A vision for the University

By Prof. Peter Mayo, head of Arts, Open Communiities, and Adult Education department at the University of Malta

Peter Mayo: ‘We need to foster a university culture where those who publish (where it matters) and teach well are given due recognition rather than find themselves immersed in a hostile environment’
Peter Mayo: ‘We need to foster a university culture where those who publish (where it matters) and teach well are given due recognition rather than find themselves immersed in a hostile environment’

I write this in anticipation of the impending appointment of a new university rector.

I jotted down these points in light of the meeting held between academic staff and the Prime Minister and Minister of Education and Employment a fortnight ago. 

1. Strong connection between teaching and research

One cannot exist without the other. Good professors, in my view, are those who teach, engage in dialogue (listening and accepting exchange of ideas) and profess on the basis of not only other people’s work but also and especially their own. This applies to all levels but more so to higher levels of intellectual engagement. Does our university encourage this? This is an important challenge to be faced by the new rector.

2. Less energy wasted on excessive bureaucratic measures

Less bureaucratic measures imposed from central administration to extend its arm among departmental heads. Let heads of department do what they are meant to do, direct teaching and research but also be prime exemplars of both. Unfortunately bureaucracy has increased to the point of making one wonder whether it is worth the hassle of leading a department, let alone a faculty. In my view there should be no room for ‘control freaks’.

3. Research ought to matter

We have faced audit exercises about everything except research. Furthermore, there has been little evaluation of a qualitative nature. We need to assess and evaluate the quality of provision, not things as they simply and often deceptively appear on paper.

4. Rankings

I am suspicious of methodologies used for university rankings. Ranking 1,290 out of 5,000+ is not too bad for some (still not good enough in my book). We need to strive harder. The cliché ‘striving for excellence’ has been spouted over and over again... an empty slogan if it does not act as a spur to improve our position and quality and make sure that all this is reflected in evaluations of our university’s output and processes.

It’s true that these rankings’ bias is towards the physical sciences, with Medicine having been mentioned, at the meeting with the PM, as an important area. The University of Cyprus, however, which opened in 1992, ranked 350 according to The Times classification.  It did not benefit from a medical faculty before 2013 – too early to have an impact in the field.

Rather than rely on the excuse that the fledgling Cypriot university attracted many expatriates with long publication lists in most areas, including the humanities, social sciences and education, I would rather argue that it attracted scholars who were well qualified (Ph.D a minimum requirement) and helped generate a research culture which is conspicuous by its absence at our university.

Here it seems easier to gain a professorship by sitting on committees or taking on department headships or other administrative roles than through engaging in published research. ‘Cronyism’ occurs also in other places and the new rector will have her or his work cut out trying to eradicate it. It remains a challenge to be faced head on.

5. Research on its own is not enough!

There needs to be an end product to this research – research that appears in top ranked peer-reviewed journals accompanied by more accessible versions in media reaching wider audiences or readership. There are journals and journals. The more rigorously reviewed stand out in each field. It is there where one needs to publish. This is what separates the wheat from the chaff. An English professor once told me: “If you are not being rejected, then you are not being ambitious enough.”

6. Due recognition for those who publish

We need to foster a university culture where those who publish (where it matters) and teach well are given due recognition rather than find themselves immersed in a hostile environment. Universities are well known for this kind of hostility, our institution being no exception. Granted, full professors, who reach the top academic rank on merit, gain their main stimulus from excellent teaching and research.

It would still help if their continuous efforts are eventually recognized, as in USA universities, through the existence of a new rank, that of ‘Distinguished Professor’ through a very rigorous evaluation process involving, as reviewers, established international authorities not to allow this to degenerate into another easily dispensed gift for the blue-eyed.

 7. Rewarding teaching excellence

Students play an important role here in choosing the successful academic. An annual Teaching Excellence Award? Several universities, where I taught and studied, provide this kind of recognition.

8. Greater investment in the university’s libraries

There have been significant improvements here with free online access to JSTOR and Hydi besides all Taylor & Francis and Sage journals, among other things. But a university’s calibre is partially judged through the quality of its library system. Does the library furnish students, academics and the public with ‘cutting edge’ facilities and material? This sector constantly calls for expansion and increased funding.

9. Better visibility

Not only internationally but also in and across various localities in Malta and Gozo. Several communities are there to be engaged with through forms of ‘outreach’ and interaction. I sit on the board of the Cottonera Resource Centre where we have just launched a project that has, as its starting point, something that captures the people’s imagination: ‘Holy Week’ (there is a visible and strong ‘Holy Week’ culture in the Cottonera) and connects with different subject areas, namely history, tradition, gender issues (machismo, women), spirituality, politics, environmental issues, music, film (Pasolini and Gibson in contrast) and theatre (pageants, miracle plays, etc).

In so doing, university resources are mobilized for the purpose of turning a communal event into an educational experience.

The University has a responsibility towards different communities in its effort to contribute to the development of a democratic public sphere. After all, it is a public entity financed primarily through public taxes. One should therefore make more democratic use of such a public resource. 

10. Fostering public intellectuals

Fostering a culture where students can develop as public intellectuals rather than functionaries in an environment becoming ever more neoliberal. A joint effort with KSU should be developed to reintroduce debating societies, activities whereby students learn to write op eds and make effective use of TV and radio broadcasting (Campus FM, the University radio station, can play an important role) and enhance their means of making effective use of the ‘social media’.

The new Rector and his or her team should encourage every faculty to make a valid contribution to this effort by also assigning work, for credit evaluation purposes, along these lines. The key question is: How does one communicate what one learns in a manner that reaches a wide and varied audience? A Learning for Public Engagement dimension for every course?

11. Moderate fees for foreign EU students

In June, I wrote, in Think magazine, that the stipend for Maltese students should be topped up as fees to be paid back, otherwise foreign EU-based students cannot be charged and that would be unfair on the Maltese taxpayer. Foreign students should, however, be charged moderately not astronomically. Full article http://www.um.edu.mt/think/of-universities-monopolies-and-public-goods

12. Promotions

A board consisting of people of integrity and with a track record of top-notch publications to take full control over the external refereeing process rather than entrust this important task in the hands of an external agency encouraging those who consult its website to buy its services.

As a provost of a top USA university once remarked to me: ‘no self-respecting university would relinquish such a vital task’. It is the University which seeks the evaluators, not some agency to which it subcontracts this vital aspect of the promotion exercise. Are we the exception? Can this be read as another form of neo-colonialism? No self-respect on our part? 

13. Building a socially inclusive and environmentally sensitive society

There is a crying need for a sound and coherent policy and supporting structures in place to effectively confront any kind of abuse and discrimination of a sexual, ethnic/racist, social class and religious nature and on the grounds of ability. The university and its various centres, institutes and campuses must continue to become greener, again reflecting a sound and coherent ecological policy. 

14. Setting up a Centre for Migration Studies 

While exploring possibilities for cooperation with UNESCO to create a UNESCO Chair in Migration Studies.

15. Setting up a University Museum 

This proposed museum can coincide with V18, to help in the dissemination of historical and cultural knowledge through artefacts and various other forms of representation. The Faculty of Education forwarded its collection of sketches by Josef Kalleya to the Valletta campus with this purpose in mind.

Prof. Peter Mayo is head of the Arts, Open Communities, and Adult Education department. His latest book is Hegemony and Education under Neoliberalism (Routledge, 2015) and he is currently co-authoring (with Prof. Carmel Borg) a book on Globalisation, Higher Education and Lifelong Learning under contract with Manchester University Press. He does not have the slightest interest in contesting the post of Rector.

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