INTERNATIONAL NEWS - It may not be as famous as Oxford, as lauded as MIT or as wealthy as Harvard, but the University of the South Pacific might be the most important school you've never heard of.
Jointly operated by a dozen countries since its inception in 1968, the university has been a fulcrum of public life in the Pacific islands, producing many of the region's presidents, prime ministers, accountants, lawyers, scientists and teachers.
Today though, the university is mired in crisis, with its future - and the shining example of regionalism it has represented - in serious doubt.
Beset by allegations of financial mismanagement, corruption and government meddling, the school of about 20,000 students has become the site of a battle over influence, power and academic and political freedom that has strained ties between Pacific island allies.
These tensions came to a head last month when Fiji's government deported the university's Canadian vice-chancellor Pal Ahluwalia and his wife Sandra Price.
They were officially accused of "continuous breaches" of Fiji's immigration law, with the government saying "no foreigner is permitted to conduct themselves in a manner prejudicial to the peace, defence, public safety, public order, public morality, public health, security, or good government of Fiji".
Later, Ahluwalia was also accused of consorting with opposition parliamentarians.
But critics of the move say the academic's real offence was whistleblowing and challenging the Fijian government's control over the multi-national institution.
A regional institution
Supporters of the University of the South Pacific see it as the crowning achievement of the region's cooperation.
The school brings together 12 nations scattered over a vast area of ocean stretching more than 11 million square kilometres (4.2 million square miles) - larger in size than China.
The founders were determined to forge their own identity in tertiary education and offer home-grown courses as they emerged from colonial rule. To achieve that, they banded together.
"It was felt - and rightly so - that no one island nation would be able to sustain an enterprise like this on its own," Brij Lal, a former student and professor at the university, told AFP.
While the main campus and administrative headquarters is located on an old New Zealand air force base in the Fijian capital of Suva, there are campuses in all 12 participating nations, which collectively form a single seat of learning.
"Since the beginning, it was a regional institution," Lal said from Australia, where he is now a history professor.
"It worked very, very well for the first 40-45 years."
But Fiji - by far the biggest financial contributor and largest source of students - has bristled at the university's outspoken and independent-minded leadership.
The government there has little tolerance for critics like vice-chancellor Pal Ahluwalia.
'Domineering and interfering'
Around a year after taking up his post in 2018, Ahluwalia wrote a report alleging widespread mismanagement and corruption under his predecessor Rajesh Chandra, who was close to Fiji's government.
"The Fiji government has been domineering and interfering," Vijay Naidu, a professor of development studies at the university, told AFP.
He described the deportation of Ahluwalia as "unprecedented, ill-conceived, mean and inconsiderate".
"It is a coup-like attempt to cover up the revelation of unethical conduct and mismanagement by the previous USP administration," he said.
Fiji has now suspended millions of dollars in funding and the stand-off does not appear headed for a quick solution.
"In my judgement, Fiji is not going to stop unless it has its way," said Lal, the former student. "So the question then becomes what do the rest of the member countries do."
So far, they appear unwilling to bend to Fiji's will. The leaders in Nauru, Samoa and Vanuatu have all condemned Ahluwalia's deportation and offered to host the vice-chancellor's office in their country.
Ahluwalia and his wife are in Nauru, where he has vowed to continue in his job, with the backing of the university's leadership.
"USP has been functioning fairly well without the FJ$27 million (US$13.3 million) from Fiji, but it can't continue in this way for any length of time," Lal said.
The crisis could not come at a worse time for the region, as a fight between Melanesian, Polynesian and Micronesian nations over who leads the Pacific Island Forum has split the bloc.
Five Micronesian nations have vowed to leave if the next secretary-general does not come from their ranks, upending diplomacy in a region where the United States and China are competing for influence.
That geopolitics may also factor into the USP crisis, as Australia and New Zealand weigh stepping in to financially save the institution, a move that risks pushing the Fijian government closer to Beijing.
If no solution is found, or Fiji can dictate terms, "this will diminish the regional character of the USP to its great detriment," Lal said.