Safeguarding University’s autonomy
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Safeguarding University’s autonomy

In April of this year the government published its proposals for the new University of Malta Act. Consultations were disrupted by the snap general election, but are now underway up to the end of November. On Thursday the KSU presented its reactions.

There are a lot of positive elements in the government’s proposals. Their stated aim is to promote the autonomy and sustainability of the University. At the same time the proposals intend to ensure improved outcomes as well as greater transparency and accountability. It is the proposed changes in the governance of the University to ensure this accountability that have raised concerns from both students and academics.

The consultation document justifies its proposals by the need to comply with Malta’s commitments within the European Higher Education Area (EHEA). One criticism that can be made of the document is that it cleaves too uncritically to this international justification, certainly much more than similar documents by other European countries, giving it a faint post-colonial whiff.  The recommendations of the 2015 EHEA meeting of Education Ministers at Yerevan, Armenia are practically copy-pasted, even when they are not strictly congruent to the Maltese context.

On the other hand, it is good that the document is based on the requirements for university autonomy of the European University Association, the EUA, of which our University is a member. The extent to which the government will adhere to both the spirit and the letter of these parameters, which almost certainly were prompted by the University itself, will help allay excessive fears of some government plot to destroy the independence of the University.

Although not mentioned, some proposals are also clearly influenced by the recommendations of the first external quality audit carried out by the National Commission for Further and Higher Education (NCFHE) that the University underwent in 2015.

On the plus side, the University would have three-year rolling budgets, its own procurement mechanisms and the ability to raise funds independently. The University has been campaigning for these changes since 2010 when the previous rector, Prof. Juanito Camilleri, issued his vision for the future of the University.

Additionally, students would benefit from updated ways of gauging their feedback, greater participation in decision-making and a formalised appeals process. The right to free higher education as at present would be retained.

When it comes to the proposals on governance, it makes sense to have a new Executive Board and a Chief Operating Officer to support the Rector on strategic administrative issues. However the KSU and academics are rightly concerned with the proposed new Governing Board that would effectively supplant the present Council as the University’s supreme governing body. The Council would be retained but its functions (apart from improvements in the selection process of the Rector) are far from clear. Its decisions would be open to appeal to the Governing Board, which would also be effectively in charge of the purse-strings.

The problem is that the Governing Board is composed solely of government appointees. Even more worryingly, Education Minister Evarist Bartolo’s riposte to these concerns was far from satisfactory. Government, he said, would never use its power through the new Board to crush the University and impose its will, leaving the ugly implication hanging in the air that government would, in fact, have such power.

In a small country such as Malta, with a single comprehensive state university that has to live with multiple structural and personal overlaps with the State, the delicate balance between accountability and institutional independence is always fluid and far from easy. After the heavy-handed State interference of the 1950s, 1970s and 1980s, the 1988 Education Act had swung the other way in instituting a laissez-faire, hands-off approach towards the University.

The 2006 amendments to the Act attempted to redress this imbalance through the regulatory role of the NCFHE, but this has not borne all the desired fruits. The government’s proposals are not as Machiavellian as some would fear, and they do stem from the need for the university to be better managed, more transparent and accountable.

But in the present toxic atmosphere of public distrust in the government’s handling of the independence of State institutions in general, it behoves Mr Bartolo to bend over backwards to ensure that government is more dexterous and transparent in getting right the balance between the accountability of the University and its autonomy and academic independence.

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