The Malta Independent 11 August 2022, Thursday

A new year resolution to upgrade education

George M Mangion Sunday, 9 January 2022, 08:03 Last update: about 8 months ago

Last year, a smiling finance minister Clyde Caruana, unveiled the launch of Malta’s National Employment Policy 2021-2030, in which he emphasised the need to focus on upskilling workers, rather than using "buzzwords" such as Malta triumphs as the "blockchain island" of the Med.

What he proposes is a de facto employment policy providing better protection for all particularly the low-wage workers. His honest opinion was crystal clear – throwing money at Malta’s education system will not solve its major issues with early school-leavers and large numbers of people failing to get beyond secondary school.

ADVERTISEMENT

The focus needs to be on restructuring the system so that young people find it motivating and rewarding to continue their education beyond 16 years. Figures show that around one in six have left school before receiving a secondary school level education, while around 50% do not have six O levels. A labour survey shows dismal failures in English, Maltese and Maths subjects last year.

Figures from the Matsec Board show that 642 out of the 3,706 who sat for Maltese failed, while this was true for 762 of the 4,162 students who sat for Maths and 575 students of the 4,086 who did their English language exam. This leads us to question why Malta’s educational system has been underperforming. Why does it fall victim to a high rate of early school-leavers (ESL) when for example digital literacy is quintessential for workers to complete? We all concur that educating the human cohort is essential for an island with its territorial limitations. Some may question the quality of our system.

While comparisons can be odious, statistics show that our youngsters spend an average of 16 years in education, while in Ireland the average stands at 20 years. On the opposite side of the spectrum, studies carried out in the EU show that ESL and low levels of educational attainment reduce lifetime earnings, lead to higher unemployment rates and to large public and social costs.

Having four ministers resigning their seats at the education ministry, in the past four years, does not augur well for continuity. To his credit, the finance minister had the guts to shoot down fellow Cabinet bigwigs when he exclaimed “politicians liked to use buzzwords” when it came to technological developments like “blockchain”, yet, in the span of 20 years there had been only marginal improvements in the number of students leaving compulsory education with six O levels.

This prognosis for a new dawn of economic awakening needs to be measured in the light of deficiencies in the education sector which is so vital for our economy to survive and recapture intellectual capital lost during two years of intermittent school lockdowns.

As a chivalrous lawmaker, previously the CEO of JobsPlus, now co-opted in Parliament as finance minister, Caruana pledges to stop workers from being exploited, particularly by temporary working agencies who charge applicants exorbitant fees to move and settle here. In a bold statement, reminiscent of a later-day “David facing the lions” he wants to cut down on abuse. His mantra of four top job policies consists of:

  1. Supporting individuals in acquiring the needed and industry-demanded skills for tomorrow’s world
  2. Empowering all workers to participate in the labour market
  3. Enabling employers to continue investing in business growth and employment
  4. Designing institutions of work that are responsive and that level the playing field for all workers to carry out their job with dignity.

In the past, merely extolling the merits of finetuning worker skill sets was pie in the sky when with a broad stroke government abolished trade schools and toned down uptake of apprenticeships. Encouraging employers to invest in organic growth is a damp squib when one assesses the lip service attitude of authorities towards adequate funding of critical innovation and research.

Perhaps the EU grant of €352m in RRP, spread over the next four years, will help oil the wheels of progress. For instance, did we assess the level of applied research and innovation achieved at the Life Sciences Park, now earmarked for further expansion.

Moving on, one questions why was there no stampede of Brexit referrals two years ago when a high-powered team of local experts were tasked by Castille to attract referrals, preferably in high numbers considering the fiscal and commercial advantages the island offers? Sadly, results show otherwise. Could the lack of qualified workers in tech and finance sectors be the cause? Quoting the NSO, it said that FDI flows in Malta in 2020 increased by a mere €3.4bn with the main contributors being financial and insurance activities.

The coup de grace was the frank announcement by a straight-faced Caruana auguring a new dawn. He pledged to start a new chapter with a transition away from a construction-centred economy to a more diversified one. The penny dropped that the decoupling of future economic growth from the construction industry is a quantum leap this nation needs to achieve in the immediate future.

What a U-turn coming from the ex-secretary to the Cabinet. Surely, in Castille he witnessed some hugging and dancing to the tune of top developers (remember the lavish presents by property mogul Jurgen Fenech gifted to the ex-prime minister at his birthday party at Girgenti). Really and truly, Malta spends a lot – providing free education for all, upgrading schools’ physical infrastructure, offering free transport, giving electronic freebies to pupils and improving stipends to all post-secondary students.

Caruana laments about a perennial malady that politicians measure success in education by the number of new schools built or renovated. In another aspect, one is tempted to blame the pandemic for enhanced levels of truancy, not only in State but in private schools. Students get “lost” within the system, never showing up for online lessons, and it's not a question of not having a computer at home.

A courageous Caruana is convinced that we must bite the bullet so we thank him for making a stand to reform worker education. Moving on, one hopes and prays that the Omicron infections slow down and schools will reopen soon.

 

George M. Mangion is a partner in PKFMalta, an audit and business advisory firm

  • don't miss