A breath of fresh air in education

The students’ group put to shame a lot of other stakeholders through constant engagement with policymakers, and publication of high quality documents and feedback

Ten days ago I was in Sofia to address a university-business forum. We discussed how universities can enrich themselves by opening themselves to society and to business and by participating fully through teaching and research in the democratic, social and economic development of the country in which they are located.

At the end of the forum a Harvard professor approached me to express his surprise that in Europe we are still debating this issue when they have been for decades promoting the integration of academic scholarship with practical experience.

In the past week Parliament, with Government and Opposition in agreement, took another step towards making work-based learning part of the education ecosystem. A step which provides a structured legal framework that, ensures youths with the provisions of new and valuable opportunities to learn in different manners. This is a pragmatic approach for young people and industry, whereby apart from academically accredited courses, sector-recognised and international-level programmes are given value in education and professional development.

You may ask, what exactly is work-based learning? The term means an educational approach that provides students with authentic work experiences where they can apply academic and technical skills, as a means of developing their occupation competences towards enhancing their employability. Research now shows that work-based learning of a high quality serves also to improve the academic performance of students. Education programs which combine academic learning and work-based training, provide learners with the opportunity to attend a period of instruction and training within a professional, industrial, commercial or service workplace as part of on-the-job training.

Consequently, the legal framework provides structure for work placements, apprenticeships and internships, which ensures that learners are contractually engaged with a registered industry sponsor, and also makes it easier for learners to gain occupational work experience and skills leading to a recognised qualification at every level of the Malta Qualifications Framework. Through this law, learners will reap benefits such as the student maintenance grant, and those on apprenticeship programmes will have an income equivalent to the national minimum wage.

The responsibilities placed on the training provider are stringent. We’re looking at high quality training programmes which allow learners to acquire the necessary training, within a structured and quality-assured programme. Consequently, the legislation has entrusted that quality assurance to The NCFHE (National Commission for Further and Higher Education) as overseer to ensure standards are maintained.

Through the recognition and accreditation of work-based learning, this legislation ensures the combination of academic knowledge and practical application, towards the overall development of knowledge, skills and competences. This does in no way mean that Malta is doing away with academic education. I believe that it will remain one of the main pillars of our education system. Indeed, we are working at ways to strengthen it further.

What is taking place here is not the elimination of any pathway, but a new complimentary pathway, which blends perfectly with the changes planned within the compulsory system through the introduction of My Journey (myjourney.edu.mt), whereby we will be introducing new opportunities (again, not replacing any) for students adept at learning in different manners.

I am very proud of this piece of legislation and grateful to the many who have contributed to shaping it. Five years ago, we were very narrow in our approach to education. Now our nation provides more options in a more modular and flexible system. This legislation is among the finest in Europe in its innovative approach to work-based learning. Very few countries are as far ahead as us when it comes to introducing such legislation, regulating the relationship between education and real-world skills. Sometimes there is criticism when we link education with jobs, as if we’re committing some serious sin on the academic gods. However, I see nothing wrong in young people learning skills that, invariably, they will need to learn on the job. Work skills are just a part of life skills.

We need to go beyond technical competence and skills and include knowledge, competence, character and the learning to learn. Is it really such a crime? Yes, young people ought to be equipped with skills and values required to live as active citizens in a democratic society and to be employable.

I say let’s go further – let’s also help them learn about non-technical skills for work such as communication, critical attitude, self-development and working within a team. It doesn’t have to be one or the other; blending in their exposure to important aspects of the real-life world, such as civic duty.

This week the KSU published an important document which I think raises many positive points about civic duty. The students’ group put to shame a lot of other stakeholders through constant engagement with policymakers, and publication of high quality documents and feedback. We need more of that and I thank them once again for their input. This legislation reflects a two-year vast-ranging stakeholder outreach, which finally brought together a national legislation for work-based learning and an apprenticeship framework that reflects the positive support from all stakeholders.

People in the professions and in industry tell us this is an important step in closing the skills gap and engaging more students in continuing their studies and upskilling. This is another notch in the widening approach of the educational system that we’ve worked on over the past five years, and another important step in making education truly accessible, in terms of engagement – not just financially – for all our young people.


Evarist Bartolo is minister for employment and education

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