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University’s recruitment process ‘not transparent’

Ombudsman said that he was ‘deeply perturbed’ by policy

There should be more transparency in recruitment of University academics. Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi

There should be more transparency in recruitment of University academics. Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi

The University of Malta has admitted its selection boards do not keep records of candidates’ performance during interviews and instead only submit final recommendations on who to appoint.

The University only stands to gain from being more transparent and accountable

Selection board members are given clear guidelines as to what to take into consideration when interviewing a candidate for an academic post. Each set of criteria is given a score weighting. But rather than assign scores to candidates in each individual category, University selection boards are given free rein to pick who they believe will be the most suitable candidate for the post.

The process has been staunchly criticised by University ombudsman Charles Farrugia, who in the Ombudsman’s 2011 annual report is quoted as being “deeply perturbed” by the University policy.

“The University’s selection process may be fair, untainted and non-discriminatory but it is neither transparent nor accountable,” Prof. Farrugia wrote in disapproval. “Transparency and accountability in all public transactions are not a concession but a right.”

A University spokeswoman defended existing practices, arguing that “the selection of staff can never be reduced to a precise numeric or algorithmic rendition of qualities and performances of candidate”.

Transparency, the spokeswoman said, was ascertained by the presence of a University Council member on each selection board. Council members are not employed by the University.

Candidates not given detailed information

Concerns about a lack of transparency in academic recruitment procedures came to light following three separate complaints made to the University Ombudsman.

In all three cases, unsuccessful candidates argued that the University had not explained its decision to overlook them and had failed to give them a breakdown of their interview performance. The University Ombudsman took up their cases – only to find out that the candidates had not been given any detailed information because selection boards did not keep any.

With no records available, the Ombudsman’s investigations were “seriously hampered” and he was unable to conclude his investigations either way.

The only conclusion to be drawn, Prof. Farrugia wrote in the 2011 annual report, was that “the process lacked even a modicum of transparency”.

Prof. Farrugia told The Times the impasse had yet to be resolved. “The University remains concerned that it stands to lose autonomy if it is made to change its selection processes. My position is that the University only stands to gain from being more transparent and accountable.”

He was cautiously optimistic the matter would be resolved. “Talks are ongoing and I’m sure this situation will be resolved. There is goodwill on both sides,” he said.

What makes a conflict of interest?

One disgruntled applicant complained to the Ombudsman that the successful candidate had well-known professional ties to a member of the selection board in question.

The board member, who also headed the University’s geography department, had worked with the successful candidate on a joint academic presentation, co-supervised her Masters dissertation and even accepted to act as one of her referees.

According to University selection board guidelines, none of this constitutes a conflict of interest. Board members must only declare such a conflict when a candidate is a close relative or business associate of the board member or is in litigation with the board member.

A University spokeswoman argued that, given Malta’s size, such situations were bound to arise. Disqualifying such academics from selection boards would result in selection boards “made up solely of members who are not experts, or who are insufficiently knowledgeable in the field in the vacancy in question”.

Ombudsman Prof. Farrugia had some sympathy for this argument and said he was not questioning the integrity of the department head in question.

However, he argued that the situation was “clearly questionable” and insisted “this person should have refrained from serving on the board.”

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