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Reflections post Chalmers report

With the publication of the Chalmers report on higher education funding by the state (who else?) in Malta last November, the stage seems to have been set for a major and radical change in tertiary education policy, reversing the one which basically owes its existence to the introduction of the student-worker scheme in 1979.

When Minister Louis Galea had asked me to join the Stipends Review (Galdes) Commission in 2000, I set about trying to understand the rationale of having a stipend/maintenance grant. Discussions and investigations suggested to me that a student maintenance grant had basically altered the lifestyle of Maltese youth. With 67 per cent of the 17-year-olds and 44 per cent of 19-year-olds in post-secondary education as at 2003-4, two out of every three Maltese youths have been the beneficiary of such a maintenance grant at some point in time.

One wonders whether such a grant is still acting as a major incentive to urge Maltese youth into post-secondary and tertiary education. The percentage of youth aged 17 in post secondary education and training was only 43 per cent in 1998; that of 19-year-olds was only 31 per cent. Numbers may have grown significantly over the last five years because of the introduction of MCAST but also because stipends have been extended to all post-secondary students.

I would think it high time that the current basically "maintenance grants for all" policy will go, possibly from the next academic year. A total of Lm9.5 million a year spent to fuel the consumption drives (and education expenses) of young students, without any associated work effort, has not engendered an appropriate work or education ethic. Should, and before, the current blanket arrangements be reviewed, the University of Malta (UOM), the Malta College of Arts, Science & Technology (MCAST) and the Institute of Tourism Studies (ITS), being the three main institutions of post-secondary learning, would do well to consider how they would need to adapt themselves to the changing personality of their client bases.

A domino effect is likely should the guaranteed regular inflow of the monthly Lm40 (Sixth Form, MCAST, ITS), Lm60 (university, post-graduate) or Lm90 (for certain specified university courses deemed by the powers-that-be to be "more" important) be scaled down or removed. Students accustomed to a lifestyle based on such regular revenue would be inclined to find alternative sources of income to fuel the same lifestyle. This means a greater disposition to take up part-time and/or casual employment.

With the burgeoning number of graduates, soon to be joined by the first "graduates" from MCAST in an ever-more challenging labour market, the pressure is on for the younger generation to secure employment at an early age, and often prior to the conclusion of formal studies. This will mean that our educational institutions will have to face the real possibility that their main client will no longer be, strictly speaking, a full-time student.

So far, this has not been an issue. For example, individuals wanting to follow a degree at university would, in most cases, be obliged to follow it on a full-time basis, taking a steady load of morning or afternoon sessions over a number of semesters and finish within a set number of years. The number of degree courses available to part-time (read evening) students has been negligible: witness the popularity of the degree in youth studies or the diploma in management studies, some of the exceptions to this norm.

The UOM, MCAST and ITS require to transform their programme structures in order to embrace a much larger flexibility in the way that they offer and run their courses. They must be in a position to allow clients (I will not call them students, because they may also be workers, housewives, retirees) to follow courses at their own pace and in their own time, legitimately juggling their education with other pursuits, including employment.

Courses should be available throughout the whole day, throughout the whole year.

Staggering courses over a period longer than the normal time stretch (e.g. three to four years for a first degree) will become the norm, not the exception. The only requirement that may be imposed within certain (especially vocational) programmes is that a set of courses may need to be completed within a defined time-period. The current inflexibility - predicated on the assumption that the main client of post-secondary education is a full-time student supported by a grant who is therefore (expected to be) available from Monday to Friday, 8 to 5 p.m. - acts as a subtle barrier to an even larger intake of clients into post-secondary and tertiary education in Malta. It ingrains our country's lag in comparison to its European neighbours, badly denting the formation of its one crucial competitive "resource": its people.

I look forward to the day when the technician hoping to become an engineer can visit Tal-Qroqq and take courses in "Signal Analysis" and "Logic" this semester and "Digital Electronics" and "Systems Analysis" in the next. Or to a time when a teacher wishing to re-tool her specialisation takes the required courses for a BA (Honours) degree in French over eight years instead of three or four. Or of students of management opting to follow their module in "human resource development" during summer evenings. No hurry to complete the course; no threat of loss to the current job; no need of a grant to "maintain" the student in higher education; while the institutions utilise their plant, and their staff, in a more efficient and effective manner, for even more clients.

Prof. Baldacchino PhD(Warwick) is Canada Research Chair in Island Studies at the University of Prince Edward Island, Canada. He is on leave from the Centre for Labour Studies and the Department of Sociology of the University of Malta. He served on the Galdes Stipend Reform Commission (2000), on the council of the University of Malta (2001-2003) as well as on the council of the University of Malta Academic Staff Association (UMASA).

gbaldacchino@upei.ca

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