Busuttil demands repeal of university accreditation rules, Bartolo: rules reflect ‘modern reality’

Updated | Education Minister denied Busuttil's accusations that government plans to sell university licence to suit needs of American University of Malta, insists legal notice was published to reflect modern realities of tertiary education sector 

Hani Salah (centre) chairman of the Sadeen Group, signs the heads of agreement with economy and education ministers Chris Cardona (left) and Evarist Bartolo
Hani Salah (centre) chairman of the Sadeen Group, signs the heads of agreement with economy and education ministers Chris Cardona (left) and Evarist Bartolo

Opposition leader Simon Busuttil has demanded the repeal of legal notice 150, the rules enacted to allow the accreditation of university institutions offering fewer fields in undergraduate and doctorate studies.

Busuttil was speaking in the House of Representatives, in a debate on a motion filed by the Opposition calling for the repeal of the legal notices.

He accused education minister Evarist Bartolo and Prime Minister Joseph Muscat of selling university titles to ‘any Tom, Dick and Harry’, and of devaluing university education.

“This legal notice threatens the national and bipartisan consensus on education,” Busuttil said of the rules that allow the National Commission on Higher Education to grant university licenses even on grounds of “national interest”.

“It exposes it to political pressure at a time when the government wants to grant a permit to a construction company to build its private ‘American University of Malta’,” Busuttil said.

He said that Labour had downgraded standards that were enacted to ensure high educational quality, by allowing higher-educational institutions to offer a limited array of subjects before building up a reputation that would pave their way to apply for a university licence.

He broke down the way the legal notice had devalued educational licensing standards, quoting the new criteria for licensing a university:  

  • Four undergraduate subjects instead of six, and one doctorate instead of four offered;
  • Removal of research activities, which Busuttil said was one of the topmost principles in the 1988 Magna Charta Universitatum, and which is one of the pillars recognized by the students union KSU for a third-generation university;
  • Including the criterion of ‘national interest’ for the selection of a university: Busuttil said that instead of “explicit published criteria that are applied consistently” as laid down in the European Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area, the vague criterion was discrediting good governance, transparency, and judiciousness

Busuttil accused Evarist Bartolo of misleading the public in claiming that the new rules encouraged pluralism in the setting-up of university institutions. “This is not pluralism, but mediocrity,” he charged, saying that the rules never stopped new educational institutions from either competing or applying for a licence.

He accused the secretive method by which the NCHE criteria were downgraded by legal notice, as a way of paving the way for Sadeen Group to be able to build its private university. “The prime minister said the Jordanian university at Zonqor had to be ‘world class’ – but why have you reduced the standards for this world class university?”

Busuttil suggested that the Labour government would abuse of the legal notice by instructing the NCHE to grant university accreditation to institutions hand-picked by politicians, on the criterion of “national interest”.

The Opposition leader said that only recently new vacancies in accreditation and quality assurance at the NCHE had been issued, and called on Evarist Bartolo to explain whether any NCHE employees or board members had been subjected to any political pressure and as a result, had tendered their resignation.

“All we want is higher quality in our educational sector, because that is what Malta and its students deserve. This legal notice prizes mediocrity over quality, imposition over consensus,” Busuttil said.

'Nobody will be able to buy a university license' - Bartolo

Bartolo dismissed Busuttil’s accusations, insisting that nobody will be allowed to buy a university license and that only institutions that offer high-quality educational programmes will make the grade.

He said that this legal notice was published to reflect the modern reality of the global university sector and had absolutely nothing to do with the AUM agreement.  

“The university sector has evolved at a rapid rate in recent years and will continue to do so,” he said, arguing that specialized universities are on the rise and that such a qualified university as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology wouldn’t have been allowed to operate in Malta under the old criteria.

He said that 4.5 million students are currently studying overseas, the majority from India, China, and South Korea, and that the figure is expected to rise to 9 million by 2025. More students from Nigeria, Turkey and Malaysia are expected to study overseas in the coming year, and more foreign students are opting for a cheaper education – reaping benefits for the Netherlands and the Balkan countries.

However, he warned that Malta can only seriously tap into this market if it renders the issuance of visas from these countries easier, all while ensuring that it doesn’t open the gates for frauds to traffic students through the guise of a university.

He added that the University of Malta should become more trans-national and enter joint degree ventures with other foreign universities. However, he said that this would require a change in curriculum, as foreign students attending these courses at UoM would not be interested in programmes that focus on Malta.

He said that the dawn of the Internet means that students can easily share their university experiences online, meaning that they can easily suss out the universities that offer low-quality programmes.  

He insisted that he doesn’t exert any political pressure onto the NCFHE and that indeed some people employed within it criticize the Labour government in public, and that the legal notice had nothing to do with the American University of Malta agreement.  

He accused the previous Nationalist administration of having allowed the fraudulent Swiss-based ‘European University’ to operate in Malta and trick youth into paying thousands of euro to receive a fake degree, drawing comparisons with how a previous Labour government has raised the accreditation standards of English-language schools. 

“Despite its small size, Malta is managing to compete with giants such as the UK, Australia, Canada and Ireland in the TEFL sector, and attracted over 7,000 English-language students last year,” he said. “We know that such reputation requires a proper regulator that enforces harsh standards.  

At one point, Bartolo accused Busuttil of utilizing partisan politics, at which Busuttil questioned Bartolo whether he was a “virgin”. Bartolo responded that the Opposition leader shouldn’t use that word, as “MPs on your benches seem to be allergic to it”, ostensibly referring to their outrage when Bartolo himself has used the term to mock the PN. 

'Standards lowered for the sake of the Jordanian pseudo-University of Zonqor' - Pullicino 

Opposition MP George Pullicino questioned whether the “Jordanian University of Zonqor” would have been awarded a university license had the government not published the legal notice.

“Joseph Muscat said that the Jordanian pseudo university would be world-class, but if it was truly world-class then why did the government lower educational standards for its sake?” Pullicino, the PN’s education spokesperson said. “This legal notice is a typical reflection of a mediocre and secretive government, that wants to sell everything  it can and cover up its mediocrity, this time by hiding behind the smokescreen of pluralism.”

He accused the government of making “puppets” out of the NCFHE and questioned whether the Commission had consulted with any stakeholders before green-lighting the legal notice as per its legal obligations.

He quoted the Malta Union of Teachers as saying that the legal notice “gives a lot of weight to commercial potential to the detriment of academic standards” and a statement by UoM lecturers who had voiced their concern over the “lack of transparency in the process”. 

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