Interview | Sunday, 14 December 2008

Fear thy lecturers

It might be too early for newly appointed University Ombudsman Prof. Charles Farrugia to point fingers at the shortcomings of the country’s highest education institutions, but one thing already stands out: it’s fear

University campuses abroad in the 1960s were the fierce battlegrounds from where angry young students launched their revolution against the establishment in violent protests that shook their countries.
On Malta’s campus, students were much tamer, organising the occasional protest in the memory of Jan Palach and the campaign for social housing. Forty years later, not only is revolution not on their minds, they are just scared shitless.
According to a survey carried out by the university students’ council (KSU), 44% of students are afraid of lodging a complaint against a lecturer, fearing “repercussions” or some sort of negative consequence.
KSU’s records of complaints it receives show that throughout the years, there are trends of complaints featuring regularly, including late publishing of results, lack of transparency in assessment procedure, refusal to disclose information, and high failure rate in certain courses.
“More worryingly, most students decide not to proceed with their complaints fearing repercussions,” the KSU had said in its review of the university ombudsman’s performance.
As the previous Ombudsman himself noted in his 2005 annual report, while the number of students continued to rise, the number of cases filed at his office continued to decline.
As the new University Ombudsman, Prof. Charles Farrugia now finds himself entrusted with the investigating complaints by students and staff at Tal-Qroqq, MCAST and the Institute of Tourism Studies, overlooking the high education institutions’ dealings with some 14,000 students and staff.
Despite its importance, it is a position which barely features on the students’ minds. In a survey carried out by KSU in 2002, only 4.9% of students knew where to find the office of the university ombudsman – when it was still situated at the old university building in Valletta – while just 4.1% knew how to file a complaint. Only 4.9% of students knew about the Ombudsman.
According to another KSU review of the university ombudsman published last year, the ombudsman’s office was described as “de facto inaccessible”.
The report penned by KSU’s education coordinator Daniela Bartolo shows just how inaccessible the office was. “Whilst compiling this report, I tried calling the office of the university ombudsman several times and also went to his office on three occasions,” Bartolo wrote about her attempts last July – a month that is associated with a rise in the number of complaints arising from the publication of exam results. “However, despite leaving a number of messages to return my phone calls, this was never the case. After seeking for explanation for this absence, I was told that there was no one at the office of the University Ombudsman.”
The 67-year-old professor, former Pro-Rector and founder dean of the faculty of education, is aware of the unpopularity of the office he has inherited, although he intends working on visibility and accessibility. He believes the recent incorporation with the parliamentary ombudsman’s office should also help in that regard.
“The KSU report shows that very few students know about this office, but fortunately, when I was appointed, there was quite a good exposure, so that should have helped a bit in raising awareness. Obviously I will also rely on the media in giving their coverage of this office.”
About the students’ fear of retribution from their lecturers, Prof. Farrugia says he was surprised to learn of it after all these years working with them.
“I’m concerned about it, and to tell you the truth I’ve become more aware of it now. There are a lot of students who are afraid to lodge a complaint because they fear someone might seek revenge. I was surprised to learn this, as I never felt it at the faculty of education. It’s a shame because either we have vindictive lecturers or else we have students who do not have the courage to denounce inequalities or injustices. We have to look into this and find ways of overcoming this fear. I still have to establish how true this is.”
Having himself been on the university’s administration, I ask Prof. Farrugia whether his being too close to home will help at all, potentially having to investigate his own colleagues.
“University’s most important client is the student. I have always taken that view, as a lecturer, as Dean of the Faculty of Education, and as Pro-Rector. It’s true that I might be investigating a complaint against a former colleague of mine, but I’ve been in that position before as Pro-Rector. I would have to tackle incidents and take decisions with regard to my colleagues, so I take it as part of my work hazard, so to speak.”
Among the cases he inherited and new ones that have just come in, Prof. Farrugia has several related to students with special needs who want to sit for Matsec exams, while others are about staff appointments and promotions. Other cases were filed by students who expected to get better grades or degree classification.
“I don’t go into the merits of whether a student deserves an ‘A’ or a ‘B’, as I’m not an expert in all subjects taught at university; that’s up to the examiners to decide. The ombudsman’s job is to check whether the set procedure has been followed. There are objective criteria and from what I’ve seen so far the grading is quite fair.”
Let’s say he gets a complaint about a brilliant academic who is awful at teaching. What would he do?
“If the complainant is right about the lecturer’s inability to deliver a lecture, then I will raise the issue with the university authorities to act upon it. If someone is employed to teach and his or her teaching methods are seriously lacking, then something has to be done about it. Academic staff employed by university are not only employed for lecturing, there is research too. So one may not be employed to teach but also to conduct research. The person may be given training to communicate better, or maybe student hours are reduced in favour of research, or having fewer students in class.
“One advantage I have over my predecessor is that I now form part of the office of the general ombudsman, so I have all the resources of the ombudsman’s office. I intend to be as accessible as possible, by being physically on the campuses in my responsibility and by setting up electronic complaint forms. I’m eager to meet students’ organisations
About the ongoing controversy on the university lecturers’ collective agreement, Prof. Farrugia declines to comment, citing his obligation not to interfere in trade union issues, yet he does agree that any change should also carry with it reforms that benefit students.
But there is one area where students will not find a sympathetic ear from Prof. Farrugia, and that is plagiarism.
Himself the former chairman of the quality assurance committee, which was entrusted with seeking ways of clamping down on plagiarism, Prof. Farrugia says there is nothing that offends him more than getting plagiarised work from his students.
“I would feel very offended when a student would give me work that is plagiarised. It is really offensive. I would expect students to give me their ideas, not someone else’s. Plagiarism is on the increase, although I don’t want to be categorical. But in essence we are training our students from a very young age to plagiarise. I look at my nephews, who are always given projects at school. They go on Google, upload images and websites, everything is cut and paste, print and the project is ready. And they get good grades. So we are giving the impression very early in our educational system that there’s nothing wrong with copying other people’s work and presenting it as if it was yours. The system is encouraging that mentality.
“The most ludicrous case of plagiarism I have ever come across was when I was pro-Rector in charge of students’ discipline. I had this student who was accused of plagiarising his thesis. We faced him with the charge; we told him ‘you’ve copied all your thesis, word for word’. His answer was: ‘Why did you bring me here? That thesis was too good, I couldn’t write anything better’.”
Yet, while technology has made it easier and perhaps more tempting for students to plagiarise, it is also proving efficient in detecting plagiarism itself.
“Nowadays it’s very easy to catch students plagiarising, even just by using Google,” Prof. Farrugia said.

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