It is a pity that with so many resources allocated to education only a few make it to university. The official statistic is that the early school leaver rate stands at 37 per cent, just over double the EU average rate of 18 per cent. This may not be so damning were it not for the fact that tertiary education is free and all students receive a monthly stipend regardless of their social standing. Admittedly, those undergraduates coming from working class families still find it a challenge so most try to earn some money in between semesters and during the long summer months, mostly in low paid catering and hotel jobs.
But the truth is that without direct financial assistance none of the working-class students can afford higher education. By sheer contrast, as we shall see later, most Western countries charge an annual fee for entry to university courses. Ever since university tuition became free in the past two decades, one witnessed an impressively rapid increase in the number of students and more recently, at the vocational Malta College of Arts, Science and Technology.
Even so, considering that tertiary education is provided to all regardless of family means, 25 per cent is still a low figure of those concluding secondary education. Ideally, no effort should be spared to double this rate, which is the norm in the United Kingdom. Still the education sector in UK is going through a bad patch given the austerity measures introduced by the coalition government. An OECD report entitled “Education at a Glance 2011” compares education data from 34 member nations across the developed world and shows that the UK is now the third most expensive place in the world to go to university, and, with tuition fees set to rise next year, the UK could find itself at the top of the list. The study shows that the UK has one of the worst records for educational participation among leading economies. Students aged 16 to 18 are increasingly planning to look for work after finishing their A-levels rather than continue into higher education.
The UK’s participation rate for people aged between 15 and 19 and 20 and 29 is well below the OECD average, with the UK lagging behind countries such as Slovakia, Estonia, Poland and the Czech Republic. The Office of Fair Access (OFA) recently announced that every university in the UK would charge at least €9,000 per year in tuition fees starting in 2012. Further research revealed that almost 75 per cent of universities will charge the maximum fees of €13,500 a year. Back to Malta, up to now, most degree courses at university have not required the payment of fees by Maltese citizens. In addition every student, whatever his or her financial circumstances, is entitled to free tuition. This means that not only the State does not receive any income from students but it is also paying out millions of euro each year as stipends for students at Junior College, the university and MCAST. In fact, as more European countries tighten their purse strings, it is unusual to continue providing a blanket bonanza to students. Unfortunately, elements in the party now in power, and the Leader of the Opposition, both for political reasons, appear to be strongly opposed to any radical change as regards the introduction of fees and the removal of a universal entitlement to stipends.
No wonder that at a time when the State is trying to reduce its national debt, extra funding for institutions to offer superior research facilities has fallen on deaf ears. Yet for a small island with no natural resources the government tries to provide the best facilities within its budget. There has been talk of introducing a fee for students taking first degree courses who hail from upper middle class but this has been resisted regardless of the pressure from EU to cut public expenditure. It may seem incredulous but, every student, whatever his or her financial circumstances, is entitled to a stipend covering educational expenses plus a social grant. It goes without saying that the president of the Students’ University Council (KSU) jealously defends the right to a stipend.
At the opening of the academic year ceremony, KSU cautioned that nobody should try to gain political mileage out of the stipends system reform. The rector diplomatically referred to the challenging times that the university is facing. With a cash strapped budget it is no exaggeration to say that not only research, which provides much of the lifeblood for a university’s existence, but even teaching have begun to suffer badly. It comes as a foregone conclusion that as educational levels increase there is a demand for more highly qualified teaching staff, and expensive large up-to-date facilities in the form of laboratories, computer centres, and libraries.
Yet with a recession in Europe and austerity measures in a number of countries we in Malta cannot ignore the tell tale signs. Prudence dictates that with an annual deficit that needs trimming, maintaining the status quo is not an option. Some pragmatists feel the need to bring about changes. According to KSU, four years ago these were arguing that the introduction of even a €1,250 annual fee would be acceptable to not more than 27 per cent of present students and an alternative measure of loans would be just as unpopular.
