Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Equity in Education

Times of Malta 23 March 2015

Times of Malta reported on March 12 that only 44 per cent of students who go on to study at Sixth Form finish their course. While 86 per cent of school leavers go to Sixth Form, seven per cent enter employment and another seven per cent – amounting to about 300 students – neither enter formal employment nor study.

Regarding the above, Education Minister Evarist Bartolo told Parliament the issue needs to be addressed, especially since about 7,000 youths are unqualified and ‘not motivated to work’.

Bartolo referred to budgetary allocations to tackle this challenge and various initiatives in this regard. These include free tuition to motivate students to resit SEC examinations and vocational programmes of ‘learning by doing’. The former so far brought positive results in maths, physics and Maltese but the same cannot be said for English. The minister said the latter were supplemented by basic literacy and numeracy skills and were having a positive impact, also thanks to collaboration by the private sector and the army.

In a recent article by the same minister in another newspaper, he emphasised the importance of lifelong learning, and said that 17,000 persons were attending such courses, with females outnumbering males by almost two to one. Most participants are between 31 and 65, meaning that younger participants are underrepresented.

Bartolo said that a bigger effort will be made to target school levers and those within the 17-24 age group and that a stronger campaign will be launched in this regard, also in collaboration with local councils.

In this regard, one should note that, according to a recent report entitled ‘Social justice in the EU – A cross-national comparison’, published by Social Inclusion Monitor Europe – Bertlesmann Stiftung, Malta ranked 26th in the European Union when it comes to equitable education, based on the years 2011-3. Only Slovakia and Greece were in a worse situation. The top performers were Sweden, Denmark, Lithuania, Estonia, Croatia and Finland, in that order.

Malta also fared badly when it came to early school leavers, ranking 27th. Other countries in the bottom five are Italy, Romania, Portugal and Spain, the latter being the worst performer. Croatia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Poland and Luxembourg occupy the top five positions.

One should also note that Malta has a comparatively low rate of graduates.

Figures published by SIM, based on the same period, show that, as regards impact of socioeconomic factors on education performance (also known as PISA), Malta ranks midway in European rankings, sharing the same value as the EU average. The top five EU member states in this regard are Estonia, Finland, Cyprus, Italy and Sweden. Worst performers are Slovakia, Bulgaria, France, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

It is clear that Malta faces tough challenges with respect to educational performance. In this regard, it is positive that the education minister does not use fudge or spin when talking about this. As is expected of a hands-on minister, he acknowledges problems and refers to concrete measures to tackle them.

In particular, it seems that Bartolo’s way forward is being guided by universalistic principles and particularistic strategies.

As far as universalism goes, equal opportunities are being given much importance. This includes worthy initiatives taken by the previous administration, such as stipends for university students as well as investment at various levels of education, from colleges to Mcast, but also includes new initiatives like universalistic childcare centres and a discourse which acknowledges that a plurality of educational paths are possible from technical to academic.

As far as particularism goes, the concept of equity seems to be the guiding thread. Here, people are seen as having different situations, needs and aspirations. Consequently, the best way of achieving more equality is not by treating everyone the same through a one-size-fits-all approach but by treating everyone fairly but differently, ensuring that, eventually, there is some equality between them.

It is also imperative to ensure that reflexivity and critical thinking are encouraged at all levels of education.

The government’s investment in assistance to low-performers is a welcome step forward. Rather than pathologising such persons as being inferior, they are being seen as actors in a diverse society who deserve to be given assistance. I augur that this inclusive approach is mainstreamed at all levels of social policy making.

When one speaks of equal opportunities, one should also compare this with equality of outcome. In particular, is Malta’s educational system contributing to a more equal society? There are various ways as to how one can look at this. For example, university graduates are constantly increasing in numbers. Females are outperforming males in many areas. At the same time, social class background remains a key factor in influencing one’s educational performance.

One can also look at employment and unemployment figures. For example, in the case of youth unemployment rates, Eurostat reports Malta’s current rate at 12.7 per cent, which is much lower than that of many EU member states, including neighbours Italy (42.7 per cent), Greece (52.3 per cent), Cyprus (35.5 per cent) and Spain (53.2 per cent). This trend also reflects the island’s unemployment rate, which ranks among the lowest in the EU.

