daily beauty.
2. Some warm, great people if you find the right niche; fascinating cross-cultural experience with Fijians (i-Taukei), Indian Fijians and mixed culture among your students and colleagues, culturally lots to learn and explore in Suva.
4. Decent local expat level shopping plus hundreds of Fijian family-owned shop operations with lots of local cultural color. Very cheap prices in the Fijian sector, including domestic help.
5. Seriously beautiful places to spend casual getaway time, such as the recently opened ocean-front Grand Pacific, and a beautiful ocean-front jogging/walkway extending several miles, variety of good restaurants, etc. More doughty research/travelers might go inland to villages in mountainous regions (security allowing). Paradise for coral and ocean researchers.
6. Suva is rainy/dreary/scuzzy and there's no ocean swimming due to pollution, but you'll find stunning resorts in the sunshine on nearby islands about an hour's boat trip away, with brilliant scuba and snorkeling opportunities.
7. Friendly supportive faculty community especially if you luck into an on-campus house. Try your very best to get one, not least for safety reasons as break-ins are common in Suva. (Pacific Harbor is a good hour's commute in traffic, not 25 minutes as stated earlier; very pretty but too far for most people.)
8. Last but not least, a good archive library of Pacific history and development. The Oceania Center has art, dance performances, etc.

CONS:
1. Suva sits in the lee of a mountain whose winds sop the city in rain, two meters per year, twice as much as the western end of the island. (One friend called Suva under the pall of darkness "Mordor".) Stifling muggy wet heat will in a few months start to destroy anything that fungus can destroy: books, leather shoes, wood, silver, motherboards, Don't bring anything you value. Buy locally (seamstresses are cheap). AC is usually considered a must but houses are designed for the tropics so if you're a really hot-weather person you might survive on fans. In on-campus housing AC must be installed at your expense if not there already. Offices are usually not air-conditioned, as was mentioned, and there are rules against it: mine was uninhabitable after 11 a.m. in the hotter months. Classrooms can be stifling: lobby for one with AC, be prepared to sweat if you can't (one experienced regional colleague fainted dead away from the heat in one of those classrooms).
2. Morale is low due to terrible management at USP. Some of this can be glimpsed by checking complaints about the VC on Fijileaks (a politically loaded source that's scratchy-to-unreliable on factual details but still suggestive of a proto-mutinous angry mood at USP). Despite noble rhetoric, racism pervades USP power networks and ethnic cliques (Indo-Fijian were especially notable) run everything except some enclaves (such as, I believe, PACE). Don't believe this won't affect you. The Senior Management Team (SMT) operates as a rubber-stamp for the VC and is entirely insulated from real evidence or complaints: consequently, fakery abounds and maddening lies about the place abound in USP publicity. Glaringly incompetent people are appointed or promoted by the VC while hard-working expats typically slog through swamps of bureaucracy and mysterious (politically driven? ethnically driven?) obstacles. Program development is accordingly glacial and even if you manage it, unlikely to be sustainable. The Oceania Center, for example, can't keep a director, and is reduced mostly to a showcase for USP accomplishments - big on dance performances, but no training classes in art, for example.
3. No one will support you in doing anything creatively academic, beyond rhetoric. Expats are considered to come with a package of autonomous skills, contacts and resources and plug them into USP seamlessly. Expect to have no help doing this. Funding, staff, facilities, anything promised may/probably will never appear. A few rare talents do achieve decent things at USP, but even the most seasoned Pacific region expat academics have quit early out of terminal frustration at broken promises and unworkable conditions.
4. Since the forced departure of a faculty member some years ago who criticized the government, the university operates under a cloud of fear about writing or saying anything critical. Some brave souls try to speak out, but some of those do so just to further their own clique. There is no academic freedom either under the new constitution or at USP. Anyone studying politics has to keep mouth shut. Expats can be deported for being "involved in" (i.e., write about) politics in any way.
5. As mentioned, there is no interest whatever in any research agenda that is not about the South Pacific or east Asia. This isn't unusual or even wrong for a regional university in a developing region, but not explained up front, either. This means publishing in regional journals on regional topics if you want your career to advance - and to get out of USP later -- and switching fields is a serious consideration especially for rising junior faculty.
6. Students come from many islands and their preparation for college work is highly uneven. It's a mystery that some are there. USP has tried to develop prep courses to get incoming people up to speed but appointments of the wrong people to design training programs have sabotaged this effort. In this climate, grade inflation is endemic because your performance is evaluated partly by your pass rate. (!)
6. Any agreement even if written into contracts (such as travel, leave or medical coverage) that is determined by the administration to suddenly cost or entail more than expected -- or even for no apparent reason -- will be cancelled or reversed at their discretion. The contract given to you is secretly tied to other documents and policies not put forward to incoming staff and that you will encounter only when occasion arises. HR should handle this but has been decimated by departures and lawsuits take 2 years in Fiji so there's no help there. Consider your supposed "contract" suggestive rather than literal and binding.
7. Suva is gritty and dirty, called by some "the armpit of the Pacific". No swimmable beach, development highly uneven, and bus fumes (the bus system is noisome but pretty good) have laid an extra layer of gray over the dingy fungus/tropical scuz on everything, A general feel of crud dominates. Moreover, high unemployment has raised social tensions and the downtown area - much advanced by regional standards - is crowded by people desperate for decent work, with the usual associations of rising petty crime. Be prepared to navigate a brooding climate of gross inequalities and unrest. Few consider Suva a nice place to live: a lovely tropical getaway it is NOT.
8. Medical care is rudimentary to bad. You'll find a few caring doctors at the hospital with a few skilled people trained abroad, but ethnic nepotistic appointments have inserted some truly dangerous incompetents and all staff are grossly underpaid and must labor under developing country conditions (corruption/incompetence by the ministry heavily affects this). If AT ALL possible, come with medical insurance that will cover travel and costs for you or your spouse/kids if you have to evacuate to New Zealand or Australia for something serious. Good news is that most modern drugs are available in Fiji, imported at need, but drugs not on the approved list require permission from the government pharmacy office so you'd need to arrange this months in advance.

Summary: it is extremely difficult-to-impossible do anything of academic quality in Fiji and working conditions are demoralizing (again, excepting some enclaves like PACE). Living conditions are also quite challenging. Some expats find their feet and create a pleasant tolerable corner for themselves, but most expats, including those with extensive experience in the region, leave in disgust after their first 3 year contract or earlier. As a temporary position, working at USP is illuminating, but worthwhile only if you plan to move on. (The 3-year contract is actually built around this expectation.) As a real step toward accomplishing creative academic goals, it's a no-go area. That is, unless you get in good with the VC and/or work with the few serious people - and be sure you know them personally ahead of time, can trust what they say and can count on them to shield you from the load of crap that USP dishes out.

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8 Tips for Living in Fiji

Expats in Fiji talk about make the move to Fiji and what it's like living in Fiji. Topics range from the pet quarantine to the Coconut grapevine to culture shock.
Expats in Fiji talk about make the move to Fiji and what it's like living in Fiji. Topics range from the pet quarantine to the Coconut grapevine to culture shock. ...

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