Evarist Bartolo | Sunday, 18 January 2009

A university for the 21st century

The very good news last Thursday – i.e., that the overwhelming majority of the academic staff of the University and the Junior College accepted a new collective agreement giving them new and improved working conditions – must not be used to make important issues concerning the future of our university disappear from the national agenda.
These issues are not headline-grabbing as they have no large tangible constituency making its voice heard, like students rightly clamouring not to have their education and examinations used as a bargaining tool in the difficult negotiation process regarding the new collective agreement of the academic staff.
But these issues are very crucial for the future of our university and if they are not resolved positively, our university runs the risk of falling further behind in the ability to face the challenges that lie ahead. Improved working conditions for the academic staff of the University are essential building blocks for a better future for our university, but they are not enough. We must decide whether we want a better university capable of fulfilling an important national role in improving the efforts to improve our quality of life and in becoming a top quality lecturing and research institution that can compare well with good universities in Europe, the United States and Asia.
Government is not investing enough funds in the university to enable it to reach high international standards cooperate and compete successfully with top universities in Europe, the Mediterranean and the rest of the world. Although year after year, government carries out an incessant propaganda campaign about the abundant funds that it gives university, facts prove otherwise. Our university has great difficulties making ends meet and definitely does not have enough funds to improve the quality of the lecturing and carry out research projects that are so necessary for our country.
To make matters worse, away from the scrutiny of parliament and the media government has not been passing on to university all the funds approved in parliament during the budget debate. So the University administrators, instead of focusing on their proper tasks of leading the university forward, have to waste time and energy chasing the Finance Ministry as if they are Oliver Twists.
They should not be wasting their time and scarce resources chasing the Finance Ministry to pass on the funds. They have enough difficult challenges to meet on how to improve the quality of its lecturing, enhance its research capability by networking with other Universities, to attract more overseas students and provide new courses in the evening for adults who want to go to university. With a new collective agreement for the academic staff these tasks will be now more achievable but more needs to be done to enable the university to carry out its vital role.
We need to change the Education Act to make our university a 21st century institution. We need to change the way it is run and make it more efficient. We need to make it possible for the university to have other sources of funding. We must also take steps to improve the public budgeting process that so far is the only source of finance for the university. All talk of university autonomy is simply nonsensical if it continues to be treated the way it has always been treated by the government. How can the university plan its future and embark on long term projects if it gets its funds from government on a year to year basis?
The university cannot operate any longer under this constraint and we must change the necessary rules and practices to enable the university to have at least a three year plan with sufficient public funds negotiated with government. Otherwise the university is not going to be in a position to meet its national, European and other international commitments adequately. Nothing terrible will happen, the gates will remain open, every year thousands of students will enter and graduate from university, some research projects will be going on …but to a large extent the university would be simply drifting forwards.
The way the University is run must be modernized and made more efficient if it is to move into the 21st century.

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