Tongan PhD graduate: A celebration of Pacific firsts for the Otago Business School

Iki Mafi Uele has joined the Otago Business School (OBS) as their first Pacific lecturer in the Accountancy and Finance department.

Iki Mafi Uele pictured on graduation day by his wife Aitasi Anapu-Uele, who also works at the University.

He graduated on Saturday with a Doctorate of Accounting, and is believed to be OBS’ first Pacific PhD in Accounting.

He describes his doctoral thesis topic as “a new call for accounting” which deals with the importance of public values in his field.

“This looks at things that are valued by a society. Public values like honesty, accountability, transparency.

“At the end of the day, what we’re dealing with is numbers. How can we use those numbers to deal with the values that a society or environment worry about,” Iki says.

His research topic was inspired by the questions he had in childhood in Tonga as the son of a fruit farmer and weaver, Mosese and Melaia of Fakakakai Ha’apai.

“We always hear about honesty and people misusing money, and I always questioned in my heart why these people had money and could escape all these penalties, while my family and I had nothing.”

He says his research was a blend of western methodologies and “a contextualised pan-Pacific way of doing research”, which included the use of the Pacific Kakala research framework and e-talanoa methods.

“What I found in Tonga is that western rules, regulations and internal controls are important aspects of accountability but they alone will not be able to deliver accountability and transparency in the context of the Pacific.

“Their presence helps, but it has to be principle-driven.”

Last year, Iki came first in the OBS Three Minute Thesis Competition and also won the OBS Outstanding Doctoral Student  – Community Engagement award.

Iki’s academic journey began at Tonga College in 2001, where his dux position created scholarship opportunities that would send him around the world in pursuit of higher education.

In 2006, he graduated from the University of the South Pacific (USP) with a double degree in Accounting, Finance and Mathematics.

He then served as an accounting and mathematics high school teacher and tertiary lecturer in the Pacific region, including in Tonga, Tokelau and Fiji.

Iki Mafi Uele speech image

A scholarship partially funded by Cambridge University allowed Iki to complete a Masters in Accountancy and Financial Management at La Trobe University in Melbourne in 2016.

He then took an Assistant Lecturer position at USP for Accounting and Finance programmes until he was ready to “climb the academic ladder” once again.

He joined Otago under the University’s Pacific PhD scholarship scheme just before the first COVID-19 nationwide lockdown in 2020.

“My PhD is a product of COVID-19. That comes with a lot of challenges,” Iki says.

Those challenges included conducting his e-talanoa over Zoom, which in nature is a data collection method that centres around love, respect, warmth and humour.

“We know that the talanoa method is effective when it’s face-to-face, but with COVID-19, all those privileges are gone.

“My research was a test of whether talanoa and the Indigenous way of doing research can continue on as a robust method of research over Zoom.”

Iki says the support he received during his PhD from Otago, his wife, the Tongan community and his spiritual brothers and sisters was phenomenal.

“There are different avenues here at the University that look after Pacific people.”

Associate Dean (Pacific) at the OBS Esmay Lemalu-Eteuati says she is pleased to be welcoming Iki and knows he will make a valuable contribution to the School.

“We at Commerce had made a decision that we would grow our own pool of Pacific academics from within our own division,” Mrs Lemalu-Eteuati says.

“We’re trying a different approach compared to other divisions, who have often sought academics nationally and internationally.”

– Kōrero by Keilah Fox

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