A modern, open and democratic university

We owe it to the next generations to continue working for a better University. These proposals are just another step in this direction

The University of Malta has played an important role in the development of this country over the decades. The University itself has changed a lot from the olden days, providing more opportunities and a chance of a better life for all.

The latest proposals bring about more autonomy, accountability and responsibilities on the shoulder of the University. This mirrors the increase in investment over the past five years, where the budget was increased by 50%. The Government’s muscle in the council has diminished from a possible majority to a third. The council is the place where operational and structural decisions are taken. The academic decisions are taken in the Senate, and here we’ve doubled the representation of students.

We’ve also proposed important democratic processes throughout the structures, as well as widened the voter base and the parameters in decisions that are presently by vote. These are important considerations which distribute power more evenly and more fairly.

The feedback we’ve received from students from the first draft of proposals was very good. A lot of the suggestions and calls for more inclusive participation for students have been taken on board. I think that the increase in the student voice is an important element, because it is neatly balanced not to override other structures but also to be strong enough and able to give valuable input. In the past, the choice of the University Rector was an explosive affair. I think the process we’ve followed in the last appointment was a much more sensible, open and fair approach. The proposals go into structuring this process even better, with the introduction of an Electoral College. While in the past Government could muscle in an appointment, this is no longer possible with this new system.

We’ve also added the need to consider wider stakeholder input for the University when it develops programmes. It is important that the University of Malta is open and connected with the realities out there, be it economic, social, human or related to policymaking. The University must be the rational voice in debates and push for evidence-based discussions, rather than what happens today in our country, where partisan and closed beliefs are presented as opinions on important policy decisions. Any university that closes itself and hibernates from the rest of society, industry and reality is an unhealthy one.

I believe the proposals balance the need for an autonomous University that manages itself, with the reassurance of a better apolitical and democratic structure. At this rate the public will be investing a billion euros in this institution over the next decade. These democratic checks-and-balances are indispensable if we truly want a more autonomous institution. If one looks at other public universities in Europe and North America, one can find much more outside involvement, including from politicians.

This is by no means the end of the job. Not only will we continue the dialogue with stakeholders to finish the legislative part, but, ultimately, I am a believer that a law can only do so much. We must continue to work to make the University a place of debate and of openness, where ideas are born and cultivated. It should be a place the country can turn to for advice and rational solutions.

We must also respond through action, and not just through law changes, to those critics who paint a picture of a University that is sometimes closed and stuck in its ways. We owe it to the next generations to continue working for a better University. These proposals are just another step in this direction.

 

Evarist Bartolo is Minister of Education and Employment

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