Malta also has one of the lowest employment rates in the EU too, though it has increased to 63.5 per cent. This takes us back to the challenge referred to by Bartolo on inactive youth. But one can also widen the discussion and discuss, for example, whether precarious jobs on offer make work pay.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Money for Local Councils

The Times, March 9 2015

A few weeks ago, the National Audit Office highlighted various financial shortcomings in local council governance. These ranged from lack of procurement procedures by some councils to budgetary deficits.

Such reports are of great value and it is important that local councils adhere to established procedures to ensure proper financial governance.

It is also important to note that, though some local councils appear to be experiencing immediate financial problems, others might not be in such a situation even though accounts report a deficit.

For example, a local council might use financial reserves to make up for one-off expenditure programmes dealing with infrastructure. Trouble crops up when local councils become increasingly dependent on such shrinking reserves, thus resulting in unsustainable expenditure programmes.

Here one should note that local councils are almost totally dependent on funding from the central government to cover their expenditure. Some councils have been successful in tapping EU funds but, other than that, they have almost inexistent fiscal autonomy.

This is problematic on two fronts.

In the first instance, it appears that government funding is not being realistically updated to meet councils’ needs. This is especially the case when the population of a locality grows or when a council is assigned the upkeep of a project carried out by the central government – such as a park – without being given adequate funding for the purpose. Such projects tend to crop up closer to elections, with little financial consideration to their upkeep and maintenance.

In the second instance, almost total reliance on government funding is rendering councils dependent on central authorities, with no room for initiatives that can generate revenue. Such top-down dependency runs contrary to the principles of subsidiarity and decentralisation as it keeps financial authority in the hands of ministers and their loyal bureaucracies.

Besides, as things stand, this system is already showing cracks, possibly leading to an increased number of councils with unsustainable financial situations in the years to come.

I think the time has come to revise legislation so local councils can generate funds for certain initiatives and services. Those who thrive on cheap partisan propaganda will say that this will result in ‘new taxes’ but, to the contrary, this can result in citizens being given their money’s worth through better infrastructure and services.

A basic example in this regard concerns public car parks currently administered by Transport Malta. It is an open secret that car park attendants – who are paid for their job by the State – expect a tip. If one calculates the amount of money generated through this ‘informal’ system, one can reach obvious conclusions. If such tips are formalised through a system run by local councils, the revenue generated can be used for public purposes, such as road maintenance.

The same holds for construction projects. Current legislation and proposals in the 2015 Budget are totally out of synch with the regular damage to roads and pavements caused by developers. Residents frequently complain about such damages and rightly so but councils can only do so much. Relative fiscal autonomy in this regard could ensure that councils use rigorous financial tools to ensure that those who damage the infrastructure pay for it.

Similar examples can be given with respect to sanctioning and enforcement in matters such as waste, pollution, usage of public space for commercial purposes and so forth.

Local councils can also ensure better financial governance through internal procedures. Trust and reciprocity among councillors and staff is a key aspect in this regard.

Sometimes, (petty) partisan bickering, even among councillors coming from the same political party, hinders councils from acting properly. The same holds for the assigning of responsibilities to councillors who do not have the necessary experience or expertise in the area concerned.

In this regard, the role of the mayor is of vital importance. While some can be too divisive, narcissistic or lacking in leadership skills, others can have more positive attributes.

An effective mayor should be inclusive, assigning responsibilities to councillors in line with their interests, experiences and skills and, as far as possible, beyond narrow partisan interests. Committees featuring councillors from different political parties can work well provided there is genuine trust among those sitting on it.

Such a mayor should also give utmost importance to the recommendations of the executive secretary, to councillors within the finance committee and to professionals giving services to the council in their respective fields. This would ensure that financial management is sustainable and according to procedures.

Still, the challenge of subsidiarity is key for sustainable financial management by local councils. As things stand, many councils simply cannot cope with demands related to infrastructure and local services. Limited government funding and almost inexistent fiscal autonomy are simply hindering councils for being as effective as they should be.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Elections in a democracy

The Times, 2 March 2015

Afghanistan, Syria, Bahrain, Mozambique and Egypt had the worst elections last year. In contrast, the best elections that took place in 2014 were those in Lithuania, Costa Rica, Sweden, Slovenia and Uruguay.

