The highest teaching institution in Malta aims at preparing international students for tomorrow’s global employment market. Professor Alfred Vella, the new rector of the University of Malta, speaks to us about Malta’s EU Presidency, the importance of vocational training, and the possible impact Brexit will have on educational ties.
What are your expectations regarding Malta’s EU Presidency, and how can it help your educational sector here?
The fact that the discussions within the EU will be happening here, locally, presumably through an agreed agenda that Malta would have hopefully contributed to, which would hold promise for further improvements in the way we do things here but also – and equally importantly – with the way in which the community is functioning.
If the EU does well, then Malta follows. And vice versa. We will not get any advantages from being in a community that is going South. Now in so far as the University is concerned with the goings on at the Presidency, I understand that a number of our academics are actually involved in discussions with relevant government agencies that are responsible directly for this event.
Although, I don’t think they are doing it on behalf of the University. We have not formally been called to assist, also because I don’t suppose universities have that role. In any country, even in this one, where we are the only national university present. At least for now, but probably for the forseeable future as well; which is not downplaying the role of neighbouring entities and universities as may set up shop. But our reach, and also the manner in which we deliver education, no fees and a maintenance grant to boot, will be hard to match for the private providers.
Coming back to the University and the Presidency. As I said, a number of academics have been asked to assist and we are happy to see their involvement in this. Had there to be a more direct request for involvement of the University in the proceedings, we will be more than receptive, even as an institution. Although, I doubt that institutionally universities should be playing a role. Obviously, with Malta playing the key role for 6 months, because the country following would be the UK, so someone has to, and I don’t know what’s going to happen in the next 6-month phase.
It has been set for 6 months now. Estonia is going to take it further, from the UK. Do you think that taking the agenda and shifting it every 6 months is difficult?
Yes, of course, for any country. Nevermind for this country. Where the size of the population and the relevant part of the population is what it is. And of course, this is also reflective of the University as well, and its problems and challenges. That whereas in a typical university of a similar size, probably – and we have about 12,000 students in the senior college – there is a junior college which is a pre-University, where there are another 3,500 students, whom we also have also responsibility for.
But coupled with this, the fact that the reach is what it is, if you are in another jurisdiction, you may have a university of our size, which I think would be described as medium-sized not large-sized university, nor small but medium. Medium perhaps tending towards small. You probably will not have the 14 faculties that we support here; not to mention another 14 institutes that do interdisciplinary work. So you may have a law school, but not a medical school as well. Here we do medical education, legal, theology, science, engineering, ICT, knowledge science, education, social sciences, psychology, social work, nursing, health science – which is separate from the medical faculty.
So as a result, the number of people actually employed as academics within the departments is smaller than you’d typically find. So a chemistry department in a big university could typically be anything between 20 to say 50 or more persons; here, you’re looking at 10. And you’re still required to teach a degree in chemistry, with all the necessary ingredients for a good and useful qualification.
If you compare to relative numbers, it’s still more than UK, for example, given the population here in Malta.
OK, but you still need to have the actual – not ratios – but actual people to deal with the organic chemistry part of the programme, the physical part of the programme, the crystallographic, the x-ray. So you’re suddenly looking at one person, and one person alone, being responsible for organic photochemistry, and not a group of say 6, 7 or 10, as in a typical university.
This means that that person is quite stretched. Because whether he’s teaching 5 students or 50, his part of the deal remains pretty much the same. OK, if you are correcting 50 scripts, it’s harder than correcting 5. But our people are stretched and need to be like that, but that I suspect makes us a bit better and possibly more innovative, the need to have an interest in things beyond your zone of comfort.
Isn’t it the time for partnerships with different universities, with different institutions, to overcome this problem of resources?
We do partner with institutions internationally rather than nationally. Nationally, of course there are the vocational colleges, which are important and need to increase the number of their students. It’s odd that in Malta we have got a bigger student population in academic education rather than in vocational training as provided, for example, by MCAST or the Institute for Tourism Studies, which is another vocational provider.
At MCAST, a fair amount of their effort goes to providing what I think could be called remedial education, meaning that what the primary and secondary school system has not managed to provide, they have to somehow provide. Of course, they do more than just this and they are very good at supporting industry with vocational diplomas and even degrees in a variety of subjects.
At UM, we have some linkages with MCAST, as well as with ITS, where we take students with certain vocational qualifications, into the second or third year of related degree programmes. However, I think we need to provide more support to these learners at UM because the vocational student landing at university is in a very unfamiliar environment indeed. And it behoves us to recognise this reality, and so when people come here to continue their education with us, they need to be supported better in order to survive. I think universities give the industry certain skills and competences that vocational colleges may have a difficulty producing.
Both complement each other
Exactly. Look at Switzerland. In Switzerland, for every 1 academic graduate, 4 come out of the vocational colleges. So therefore why should it be different for Malta? We should increase the numbers at the vocational colleges, not, of course, at the expense of the number of students coming to university. But by improving the outcomes of the primary and secondary school system. And the type and quality of academic education at UM should remain as it is at the moment, or it should improve.
I think it will be a mistake if the vocational colleges here renege on their main mission of providing education and training at levels which are much in demand by industry, even if they are at lower levels than that of degrees. Societal needs are mainly served by workers who don’t require a degree to perform well.
This leads me to another subject, especially BREXIT. We know that many students, there’s a corporational agreement with the UK. With BREXIT, do you think that will change a lot of things?
I have written to universities in the UK to show them that the University of Malta wishes to join in the declaration of 24 other entities from the EU, namely rectors’ conferences. Here of course we don’t have a conference of rectors, because of the situation.
And the statement is saying that “we are worried that resulting from BREXIT, the collaboration that had existed between UK institutions and the European institutions will somehow be lost. Let’s please ensure that this will not happen.” That’s the statement and I am of the view that it is important that UK universities continue to collaborate closely with EU counterparts.
But the reality is going to be, probably – because it’s still a future that is to play out – once the UK is no longer in the EU, its access to European research funds is going to become harder probably, there will not be the possibility that British researchers lead research programmes. Although, they can of course be following and contributing to them. But being in the lead position as opposed to being a follower is not the same thing.
But I do not suppose that the EU funding agencies will want a non-EU country to lead. So that is going to be at least one effect. And already, they are feeling the pinch, British schools. Academics, besides saying that they are no longer feeling welcome, also they see the prospect of themselves being in lead positions disappearing. Anyway, that’s something for the British to deal with. How will our students, as will German, Italian, French students; what effects will they feel? Today, to access British universities, EU students have the same fees as British students. When that goes, their fees are going to escalate.
We desperately want to put the University of Malta on the educational map of Europe, because obviously we believe that you have more students coming in. Can you tell us more about the University’s rich history?
The Jesuit college was transformed into the University of Malta by Grandmaster Pinto in 1768. And our crest today is actually based on the coat of arms of the Grandmaster. So yes, we do go back many years. One of the older universities, actually, in Europe.