Hands off our public university

Lovin Malta picked on a crucial aspect of the proposed university reform which has so far escaped media attention: that ultimate control over strategic decisions at the University of Malta looks set to be taken out of the hands of the Rector and into those of a governing board appointed by the Prime Minister.

This measure was included in a consultation document for a planned University Act which was published in April, just before the electoral campaign.

The new board is to be chaired by the university chancellor and will include between three to five members, all directly appointed by the Prime Minister. It will be tasked with approving the university’s key plans and decisions, including its annual budget, academic plan and business plan.

This proposal jars with the main thrust of the document, which essentially promises to enhance the university’s autonomy and increase the participation of lecturers and students in various university bodies.

The report also calls on university to start functioning as “the critic and conscience of society,” something which is desperately needed. The university has consistently fallen short of this aim, and university rectors have rarely taken a public stance against the government of the day.

The current system already stifles autonomy because the rector has always been picked by the government while political appointees and representatives of government bodies make up the majority of members within the university’s council.  In this context, it is clear that the latest proposal simply continues to strengthen the government’s hand.

Having the university rector elected directly by academics and student representatives would be the only real clear statement that the government genuinely believes in autonomy. In the current climate, when the country’s institutions are strangled by government control, the last thing we need is greater political interference in the university.

Ominously the document also proposes that industry should “be involved in the design, preparation and updating of academic programmes”.  For while we agree that the university should not be a hermit institution cut off from the rest of society, it should never be reduced to a utilitarian function of the economy, particularly when our government is so set on being pro-business.

If the university is to act as the “country’s critical conscience,” it must also ensure adequate public funding for subjects which do not directly contribute to the economy but are vital to promoting critical thinking. According to the document, this is being done “because the institution is publicly funded.” True but this does not justify government control.

The same applies to public institutions and regulatory bodies whose agenda should not be dictated by the government.  The Planning Authority, for example, is publicly funded but this does not justify political intrusion into its workings.  The same should apply to the university.  Institutions can function with public money, and act as public institutions, without being controlled by the government of the day.

The present attempt to strengthen the government’s grip on the University must be seen in the light of a speech made by Muscat in 2015 in the heat of the controversy on the proposed ODZ development, when he pitted the new American University of Malta (AUM) against the University of Malta. Muscat had said: “There is no place for monopolies in Malta today, and certainly not for those that have to do with university education. I’ve a feeling that some of the arguments that have been put forward in the past days can be traced back to a circle of vested interests that have much to gain from the current closed-shop university system, lorded over as it is by the few, for the few.”

Muscat does not seem to place much value in having an autonomous publicly funded university; his personal mind-set seems fatally drawn to business-driven education.

It is a pity that a sinister proposal to increase government control has made its way into a document which generally addresses real problems faced by both lecturers and students.  Is this another chimera in the government’s hall of mirrors, where the road to hell is paved by good intentions?

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