The University of Malta’s rector-in-waiting Alfred Vella speaks to Ariadne Massa about the “unsustainable” stipend system, his decision to discuss his choice of pro-rectors with the government and his vision for the next five years.

Alfred Vella’s frown seems deeper since his last interview in February, as he juggles making a handover and adjusting psychologically to the challenges awaiting him when he takes on as rector on July 1.

Three months ago the situation was still fluid – even though the chemistry professor was always touted as the frontrunner – but since he was elected rector in March, the pressures have been piling up at his desk, together with everyone’s wish lists.

His vision has already been laid out in a 24-page plan, but he knows that when he takes over officially from incumbent Juanito Camilleri, he will have to face decisions that have been trapped in a transitional limbo and August’s summer lull will elude him.

Money and making the university sustainable are the biggest worries that have hung like an albatross around his predecessors’ necks, and he knows that any mention of the word “stipends” was akin to stepping on a minefield of protest from all quarters.

In 2009, Prof. Camilleri said that “stipends should not be an automatic right”.

Does Prof. Vella believe the present system is sustainable?

“I’m not sure it is,” he said, adding he would not have any issue with disturbing the stipend system.

Careful to measure every word, Prof. Vella explained that by this he meant introducing specific entry requirements for the University of Malta, such as a qualification in the Maltese language.

“I don’t think it unreasonable for the University of Malta, as a State university, to demand knowledge in academic fields that would include Maltese… Basically, you will get a stipend and a free undergraduate education without fees if you know Maltese…

“We have to obviously see what can be done legally and within the EU framework.”

This would exclude students from EU member states and lead to the number of paying foreign students increasing exponentially.

“I would consider anything and everything that allows visiting students to come to the university and pay for the services they receive without inflicting any pain on local students,” he said.

“The issue is how to negotiate that. I cannot pretend to have a solution, because this will need to be found in consultation with the State, which clearly has the biggest motive to ensure the university continues moving forward in a way that is not exceedingly expensive.”

The State has to realise that if it wants the university’s best outcome, for the State’s own sake,it should give it its freedom to have its own views and mind

One of Prof. Vella bugbears is that the university, despite being an autonomous body, cannot manage its own budget and assets and if, for example, it needs to borrow money, this simply comes out of the State’s coffers.

“The university should be able to leverage its assets. Where are its assets? Why should the university, with so many years behind it, not have a war chest?

“Instead, you go from one Budget to the next, not knowing what the next year is going to bring, because it’s all reliant on what the State can afford and what it wants to afford for you to do your job. It’s not a desir-able situation.”

He is frustrated that stipends have been, and remain, a political football which has seen successive governments loath to do anything that could disturb this delicate equilibrium.

In the run-up to the rector’s race, Prof. Vella was anointed the superhero who could meet the tall demands that came with the job.

Does he possess the superpowers to turn this controversial situation around?

“I will certainly try to achieve what the previous rector has been trying to do without much success. Perhaps there are signs that something will shift,” he said.

Is he hopeful?

“I think the State should consider that there may be better outcomes for its citizens if the university is administered differently. Perhaps it will be more challenging and a bigger headache to move from a situation where everything is taken care of by the State. But if you give us some rope, I’m sure we can rise higher, rather than hang ourselves.”

Asked if he felt that politics could hamper his ability to drive through his vision, Prof. Vella recognised that, without a doubt, there would be situations where what he felt was reasonable would not be a sentiment shared by others.

“I’m sure there will be moments where I feel north is the way to go and others believe west is the way forward,” he said, adding that saying yes to an opinion that was not necessarily shared was not a sign of weakness but a sign of practicality.

Prof. Vella is keen to safeguard the institution’s autonomy and feels that if this is ever lost, the university’s functions will be seriously prejudiced.

“The university needs to be able to have views and opinions that are not mandated by higher powers, because part of its worth is the ability to present innovative views, not merely reflect what the administration wants.

“If the university is told what to do and how to do it, it will merely be another government school. Then again, what the university does has to match the State’s bigger plans;it doesn’t make sense for the university to have an agenda that isn’t in synch with the government’s.

“But, in this cooperation with the government, the State has to realise that if it wants the university’s best outcome, for the State’s own sake, it should give it its freedom to have its own views and mind.”

This raised the question of whether the names of his five chosen pro-rectors – who, perceived or otherwise, are considered Labour-leaning – were suggested to him by the government.

“That will always be said. You do discuss the names with the government – which will be giving you the money you need…

“Let me rephrase. I don’t think I would have appointed somebody who did not meet with the pleasure of the State, but I don’t think there were any issues with this team.”

If [the State] wants the university’s best should give it its freedom to have its own views and mind.”- Rector Alfred Vella

Was he obliged to discuss the names with the government?

“If people tell you these that things are not discussed, they’re probably… I felt it was prudent...

“Here is a ship with internal problems and out there is the port – the government – that will provide fuel and food. Do you want me to have to fight every time I enter port because they’re unhappy about this, that or the other? I don’t think so.”

Practicality is high in Prof. Vella’s rule book, as is his aversion to pigeonholing according to political allegiances.

“I’m not sure I can answer the question ‘what colour are your pro-rectors?’ In some cases it’s well-known, but in others it’s not,” he said.

Would he shun suggestions that one of the reasons he was chosen as rector and backed by a Labour government was a consequence of his political leanings?

“I wouldn’t like to know I wasn’t opposed because of some perceived allegiance. My allegiance is to the university and the nation, and that’s what I think a Prime Minister would want, no matter what colour he is.”

The rector’s vision

• More research students: In the last academic year there were 50 PhDs, and Prof. Vella would like to triple or quadruple this number in five years. He believes the university has to be strong in its teaching mission and equally robust in its research endeavours. He wants the emphasis to shift from master’s-level work to doctoral-level research.

• Research Support Services Directorate: This would support academics and “free their hands and minds” of the bureaucracy involved in tapping funds. A Dutch director, currently a rector in a foreign university, has been chosen and is expected to take up his post soon.

• Improvement in the research experience of doctoral students: This would evolve through a doctoral school that would be academically and administratively responsible for graduate programmes and post-doctoral experiences.

• Happier students on campus: They have to feel they are being served and looked after and go away feeling that what they have gained will be significant to their lives.

• Rationalisation of courses: Prof. Vella believes the burgeoning numbers of programmes being recommended for approval is not sustainable. The current compendium of courses – currently running at 700 – cannot continue to multiply indefinitely. They have to be moderated not to jeopardise the entire operation’s sustainability.

• In-house teaching and learning support centre: This would provide academic staff with courses and workshops to help them become more effective teachers, as well as providing assessment techniques and curriculum reform and testing, among others.

• System of appeal: Prof. Vella is planning to ask the Senate to consider allowing students to appeal any administrative decisions, including those taken by disciplinary boards.

• More fee-paying international students: The new rector intends to enter into discussions with the government on “smart ways” to attract foreign students and bring in much-needed funds.

• University outreach forum: This would provide a meeting place for discussion between academics and stakeholders from government departments, industry and civil society.

• Helping to salvage drop-outs: The university will offer to assist the Education Ministry in its work with students who drop out of secondary school and are lost to the system.

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