Fears that Barts could poach teaching staff

Malta Medical School seeks reassurance that none of its lecturers would be poached by Barts Medical School

Dean of Barts Medical School Prof. Anthony Warrens (right) and Malta Enterprise Chairman Mario Vella
Dean of Barts Medical School Prof. Anthony Warrens (right) and Malta Enterprise Chairman Mario Vella

The opening of Barts Medical School may provide the answer for disgruntled academics at the University of Malta who feel they are underutilised or who sense “inequality” in lecturer ranks, informed sources have told MaltaToday.

The government has announced an agreement with the prestigious Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry to open Barts’ first overseas campus on the sister island.

The first intake of 60 students at Barts in Gozo is expected in September next year. It is forecast that the number of students could go up to 300 over a five-year period, targeting students from North America, the UK, Europe and the Middle East. However, concerns were raised by key players on the impact that the private medical school would have on the University of Malta’s own medical school (MMS). 

The MMS currently employs close to 400 lecturers catering for some 750 students. But while MMS tries to attract all doctors and specialists to teach its students, disgruntlement exists among those who believe that some lecturers have better work contracts than others, including in terms of working hours, ranking and appointment.

In an interview on TVM’s Dissett, hosted by journalist Reno Bugeja, Health Minister Konrad Mizzi tried to play down concerns that Barts Medical School could negatively impact MMS in direct competition. MMS, which enjoys a solid international reputation, attracts several foreign students who prove to be a valuable source of revenue for the university. 

“There is a big market for medical education and Barts will be targeting students from North America, the UK, Europe and the Middle East … there is space for both schools,” Mizzi said. 

University Rector Juanito Camilleri, who said that the demand for medical education worldwide was “far larger than the supply”, corroborated the minister’s comments.

“We feel the University of Malta has a strong enough brand and reputation to continue to attract a steady stream of international students as long as its resources and ability to grow are not constrained or undermined,” the Rector told MaltaToday.

Explaining that the setting up of another medical school of repute in Malta was most welcome, he warned that it should not jeopardise or undermine the sustainability and growth of the existing one. 

“This said, there are several questions on how Barts will operate in Malta and in Gozo. We reserve our judgment until we better understand what is intended,” Camilleri said.

One issue that concerned Professor Godfrey Laferla, dean at the Faculty of Medicine and Surgery, was in fact the risk that Barts could poach MMS lecturers. Although it held one meeting with Mizzi and health parliamentary secretary Chris Fearne, the faculty was not involved in the discussions over the opening of the Barts medical school in Gozo. 

The faculty however requested assurance that none of its lecturers would be poached. “They assured us that this would not happen. We were also assured that Mater Dei will remain accessible only for students studying at the Malta Medical School,” Laferla said.

With 750 students at MMS, Mater Dei is at saturation and can hardly take any more students. According to the faculty dean, any further additions would seriously compromise the quality of teaching and patient availability and comfort.

It is envisaged that students at the private medical school will receive their training at Gozo and St Luke’s Hospital, which will be managed by a private company following the issuing of a request for proposals.

According to Mizzi, Barts have already carried out “market tests” which show that there are a number of specialists interested in teaching at the private school. “Based on discussions with Barts and market testing, we believe there are enough specialists in the market – currently not teaching – who are interested in joining,” the minister said.

On its part, the Malta Medical Students’ Association says it has been reassured by Parliamentary Secretary for Health, Chris Fearne that the opening of the new Bart’s Medical School in Gozo will not affect the quality of their tuition.

MMSA representatives raised a number of concerns that the new medical school may affect teaching quality. Fearne reassured the medical students that the new medical school will make only “the absolute minimal” use of the facilities in Mater Dei Hospital and this use will be restricted to certain sub-specialities and will be scheduled in such a way so as not to impair teaching quality. 

Teaching staff for the new medical school will include foreign teachers from Queen Mary University and is expected to open in September 2016, during which time the pre-clinical section of the course will commence. In the first two years, students will only be making use of lecturing facilities and will not make use of Mater Dei Hospital if the construction targets are not adhered to. 

This allows more time for the building of the new hospital and its promotion as a destination for medical tourism until September 2018 when the students begin their clinical rotations.

Both Laferla and Camilleri confirmed that the university engaged the vast majority of specialists across all disciplines. 

“The majority of specialists already have a teaching appointment at the University of Malta. What they do in their private time is their own decision, as long as it does not conflict with their commitments at the university. As long as their contractual duties are honoured, we cannot impose on anyone what to do,” Laferla said, adding that his role was to take care of the Medical School and to ensure that the teaching levels, services offered and resources available remain of the highest standards.

The president of the Medical Association of Malta, Martin Balzan, also expressed confidence in the MMS’s ability to compete with other established schools. 

Arguing that the Malta Medical School’s reputation might be one of the reasons why Barts wanted to set up shop on the Maltese Islands, Balzan however said Mater Dei services should remain ring-fenced.

“We are proud of our university but we want our hospital facilities to be ring-fenced,” Balzan said. He went on to add that there was excess capacity at the MMS, with a number of lecturers teaching students for just five months out of an 11-month academic year, or two hours a week.

Balzan added that competition was healthy and there shouldn’t be any problem if any lecturers want to join Barts Medical School as well, as long as the MMS’s standards are not compromised.

Asked whether the university would be interested in setting up joint courses with Barts, the Rector said the university, some months ago had approached Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry to collaborate in the setting up of a joint graduate-entry medical programme.

“But it seems the die had already been cast. Perhaps this would have been a less complicated and more sustainable way forward all round. Time will tell.”

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