The Malta Independent 15 June 2024, Saturday
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The 3 fears suppressing student activism at the University of Malta

Andrea Caruana Sunday, 24 March 2024, 07:30 Last update: about 4 months ago

Three elements hinder students, out of fear, from airing their opinions, according to Jeremy Mifsud Bonnici, President of KSU.

They are the political inclinations of lecturers which may result in different treatment of the student, the fear of being labelled, and the fear of harming their job opportunities in the future, he said.

Mifsud Bonnici (left) said that these fears are well founded. Following the student protest against the development of Mireva bookshop, certain students received verbal reprimands at their work with the government.

He also said there have also been instances when relatives of students are involved, citing an incident when a student’s father who worked with the government was reprimanded for their child’s activism.

Further pushing students from expressing themselves is the difficulty in maintaining anonymity, Mifsud Bonnici said, more so in recent times when news travels fast. He also said that there is lack of awareness that KSU has the students’ backs.

Two years ago, Chief Justice Emeritus and Ombudsman Joseph Said Pullicino had said that students are lethargic due to “a strong sense of disillusionment or a feeling of helplessness”. Writing in the Foreword to the 32nd edition of Id-Dritt in May 2022, a publication of the University of Malta’s Law Student Society, Said Pullicino had strongly hinted that students were not speaking out for fear of losing out in their future career.

He had said that students who do not have the courage to stand up to be counted will not make good leaders and the situation is worse if those who remained silent did so out of fear of “missing out on the gravy train”.

“Advocacy depends on the situation,” Michael Victor Farrugia (right), president of MPSA said. He said that his relatively small and new organization is careful what protests or demonstrations it takes part in and ensuring that they are as apolitical as possible, such as their presence at the Jean Paul Sofia protest in front Castille. 

Mifsud Bonnici said that other reasons do exist that hinder students’ activism. He said that times have changed and student life is no longer study and “hobby” but work so students do garner the blame partially for any apathy.

Farrugia agreed with Mifsud Bonnici saying that student activism is at an “all time low” following the COVID-19 epidemic which dampened students’ fighting spirit. In the same vein as Mifsud Bonnici, Farrugia said that University isn’t a lifestyle anymore.

Farrugia said that today, student voices are “fragmented” and every organization has its own agenda and grievance resulting in so many problems that the individual student cannot cope and ends up “desensitized”. Mifsud Bonnici agreed and said that from desensitization comes a feeling of helplessness.

Student activists who are in action are their own worst enemy, despite a decrease in intra-organization conflicts, Mifsud Bonnici said, adding that, to some, burning bridges is more favourable than compromise. 

While Mifsud Bonnici said a competitiveness based on principles is ideal in the community of student organizations at University, Farrugia said that there is a divide between small and large organizations resulting in the opinions of smaller organizations going unheard. He added that KSU is working to bridge the gap.

The irony is that students have valuable input to public policy but it often falls on “deaf ears”, Mifsud Bonnici said. He referred to the renewal of the collective agreement of university workers which they had lobbied for years ago and expressed irritation that things had to come to an extreme, with reference to the strike, before they were heard out.

That said, Mifsud Bonnici cited the Mireva incident to show that no matter the public outcry, even from students, there was no response. Whilst he said that the authorities are not totally indifferent to KSU, he did admit that there is a “bulldozing mentality” with the attitude of if it works, don’t fix it.

Mifsud Bonnici said that students appear to be deemed “expendable” because as young people they get used to changes faster. He made reference to the closure of the ringroad and the move of the medical school to Pieta’, both of which were done without student consultation.

Mifsud Bonnici said that the university is politically involved but also independent. He said this paradox is due to legal safety mechanisms ensuring no interference by government, but certain academics remain politically aligned and the independence given to university means that the checks and balances done are by these same academics.

Mifsud Bonnici concluded that university can be seen as a microcosm of Malta. He said the way forward for student activism is an end to demonization based on party alignment and a space where the student may be heard out without their opinion being liable to ridicule.

When questioned about the irony of suppressed student activism yet the drive towards 16-year-old local councillors, Mifsud Bonnici said it all to be a PR stunt. He said it is “trendy” and looks good comparing it to the student parliament which is always flocked with ministers. He said that despite the time to attend children’s parliament, certain student organizations attempted to make appointments with certain ministers and are still waiting for a response.

The Malta Independent on Sunday contacted other student organisations for their views, but they opted not to comment.  



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