Challenges for a new rector

Maltese governments have traditionally viewed the University as an extension of their own executive capability – the academic arm of a machine that exists to enact their policies.

As the term of current University rector Prof. Juanito Camilleri draws to a close – following a tenure which oversaw a considerable transformation at the University, and coinciding with a time of new developments in the educational sector – it may be opportune to ask whether our concept of university rector has evolved in step with the University itself.

Immediately, an anomaly can be discerned. At present, the selection of a new University rector falls to the University Council – an administrative board (as distinct from Senate, which is academic in composition), composed inter alia of political appointees.

Owing to its set-up, the government is allocated a permanent majority on the Council. Effectively, then, the post of university rector is itself a political appointment. And all too often in the past, the two unrelated spheres of politics and academe have occasionally seemed to jar.

The late former rector Rev. Prof. Peter Serracino Inglott was undeniably a brilliant academic and scholar, and eminently suited for the role. He was also an advisor to the Nationalist Party on electoral policy, and even wrote several PN electoral manifestos himself.

Admittedly, some people can pull off this apparent conflict without any noteworthy problems: it attests to Fr Peter’s genius that he seemed capable of keeping the two hats distinct, enjoying the respect of all sides. Still, they were two different hats worn by the same person. 

In other cases the conflict is not so immediate. Prof. Camilleri was likewise appointed in the same way, yet his political connections were minimal. All the same, the anomaly does not necessarily concern a particular conflict of interest – it arises from the fact that tertiary academic instruction in Malta has become synonymous with government policy: not just education policy, either. 

Maltese governments have traditionally viewed the University as an extension of their own executive capability – the academic arm of a machine that exists to enact their policies. So the consideration that goes into the appointment of a new rector is invariably tinged with the government’s vision for the country as a whole.

Often, this perspective is shared by University academics and students alike. It has become customary to talk of tertiary education solely as a tool at the hands of industry: and the University itself as a factory to mass-produce the required skills and labour. The traditional graduation day speech by the President of the Student Council underscores this vision almost every year.

But a University should be about more than preparing the future workforce and linking the government’s economic vision with education. A University is also about academic research, innovation and originality: it should aim to foster creativity, critical thinking and intellectual independence. 

In Malta’s case there is an additional challenge: University uptake has skyrocketed in the last 30 years, but we still lag very far behind European standards. There has been talk of somehow linking the university to the ‘invisible 35%’ who never make it beyond secondary education.

These are gargantuan tasks by any standard, and as such it seems unreasonable to also saddle the post with responsibilities it should not really have. The rector’s sole responsibility should be towards the University – not towards the corporate sector or employment office, still less to any political party. 

One possible contender, Prof. Godfrey Baldacchino, put it succinctly when he said that, with such a complex corporate organisation now accompanying the classic educational aspect of UoM – “we perhaps should no longer think in terms of a super-human type Rector for our university: visionary, strategist, lobbyist, scholar, chief executive, rolled neatly into one.” 

He went on to ask whether the university should move to a model “where a Rector becomes more of a University President, focusing on strategy, while confiding most of the executive management role to another official”.

There has also been talk of excessive bureaucracy and too little investment in research. Academic Peter Mayo, of the education department, warned against the culture of ‘control freaks’ who try to channel the university direction through regulations: “Let heads 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. Woe betides us if we get a rector bent on continuously devising new intricate structures of administrative control.”

These considerations assume weight in light of recent new developments, including at least two (AUM and Barts Medical School) private tertiary education institutions on the island. In the face of creeping commodification of education, the publicly-funded UoM has an important role of fusing academia with everyday life beyond employment: community-building, contributing to the development of a democratic public sphere, encouraging critical thinking and keeping the country’s leaders in check and promoting and practising environmental and economic sustainability.

In this sense, what is needed is the opposite of a government yes-man – it is a person who can steer the University in the right academic direction despite political and economic cross-currents.

From this perspective it is heartening that the Prime Minister met academics to discuss the appointment of the new rector. One hopes the advice these gave will be taken on board.

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