Granting of student loans is the norm in most western countries. They get a low interest grant to be repaid within a certain period after graduating. Others suspect that the stipend regime in Malta is out of synch with the real needs of students, particularly those hailing from working class families (the majority of the annual intake). For students coming from upper class families there can be little doubt that a stipend is little more than an addition to their pocket money. But nobody in the political class dared challenge the status quo, although over the years there was some tinkering with the students’ credit card system of payment. Logic tells us that the millions paid to well-heeled students (who drive themselves in shiny premium quality cars) could stop while deserving persons obtain scholarships awarded following an academic-cum-means test. But this goes against the grain and can reduce the present incentive to encourage an annual increase in student registrations. It does not add kudos to any education minister who boasts about new buildings erected to house the ever-increasing student community. Still, quality and not quantity should be the motto. How can we reach a degree of academic excellence by 2015 unless more millions are available to strengthen the facilities for research mainly in the fields of medicine, science and engineering? It is true the government has allocated €120 million over a three-year window to enlarge the MCAST campus, but this also needs a matching investment in improving teachers/ lecturers’ profiles. On a positive note, one lauds the building of the new ICT Faculty and two new floors for the biomedical building, to consolidate and expand laboratory facilities and create an environment to enhance research programme in genetics, biotechnology and pharmaceutical sciences. No parsimony is permitted in such high profile subjects and one hopes that good use is made of any EU funds. This means that not only does the state, the main financial supporter of tertiary education, not receive any income from students but it is also paying out millions of euro each year as stipends for students. Now this also includes those attending Junior College and MCAST.
With the Minister of Finance trying hard to restrain public expenditure to cut the national deficit (officially at 68 per cent but unofficially much higher), both political parties fear loss of popular support if stipends are even discussed. It is certainly a holy cow. No wonder that at a time when the university opens its gates for new crop of students there is an air of expectancy on the Tal Qroqq campus. Interestingly, one noticed a philosophical theme coined for the opening of the academic year, and the Freshers Week .The alumni waxed lyrical on their academic journey leading to knowledge and wisdom. The banner read... “Seek your true self here... that which hitherto you have never recognised”. Prof. Camilleri, as the incumbent rector, introduced himself in a solemn manner and continued to warn students not to fall prey to a state of dependence. For most of the first year entrants it seemed like an exciting journey into the unknown... leaving the cosseted village core and joining an extended family of 11,341. Party apologists had a field day extolling the virtues of government foresight, which invested heavily to attract a total of 3,500 new entrants.
They are proud to announce the extension of subjects taught with 697 courses while attracting 405 international students from 70 countries. The females are numerically superior to their male counterpart as they total 6516 compared to 4825 males. The party faithful were effete when the PBS TV station broadcast such positive news and their shots of students clapping and cheers from the assembly at the Quadrangle. The Quadrangle, as the main square is called, was filled with various companies all trying their best to be conspicuous and handing out free merchandise ranging from pens to razors to condoms. The festa feeling augured well particularly for casually dressed females who lost no opportunity to make new friends and increase Facebook contacts. Upon reflection, as stated earlier, female intake supersedes the male contingent. Although this is encouraging for female emancipation nobody bothered counting the cost of educating so many females in an island with the lowest percentage of female job participation.
It is customary for qualified married females to resign after their first child is born. Still, this is a positive cultural shift that has changed the demographic balance since the Nationalists were returned to power in1987 and opened the university gates free of charge. The country needs all hands on deck to help it improve productivity and standard of living. Slowly but surely qualified females are returning to work in larger numbers encouraged by one year tax breaks and the opening of child care centres (together with generous paid maternity leave).
To conclude, will the thousands of students who flocked so merrily in the Quadrangle basking in the autumn sun find true wisdom and succeed to discover an inner self? Without any doubt, under the guidance of Professor Camilleri our alumni can study and progress seamlessly into their professional careers.
As always, only time will tell if taxpayers’ money invested so copiously in higher education will reap rich dividends in the future.
Mr Mangion is a partner in PKF,
an audit and business advisory firm.