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‘Protect interests of students, university’

Parliament’s Petitions Committee yesterday resumed its consideration of a petition brought by Gaetano Vella, former PhD student and assistant lecturer at the University of Malta.

Last month, Mr Vella accused the university of unfairly denying him a PhD, even though his examiners – among whom were two foreign experts in his field as well as current Pro-Rector Godfrey Baldacchino and lecturer Michael Briguglio – had written a preliminary report considering his work to be of a sufficient standard for the award of a PhD.

As a result, he was summoned for a three-hour viva voce examination, where only minor modifications to his dissertation were recommended. He was also informally congratulated by the viva voce board chairperson, Prof. Joe Troisi, implying that he would be recommended for the award of a doctoral degree. However, instead of receiving formal confirmation of this, he was eventually summoned to a second viva voce with the object of “possibly” conferring the lesser degree of MPhil.

The PhD candidate also accused the Commissioner for Education of penning a dishonest report

Mr Vella said that there had been a subsequent lack of agreement between the Maltese and external examiners, which was eventually resolved by the chair’s vote, cast in favour of the Maltese examiners’ dissenting position. Considering that the external examiners were experts in his field, which the Maltese examiners were not, he questioned the decision, especially in the context of Faculty of Arts PhD committee chairperson Prof. Victor Mallia-Milanes’s emphasis on the importance of external examiners for the international recognition of research.

He also accused the Commissioner for Education within the Ombudsman’s office of penning a “dishonest” report. Though the Commissioner had identified 18 pages of recommended changes which had supposedly been made by the PhD committee, there had not even been an itemised list of such changes. He alleged that the Commissioner had knowingly taken six months to issue his report, which was eventually issued ten days before the expiry of the statute of limitations before the courts, which meant he had to choose between appealing the Commissioner’s report and opening a court case.

Having opened a court case, he could no longer seek redress from the Ombudsman’s office, he said. With respect to the still ongoing case, the university was being represented by the same lawyer who had advised the university council and its Senate. Upon hearing of media reports appearing following his original testimony before the Petitions Committee, the lawyer – acting in the name of the university Rector – had written to presiding Judge Joseph Micallef to argue that Mr Vella had “misguided” Parliament and acted inappropriately, and that it was thus “inappropriate” for him to be awarded the PhD.

Mr Vella’s lawyer elaborated that the court case requested a “judicial review” of the executive discretion exercised by the university, and that this did not conflict with the “parliamentary review” that was being requested of the Parliamentary Committee. Mr Vella said the Senate itself had identified the presence of such deficiencies and recommended the evaluation of PhD procedures, but it could not agree on a remedy for those affected.

He appealed to the 15 government members on the council appointed to “safeguard the national interest” and thereby to protect the reputation of the university and the interest of its students.

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