The Malta Independent 16 December 2017, Saturday

Education minister ‘makes no apologies’ for track-record supporting university

Helena Grech Friday, 24 November 2017, 14:50 Last update: about 21 days ago

Education Minister Evarist Bartolo “makes no apologies” for his track record in supporting the University of Malta (UOM) while fielding comments and criticism from its academic staff.

A consultation was organised by the University of Malta Academic Staff Association (UMASA) where the group’s position was formally presented to Bartolo and members of the academic staff were given the opportunity to submit comments and criticism.

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The government’s proposed UOM act was on discussion, presented as a green paper last April. In it, a proposition was made for a governing board to be set up which would be tasked with approving UOM’s strategic plans, decisions, annual budget, academic plan and business plan.

The board would be chaired by the University Chancellor and will reportedly include between three to five members appointed directly by the Prime Minister.

During today’s panel discussion, Bartolo stressed that the government “does not have any hidden agenda” and that the process is completely up for discussion. Following a section of the discussion where members of the audience, academic staff, delivered comments, Bartolo quickly hit back by saying he does not have to defend his track-record of supporting the university.

He described how on his first day in office, he found a desperate message from the UOM rector of the day pleading for €4 million in order to pay his staff, a situation that he said has not re-emerged in his four-and-a-half years as Education Minister.

“Let us take the necessary steps to ensure that the governing board, however it is going to be composed, will remove possible doubt on the government on the day. I look forward to have practical suggestions and proposals.”

UMASA’S position in brief, as read out to the minister, is that it:

“Strongly opposes the creation of a Governing Board along the lines envisaged in the Document; is gravely concerned that the Document does not make any provisions for our role as researchers and scholars; supports the introduction of limitations of terms of office and proposes a broadening of the democratic structures for the elections of Deans and Rector; proposes the introduction of a dedicated Appeals Board; expects a seat at the table when the time comes to draft the White Paper for the University Act.”

An academic who attended the meeting strongly opposed the removal of the UOM rector and 25 per cent representation of students in the proposed governing board detailed in the green paper.

Bartolo agreed to giving the University’s academic body a seat at the table when drafting the white paper on the UOM act. He announced in February that a conference will take place for all stakeholders to make their submissions and comments which are to be taken on board in the white paper.

University rector Alfred Vella emphasised the point “that the state needs to reflect carefully on what the stakeholders are saying.”

Several lecturers raised the point that the green paper does not give enough consideration to research, and focuses on teaching. The activity of undertaking research is what makes a university distinct from a school.

Bartolo agreed on the need for higher importance given to research, and even hailed the decision for the Valletta UOM campus to be transferred from the government’s hands to the UOM. This means that the university will have, for the first time in its almost 250-year-history, an asset in its own name, which could help generate revenue for research purposes.

“I obviously believe that the university has to walk on two legs, teaching and research. I think the quality of teaching must complement the quality of research. I recognise that that has been expressed as an issue of concern.”

Some lecturers expressed concern that while Bartolo agreed with all the points raised and also agreed with ensuring the core principles of good governance, democracy, transparency and accountability, some of what is included in the text goes against these principles, such as government taking over strategic decision taking of the university. 

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