Archimedes ran out naked and shouted “Eureka! I have found it!” when he made a discovery while washing himself. He was so happy that he did not even bother trying to cover himself. Similarly, but this time like the emperor with no clothes, government has discovered that the student stipends system needs changing. The report ‘State Higher Education Funding’ does not provide any fig leaf to hide government’s nakedness. It just compares the present generous system to that of other countries to show how generous it is and that we are not a normal country to have such a system and recommends that now we should become a normal country and change the system.
So the report makes the grand discovery that changes have to be made to the university stipend system to make public funding of the university more sustainable, to divert to the university’s academic resources part of the funds going to students’ stipends and to make our young people wake up to the reality that the rest of the world does not owe them a living and they have to start sharing part of the costs that taxpayers are investing in them by funding the university with their taxes.
Being the Education Minister of the 1996-98 Labour government when we set about reforming the stipend system I could not help smiling to myself as I turned the pages of the report. The arguments presented there in favour of changing the system were considered wrong then. They have become “right” now. In 1997 and 1998 the Labour government got no support when it set about reforming the stipend system for students to start financing their university education through a bank loan scheme to be paid when they start earning a salary in the future.
A few senior PN politicians, top people in religious orders and in business organisations had told me that individually (but very “confidentially” they whispered to me) they agreed with the need to change the stipend system. University students had protested in the main streets of Valletta. All sorts of colourful abuse and obscenities were hurled at me during those protests. Even then I could understand that young people brought up in a nest feathered by the stipend system would be very angry and upset for disturbing the comfort zone they had become accustomed to demand as their ‘right.’
Even now, as then, I do not fault the students for wanting to defend the comfort zone of the stipend and smart card system. I fault the PN and its politicians for corrupting our young people with the stipend system and depriving them of the mindset, skills and competencies they need to survive and thrive in the 21 century world. The stipend system is in fact only one aspect of the unsustainable and reckless policies the PN in government has followed over the years with only one goal in mind: “Spend money on what you think will buy you a vote.”
I feel very frustrated when students from European countries coming to our university on the Socrates programme ask me to explain how our government gives money to individual students to buy books but then do not have money to give to the university to buy books for its library. I am very worried about the reputation of our university with these overseas students. They are not impressed that the university was founded in 1592. They judge us on the quality of our lecturing, course content and resources available at the University. More important than what the overseas students think of us … is the crucial issue of the inadequacies of our university in equipping our students with the necessary knowledge, skills and abilities that our country needs to succeed in the 21 century.
Till just over a year ago, before the EU referendum and the general elections, the PN and its politicians continued to lull voters into believing that public finances were on a sound footing. Public funding of education, health and welfare was sustainable and we could look forward to a future of prosperity, guaranteed jobs, a dramatic improvement in our environment and our quality of life. As expected, the Nationalist ministers who brought us to the present unsustainable situation of the public deficit and debt are finding it hard themselves to adjust to the real world and start governing in a responsible manner.
I remember in one of the first speeches I gave in parliament after I was elected for the first time 12 years ago, I raised the issue of the sustainability of our stipend system at the university and quoted the Yevgeny Yevtuschenko poem ‘Do not lie to young people.’ In this poem the poet appeals to politicians not to deceive young people and give them the impression that all is right with the world and that there no problems that they have to learn to face, cope with and overcome.
I think the message of the poem is still very relevant for all of us in politics. The politics of deceit has destroyed the resilience of the people of this country. We need a real change.