This results from a global survey among expert respondents, carried out by the Electoral Integrity Project. This independent scholarly project analyses electoral integrity, standards and governance and is supported by various agencies including the Australian Research Council, the University of Sydney and Harvard University.

The study evaluates the integrity of 127 national parliamentary and presidential contests between July 2012 and December 2014 in 107 countries worldwide. Some countries are ranked twice due to more than one election or contest during this period.

Some interesting findings include that the United States, which had presidential elections in 2012 and legislative (mid-term) elections last year, scored lowest among western democracies, especially due to its electoral laws and voter registration procedures.

The greatest risk of failed elections were in Africa and the Middle East, though there were clear exceptions such as elections and contests in Tunisia, Mauritius and South Africa. Established democracies such as Norway, Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands score highly, as do newer democracies like Lithuania and Slovenia.

Malta is in the 35th place, below Italy (32nd) and Grenada (33rd) but ahead of countries such as Argentina (39th), the United States (42nd and 45th), Bulgaria (54th), India (55th) and Turkey (86th).

The methodology of this project gives points (out of 100) to a number of indicators. Based on the 2013 general election, Malta scores relatively high in vote count (92 points), electoral procedures (89), electoral results (83) and electoral authorities (82) but does worse in electoral laws (60), media coverage (56) and campaign finance (51).

Malta’s final ‘perception of electoral integrity’ score is 72, equivalent to Tunisia’s. Norway, ranking first, gets 87, and Equatorial Guinea a low 38, based on its legislative election in 2013.

Some other results of note show the mixed fortunes of countries in Latin America. Venezuela has a relatively low ranking (110th, with 51 points) which is hardly surprising considering the increasingly authoritarian antics of a government, which initially had noble aims of social justice and equality. This country lost rankings in just one year, when it was ranked 77th.

On the other hand, leftist Uruguay ranks 10th (82 points) and Costa Rica does even better, at fourth place (85 points). This is a country which is known for its ambitious environmental policy connected to climate change and sustainability.

Some key findings of this study were that liberal democracy and quality of elections are significantly correlated and that more affluent societies tended to score well, though this was not a linear trend. Historical experience of democracy did not determine current integrity scores, as some new democracies around the world did relatively well, surpassing the older US democracy. Indeed, the Czech Republic and Lithuania, both former Soviet satellites, rank second and third respectively.

The project recommends that democracy, development and power-sharing constitutions and institutions enhance electoral integrity. On the other hand, disparities in political finance and media coverage are among the most serious risks.

This takes us back to Malta. Indeed, our electoral laws remain tilted in favour of the two-party system. For example, in the last general election, Alternattiva Demokratika won more first-preference votes than the quota for a parliamentary seat. However, given that these votes were dispersed in different districts, the Greens remained out of Parliament.

A way out of this deficit would be to retain the established system based on districts but to establish a national threshold for parliamentary representation.

As regards media coverage, even the most recent Eurobarometer survey confirms a relatively low trust rate of the media. One should note that, even though Malta has an established independent press, television is still overwhelmed by ultra-partisanship in the form of stations owned by political parties and a national station that is more often than not tilted towards the party in government, whether Labour or Nationalist.

Malta’s low mark for campaign finance is not a surprise. The last general election was a clear exercise in lack of transparency and raised a lot of questions as to whether possible campaign sponsors are reaping their electoral investment. The Labour government’s proposed introduction of legislation on party financing improves things but I do not think it will lead to a level playing field.

State financing of political parties, on the other hand, can increase equity, transparency and accountability.

Political parties would receive funds that are proportional to their electoral support but, in the first instance, they would have to abide by clear rules with regard to their financial programmes.

On the other hand, Malta’s positives, such as high marks in vote count and electoral procedures, convey legitimacy, which is essential for social cohesion. In this context, Malta’s democracy can be deemed to be agonistic, being represented by adversaries rather than enemies. Indeed, the violence and lack of trust that prevailed in Malta in the 1980s eventually gave way to more civil engagement among different political identities.

Concrete reforms in areas such as the electoral system can help translate Malta’s positives in further democratisation with respect to party politics.

More information on the Electoral Integrity Project can be obtained from