Not playing happy schools | Juanito Camilleri

In his report issued late last year, University rector Professor Juanito Camilleri laid bare university’s weak points and presented government with a scenario it ignores at its own peril.

First appointed directly in 2006 straight out of the private telecoms sector, many perceived Professor Camilleri’s appointment as further proof of the government’s desire to enjoy increased control over the University.

A Trinity College graduate, Camilleri built his career in the burgeoning Maltese telecommunications industry as founding CEO of GO Mobile. His appointment came only months after being appointed CEO at Melita.

His appointment represented a marked bid to push university towards taking on a more industry-driven role as an institution and to increase the number of graduates in the sciences in line with its new ICT excellence ambitions

His re-election – earlier this month – came at a contentious time, as the criminal court ‘obscenity’ case that propelled him into the limelight last year only came to a head a handful of days ago.

Both Vella Gera and university student and publisher Mark Camilleri were acquitted of obscenity charges, a ruling that was publicly either met by resounding approval or outright condemnation.

Curiously, Camilleri is adamant in not commenting in any way about the ruling or his decision to report the publication to the authorities. Gregarious and opinionated only minutes earlier as we sat down to talk, he visibly raises his defences when I broach the subject.

“I have already said what I had to say on the matter,” he says cautiously, referring to a brief University-issued statement saying that no comment would be forthcoming until the Police clarify whether they would be appealing the ruling or not. “I do not feel it is prudent to make further comment,” he says with a tone of finality.

The solemn moment is short-lived however. He quickly launches into a vivid exploration of the University’s past that answers what is arguably one of the biggest criticisms the institution has to contend with: why is our university so far behind other contemporary higher education institutions abroad?

He explains that, due to being ‘stuck’ in its function as a purely teaching institution for past decades, it fell “out of synch” with other universities abroad. This took place at a time when universities were making giant leaps ahead in establishing research structures and frameworks that turned them into sources of research and innovation, not just education.

“Decades ago, the University of Malta missed out on a tertiary education renaissance, along with the major investments – roughly €50 million – that were available for universities over the years,” he says. “Today, the European Union is in its seventh Research Framework – we missed out on all the others that came before.”

Malta’s biggest issue in this regard was – and still is – the ingrained perception that University’s only ‘link’ to industry should be only through the graduates it churns out and sends out into the workforce.

He argues that unless the local University develops its own research programmes, it will never be able to compete with foreign Universities on an equal footing, nor contribute to the industrial, technological, or socio-economic development of the country.

“I disagree that there is no space for research at the university. If that were the case, we would be little more than a glorified lecture centre,” he says. “It is starting to change, but we need to realise that institutions don’t change overnight.

“Many industrial concepts were born on this very campus,” he adds, citing the fish-farming and the e-gaming industries as two prime examples.

As he touches upon his vision for the University’s future, I mention his 2020 Vision or Illusion report, penned at the end of his five-year-long tenure and which covers almost all the workings of the University and its campus.

In the report, Camilleri paints a relatively grim picture of Maltese higher education, controversially calling for the introduction of a course-pricing system and highlighting the need for more funding if University is to survive and expand as required. The report’s proposals were met with lukewarm reaction from government however, a fact that Camilleri hints he is well aware of.

“The report was originally meant to be my last testament. I was very frustrated and unsure when I wrote it,” he says. Through it, he says he channelled his inner conflict at how to tackle the issues that were holding the university back, and how to get the debate going.

One of these points of contention was Camilleri’s forecasts on the investment required to allow University to maintain its pace of growth. “The price tag of this continued development is bigger and bigger budgets,” he concedes, adding that this was one of the sources of his frustration.

In the report, Camilleri wrote that either university investment needs to grow by 33% between 2011 and 2013 (amounting to €58 million in 2011, €66 million in 2010, and €72 million in 2013), or pointed to the introduction of course fees, of a kind.

“Saying that government has not invested would be unjust,” he said, “but a lot more is needed.” Yet, at the same time he points out that government cannot keep “coughing up millions year after year.”

His solution lies in how the university can market itself as an attractive educational institution to paying foreign students, as well as looking towards the international community to obtain funding. But even in this regard, “it is easier said than done.”

“We are in a chicken and egg situation,” he says. To be able to obtain the investment it needs through foreign students, the university first needs investment to be able to deliver an attractive, quality education and infrastructure that will make it competitive with other universities worldwide.

Remarking lightly that the European crisis ‘helped’ Malta’s University, as it hiked up prices in other universities, Camilleri said that a boost in quality is essential to ensure competitiveness.

But in promoting itself internationally among foreign students, the university is exposing itself in a big way, he concedes.

Like Maltese students, any EU students wishing to receive an education at the University of Malta are not required to pay. Currently, the only students that pay the full fees for their education are students from outside the EU. “We already have limited space, and the funding realities are what they are. We welcome them, but we don’t encourage them,” he says.

His answer, as he explains in his 2020 report, calls for the establishment of course fees which are covered by government study grants, in the case of EU nationals residing in Malta for a minimum of five years. “For Maltese students, it changes nothing, but for EU students, it means they need to start paying their own way,” he explains.


