MaltaToday, 20 Feb 2008 | Only in it for the money

NEWS | Sunday, 20 February 2008

Only in it for the money

Monday’s Campus Debate taught us more about the true aspirations of university students than about the party leaders and their electoral platforms. RAPHAEL VASSALLO on the cult of the University Stipend

If university students represent the intellectual future of this country, none of us is going to need shades any time soon.
Leaving aside all the fuss about their treatment of Alfred Sant (a fuss which was largely disproportionate: booing and cheering being as much a part of student life as getting drunk and sitting for exams), what emerged from Monday’s debate was the extraordinary lack of interest displayed by the students in any of the myriad issues raised by the four speakers on the dais.
With one obvious exception: money.
Which is a pity really, because otherwise, the well-organised debate made a refreshing change from the stage-managed press conferences we have grown so used to of late. For one thing, no moderators stepped in to shield their party leaders from awkward questions; for another, despite the aggression from some sections of the audience, the actual debate was uncharacteristically civil for a change.
It must said that all four party leaders made interesting revelations. For instance: Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi boldly claimed that, contrary to assertions by MLP deputy leader Charles Mangion, his own deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) was not deficient – much to the appreciation of students from the Department of Molecular Biology, who applauded loud and long.
AD’s Harry Vassallo may have startled a few voters with his declaration that, if elected to form part of a coalition, he would bring down the government if it proposes another golf course at Xaghra l-Hamra; and Josie Muscat raised few hands (but many eyebrows) by asking how many students hailed from the South of the country.
On his part, Opposition leader Alfred Sant tried to make his own proposals for Malta’s foremost academic institution heard above the chorus of disapproval – proposals which seem to include more funding for the library and for the University ombudsman; but it soon became apparent that little of this really mattered to an audience which only seemed to pay attention when the talk turned to the subject of their precious stipends.
And it turned that way often, with both Gonzi and Sant (and to a lesser extent Josie and Harry) endlessly repeating the same old promise that stipends will not be touched. This was clearly all the students really wanted to hear; for when the party leaders debated issues such as corruption, social services and public health, their arguments were often drowned out by the hubbub of bored conversation from the stalls.
But if the audience reaction spoke volumes about the chief concerns of university students in 2008, the biggest give-away was Round Two of the debate: when students asked their own questions from the floor.
As it turned out, only three questions were actually asked – one of which by the President of the Student Council (see “Sant’s finest moment” above). Of these, the only half-decent one also happened to be about money, with Insiter magazine contributor Anna Abela asking for specific details about the parties proposed financing schemes for the university.
The others? I’ll give you a clue: seven letters, two syllables, starts with an “S”…


Ups and downs

Alfred Sant

Finest moment
During student question time, KSU president David Herrera reminded Alfred Sant that students had protested against the Labour government’s decision to cut stipends in 1997. Sant replied by reminding Herrera that he himself had not complained or protested when Gonzi’s administration had similarly slashed stipends in 2005. Two weights, two measures graphically exposed.

Biggest blooper
Despite the journalist’s repeated attempts, Sant was unable or unwilling to answer a direct question about his failure to accept the referendum result in 2003, or to give a guarantee that future referenda will be respected under Labour. Instead he just complained that the question wasn’t about corruption within government. Boos entirely justified, at least on this occasion.

Lawrence Gonzi

Finest moment
On the PN’s environmental credentials, Gonzi admitted to having made a number of mistakes: notably, the proposal for a golf course in Xaghra l-Hamra. The difference between PN and MLP, he insisted, is that the former has no problem acknowledging when it is wrong and changing its policies accordingly. This was greeted by long and merited applause.

Biggest blooper
Asked why the PN seems to be running a negative campaign built entirely on fear of Alfred Sant, Gonzi replied by turning to Alfred Sant and rubbishing his answer to a previous question… providing in the process a graphic illustration of the validity of the question in the first place.

Harry Vassallo

Finest moment
The AD chairman’s strongest arguments came when the subject turned to rent reform. Deflecting criticism that his party had abandoned the lower income brackets to appeal to the rich, Harry insisted that the issue was all about social justice, and accused the larger parties of neglecting the reality of 53,000 vacant properties for their own political reasons.

Biggest blooper
After Friday’s fiery performance on Xarabank, some may have been disappointed at Harry’s failure to lose his temper this time round. But he was altogether too calm, failing to ignite enthusiasm despite the huge alphabetical advantage of his surname, which allowed him the final say of the all-important closing statements.

Josie Muscat

Finest moment
Asked to justify his “flirtation” with hunters, Josie whipped out a copy of the Aggornat edition of June 2003 – announcing that spring hunting would be permissible in the EU – shouting “Lies! Lies!” to the ecstatic of applause of at least one audience member. Good rabble-rousing stuff, made all the better for being actually true.

Biggest blooper
Almost immediately after the above-mentioned fine display of righteous anger, Josie resorted to “inappropriate language” (exact quote: “jitnejku bikom”), at which point it was hard to tell the 19-year-old university student from the 64-year-old hospital director.

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20 February 2008

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