It’s quiet down at the University campus in Tal-Qroqq. The generous Lm60 a month stipend is up for reform and yet there are no angry voices emerging from the common room where the students’ council (KSU) is housed. One of the hottest issues faced by university and post-secondary students seven years ago is up for debate again, but stipend reform today barely stirs up a voice of dissent. This time round, the Nationalist government is in power.
Back in 1997, Labour faced an angry mass of thousands of students who took to the streets on Budget day to protest a cut in their university stipend, down to a flat Lm50 a month from what had been a starting Lm60 incrementing by some Lm20 every year of study at University.
Education Minister Louis Galea clearly believes in the need for stipend reform today, although back in 1997 the Nationalist opposition had little to share on the issue with the Labour government.
Following the PN’s swift re-election in 1998, students were regaled with a Lm60 monthly stipend, a yearly Lm200 book fund, and a one-off gift of Lm400. The student vote was a very responsive one then, albeit a fickle and pampered one.
But here’s a fundamental difference: the Nationalist’s proposed changes do not come banging rudely weeks before Budget day. Instead, a Higher Education Funding working committee is appointed, led by newly-appointed Bank of Valletta chairman Roderick Chalmers, which meets students and authorities alike, and spells out the truth with a report that identifies areas of concern well known to the general public.
The overly generous stipend, well above the EU average, is disproportionate to the actual investment that goes into education, with institutions facing incredible budgetary pressures. The solution will take in any possible alternative – stipend cuts, the return of the much-maligned bank loans, and possibly even admission fees for university.
Add to that a gradual phasing-in of reforms: lengthier, possibly costlier; but a consultation process which makes reforms less painful and easily understandable.
Former KSU president Manuel Delia, at the forefront of the student protests in 1997, is conscious of the fact that the Nationalist government’s political machine is far better oiled than that of Labour. Delia says dialogue and consultation between Government and those sectors affected by its decisions “are the more desirable way of conducting policy.”
Not so in 1997 however, when Labour were pressed to cut down a deficit inherited from the Nationalist government’s previous ten-year tenure. Former Labour Education Minister Evarist Bartolo would incur the wrath of the 10,000 plus student mass, but today he still believes that circumstances militated against a well-meaning reform:
“Remember that between 1996 and 1998 Labour had a very strong sense of urgency about trying to face the deficit which was much bigger than we expected. We turned the challenge into a crusade and felt we had no time to address it so we had to push things through. The PN can make these changes at a more leisurely step, even if it takes years and makes the deficit problem worse.”
His opinion piece published in today’s edition MaltaToday (page 18), although evoking bitterness, outlines the lament of a politician beguiled by the laborious complexities of politics: “I could not help smiling to myself as I turned the pages of the [Chalmers] report,” Bartolo writes. “The arguments presented in favour of changing the system were considered wrong then. They have become ‘right’ now.”
Although Louis Galea has until now slalomed around stipend reform smoothly, the government deficit is so high today that its branding in the national psyche no longer means government is no longer the ‘Father Christmas’ which Bartolo says the people expected it to be, “coming with a sack of gifts every day. They still felt money was ‘no problem,’ as the Nationalists had grown accustomed to, and felt shocked Labour was taking steps to face an unpleasant reality.”
Despite all the political gloss, opinions do change with a Nationalist government in power. Manuel Delia, today a member of Minister Austin Gatt’s personal secretariat, may no longer feel strongly about the issue that had him perch solemnly with the rest of the KSU in front of Parliament on Budget day:
“As you rightly point out, I am a former student leader, emphasis on the word ‘former’. When I was a student leader, my colleagues and I spoke for ourselves. I think today’s student leaders need no help in making their own case.”
Family and Social Solidarity Minister Dolores Cristina, an educator by profession, was also present at the students’ protest in 1997, but she says she was not against reform back then.
“I said it was important that whoever had the required academic level must not be precluded from access to further education for social or financial reasons. I still believe in that. The 1997 proposals were put forward just one month before the budget and a decision taken within the month. What I said was that drastic and sudden changes were unfair and that these would cause hardship to many students. I had also said I was aware there were students who needed the stipends more than others but certain students were not using their stipends for educational purposes. This is still the case now.”
Michael Briguglio, today still a member of the radical left-wing group Moviment Graffitti, was also present for the 1997 protests.
“Back in 1997, Labour quickly presented three very similar options that brought about hostility from students who felt they were not being consulted. The Nationalist Government is using a different strategy, whereby consultation does take place and stakeholders may feel ‘included’ in the policy formulation. Whether the resultant policy will represent the interests of students, both present and future, is another matter.”
Although Education Minister Louis Galea knows the chickens have come to roost, he can painlessly acknowledge this fact now that the first hurdle of reform has already been overcome.
Evarist Bartolo still finds fault with the PN for “corrupting” the young with the stipend system, one which he says has had only one goal in mind – “spend money on what you think will buy you a vote.”
In the end however, stipend reform truly maps out a lesson in the art of politics, and this is just another Nationalist masterpiece.