Sociologist, Local Councillor, Politician from Malta
MEP Candidate - Partit Nazzjonalista (EPP).

Monday, September 04, 2017

A University fit for our times

In a recent interview on TVM, Rector Alfred Vella made bold statements on how he would like to see the University of Malta develop.
Vella emphasised that it is not only students who are supposed to learn at University. Lecturers need to undergo training to ensure that their work is of top standard. Proposals included the training of lecturers on how to better deliver lectures, on how to communicate, on how to conduct better research and on how to access EU funds.
He also spoke about students who are not only employable but who also have generic, transferable skills that can be used and adopted in different sectors. Hence the vitality of both humanities and sciences.
Being myself a lecturer at the University of Malta, I have direct interest in Vella’s words. I am four-square behind this vision.
I couldn’t agree more with Vella’s idea that lecturers themselves should undergo training. The University does offer training courses, but these are often voluntary, save for the professional development training programmes which lecturers must undergo before being promoted to the grade of senior lecturer.
Last year I participated in this programme splendidly coordinated by John Portelli. I joined as a reluctant sceptic and left as a convert. The programme was inspiring in that we learned about different lecturing and assessment methods, we shared our experiences, and we reviewed each other’s work. Lecturers from different departments and institutes had the opportunity to network.
Going back to Vella’s vision, whyshouldn’t such a course be obligatory for all academic staff, including professors?
I also agree with Vella’s insistence on the importance of research. The inevitable question is whether this is always given the importance it deserves. Do selection boards always value research when recruiting new staff? Are teaching assistants being recruited to support lecturers with lectures and corrections so that the latter have more time for research? Do all faculties and institutes encourage and promote research?
The same questions can be applied to EU funding opportunities. Why are some University structures high-performers when compared to others? My hunch is that this depends on the commitment given by respective deans and heads.
If I may propose further reforms which the rector may wish to consider, consultation would score highly. In the recent and not so recent past some decisions were taken which could have benefited from consultation with academic staff and other stakeholders.
These include decisions on feedback reports, certain University structures and committees and so forth. The issue is not whether the University took the right decisions – for example I think that the open access policy is developing well – but whether discussion and debate could have helped academic staff feel a greater sense of recognition and belonging; as well as provide a broader spectrum of expertise.
I would also like to see more meetings within respective faculties, departments and institutes, beyond the bare minimum which is often in place.  Vision, policy, research agendas, collaboration between different faculties and departments and with other entities and outreach should be given as much importance as exam scripts and programmes of studies. Outreach and collaboration also support the struggle against territorial monopolies.
Finally, an urgent issue which needs to be addressed is the precariousness of the employment conditions being offered to many junior academics, employed - or rather - exploited, on casual and visiting basis. The teaching and academic effort of some of these exceeds that of some resident academics; while their remuneration would not exceed a third of the latter’s. Joint posts could be one solution: an academic should be expected to be loyal to his or her work and not to other considerations such as voting preferences within University structures.
We need to look beyond the sentiment that the world owes us a living. As much as I insist that universities are vital for any self-respecting society, I also hold that our academic freedom should be matched with responsibility: to adapt, to innovate, to contribute to society, to share knowledge, to be transparent and accountable, and to look beyond our comfortable shells.
The introduction of new universities – which I welcome – will only accentuate the need to reform.

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