I point out that education fees, like stipends, represent a political landmine that few dare acknowledge, let alone approach. “We need a balanced debate without frenzy and politicisation,” he replies. “Many think of their education as free. It is not the case. In real terms it is not free at all.”

Through such a course-pricing system, he explains, the true ‘price’ of each course would become known to students – a price that is currently covered ‘automatically’ by government in its annual budget university allocations.

“Knowing how much their course ‘cost’ is fundamental for students’ sense of worth for their own education,” he argues. “Through that awareness comes the empowerment of caring for that education as something important. They will care for it, and demand a quality education.”

Come what may, Camilleri warns, “the government cannot sustain EU students who are equally eligible for a ‘free’ education.” He says that such as course-pricing system would give university “a new lung” and allow it to market itself aggressively to EU student ‘markets’.

“We are not playing Happy Schools, we are delivering tertiary education,” he says, referring to the difficult position he says he often finds himself in when proposing solutions that might not be politically palatable.

However, trends have shown that whenever financial hard-times loom, educational fees quickly rise as the EU recession as shown – a concern also voiced by the University Students’ Council. What would stop government from gradually pulling back its financial support from students given that a course fee system would already be in place – essentially abolishing the notion of a ‘free education’?

Camilleri denies this would be the case. “That would be as if one had to get rid of all the knives because they could lead to murders,” he said. Such a move would mean a change in policy that, realistically, “is not going to happen any time soon as both (major) parties need the votes,” he says.

While he stresses that he firmly believes in the notion that education should be available for all individuals irrespective of economic background, Camilleri is categorical that the shift would have to happen sooner or later.

“We have no other choice. I do not accept avoiding carrying out structural changes and having to cope with the resulting repercussions simply because the issue is a sensitive one,” he says. “Nobody wants free mediocrity.”

He also emphasises the need to change the manner university is financed by the government. He calls for the implementation of “five-year financing plans” that would allow both government and the university to determine and implement long-term action plans, and make forecasts based on it.

“The further we delay the inevitable, the harder it is to implement,” he warns. In this, he maintains that all stakeholders – not only government – need to be involved in “a debate where people sit down and cut through the rhetoric.”

But how open is government, and the education ministry, to these reforms, I ask… does it approve? “We’re getting there,” Camilleri replies circumspectly. “I wouldn’t be here if it didn’t,” he answers however, shedding some light on the nature of his re-election. “Behind the scenes, I know for a fact that the report caused ripples and had impact.”

“It is not an issue of only government being in support,” he adds however, stressing that students (and many other stakeholders) need to be on board as well.”

I draw his attention to another concern he mentions in his report, which dealt with the government’s €120 million project presented by MCAST to construct a new campus on an extended footprint of its current site. Camilleri warned government that attempting to finance more than one campus could lead to both institutions being under-resourced.

“It is already difficult to sustain one campus with all its programmes, its library, and its laboratories,” he said, pointing out that the University of Malta, our only university, is “very broadly endowed in terms of the range of course options it offers – even by international standards.”

MCAST already has a very important role, Camilleri says. He however voices concerns about its future. “What is unclear is how government intends to develop it, what its future role will be and how government plans to finance it.

“The worst thing that could happen is ‘evolution by default’. It is important that the situation is not left to develop by itself, but is taken firmly by the horns and given direction and momentum,” he says.

Given the political baggage of the changes he is pushing for, I ask Camilleri if he is optimistic. “I wouldn’t have agreed (to serving a second term as rector) if I didn’t think there was a sporting chance that the issues would be tackled. We’ll find out together.”

Referring to other issues within the educational system such as Malta’s high rate of school-leavers, and the rate of students that go on to pursue tertiary education, he said that the answer is through debate and cooperation.

“It is not enough to simply get a government behind you,” he says in a weary tone. A “sustainable plan requires the input and support of all stakeholders involved.”

He maintains that were there is common agreement, opportunities flourish. “The growth we’ve witnessed in the industrial and the e-gaming sectors was secured thanks to agreement across the board,” he says.

“I do not want to put decision-makers in a corner,” he says. “Confrontation does not resolve issues. We need debate that is widespread and engaged,” adding that he hopes that when the time for the debate comes, it will not be turned into a ‘ping-pong ball.’

While the debate on how to reform the university financing system is “urgently called for,” he says, he also warns against rushing the process. “In trying to rush, one risks losing stakeholders along the way. Nobody should feel forced to take a stand on any given issue.”

Whilst undoubtedly the rector has done an excellent job in certain areas and improving the university it is very obvious that there is an excessive waste of money at the university i) Professors salary in 2012 is excessive and should be capped immediately ii) Setting up of 2 new faculties was a complete waste of funds iii) Setting up new institutes and directors on toy subjects is a waste iv) Quality and standards are non existent vii) There are too many heads and people in charge at university who do a bad job i.e. the university should explain how much qualified its lectures and professors are and investigate the quality of their work. Professors have been appointed withouth proper publications. I stongly suggest that the rector performs a survey to see how much university is costing today and how much it will cost in 2012 from the taxpayers profit. The Labour party should also investigate what is happening at university for when they will be elected the university will be a complete mess and money sucking organization that is unsustainable to society and the tax payer in general!