Michael Falzon | Sunday, 05 July 2009
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Dahrendorf revisited – again and again!

The death of Ralf Dahrendorf on June 17 provoked a number of newspapers to recall his ‘Malta connection’. Described in an obituary in a recent issue of The Economist as a thinker and politician who ‘spent his life defining and defending liberty’, Dahrendorf had a distinguished academic career as a professor at Tubingen, Konstanz, Columbia, Harvard and the London School of Economics (LSE) as well as a politician having been German Minister under Wily Brandt, an EEC Commissioner and later a member of Britain’s House of Lords.
Dahrendorf first met then Prime Minister Dom Mintoff in the early seventies, when he visited Malta as a member of a German government delegation and Mintoff befriended him to the extent that he later appointed him Chairman of the University commission that should have had an important advisory role as regards the direction of our University’s development. No doubt, Mintoff’s charm had once again made a very good catch.
Eventually Dahrendorf’s Malta connection proved to be a case of the proverbial pearls before swine. Dom Mintoff’s ‘sweeping’ reforms in University Education in the eighties led to Dahrendorf publicly denouncing them and resigning from his post.
Mintoff reduced our University to an organiser of ‘utilitarian courses’, i.e. courses that led to a qualification that gave one a practical profession such as that of medical doctors, lawyers, architects, engineers, teachers and accountants. This spirit led to the abolition of the faculties of science and arts and to the institution of the student-worker system whereby students worked for six months and attended university for the other six months. A strict ‘numerus clausus’ resulting from an assessment of the country’s future needs by the all-knowing socialist state was introduced. Entry was limited to those students that were sponsored and obtained the most number of points in a race based on a sham meritocracy that donated an extra twenty points (later reduced to ten) to students coming from state schools – a short-sighted acted of apparent positive discrimination that was actually a very negative one, reflecting the regime’s class-oriented bias.
The result of this bizarre system was that our university education was blighted for a number of years with the number of students in tertiary education decreasing instead of increasing as the country actually needed if it were to move on. Youngsters who wanted to enter University starting taking ‘O’ Level exams in as many as sixteen subjects – including needlework – so as to obtain as many points as possible! Another interesting, but unintended, side-effect of the system was that the percentage of university female students dwindled to a trickle as employers acting as sponsors calculated that a male graduate employee was a less risky long-term investment.
Dahrendorf, of course, realised what was going to happen and would have no truck with it. In his letter of resignation – dated June 6, 1978 – from his post as Chairman of the University Commission that recalled by some newspapers on the occasion of his death, he told Mintoff he could no longer advise him on higher education, either informally or as a member of the commission, as he could not continue to be identified with higher education policies, which “offend my values, are out of line with my experience and contradict the recommendations which I have made in the past”.
His most damning comment in his letter of resignation was, of course: “Others elsewhere in the world have tried such a scheme and failed. It produces either unhappy workers or under-qualified students, or both. It adds nothing to education or to social integration.”
The rest is history. But history is now being revisited!
Following the news of Dahrendorf’s death, Joseph Muscat’s Labour Party decided to issue a press statement to salute his memory. The statement said that Dahrendorf was a great friend of Malta adding that he was involved in the turbulent and complex history of our country’s higher education in which he had a positive role that needs to be re-evaluated in the light of the particular historical context of those times! (Dahrendorf kien ħabib kbir ta’ Malta. Kien involut fil-ġrajja imqanqla u kumplessa ta’ l-edukazzjoni għolja f’pajjiżna, f’liema ġrajja kellu rwol pożittiv li jeħtieġ li jiġi evalwat mill-ġdid fid-dawl tal-kuntest storiku partikolari ta’ dak iż-żmien)
Those who, like me, who had lived in those ‘turbulent’ times must have felt their stomach turn on reading this piece of garbled nonsense. More so, those whose life was permanently short-changed as a result of their not being able to get a university education for which they were amply qualified.
Mysteriously, Labour’s electronic news-site, Maltastar, abridged that particular paragraph in the Labour Party’s statement simply saying that ‘The PL said that Dahrendorf was a friend of the country and was involved in the educational reform in Malta.’
Writing in the GWU weekly it-Torċa, last Sunday, Mario Vella (Dahrendorf riviżitat) made an audacious attempt at explaining and justifying the Labour Party’s weird statement on Dahrendorf’s Maltese connection. Vella, who now touts himself as Chairman of the Labour Party’s working group on thought and action (ħsieb u azzjoni) is considered by many – including himself – as Labour’s éminence grise, the grey shadowy force behind the throne.
In his article, Vella starts off by imagining Dahrendorf pitying the Maltese on reading what had been written on him in the last few days, goes on to recall his own experience at the LSE, berates Herbert Ganado for insinuating that the LSE was a hotbed of budding Marxists and then – finally – comes to the point. According to Vella, Labour’s University reforms are too fresh in many people’s memories for that story to be written objectively and serenely. He says that the choice of Dahrendorf to lead the University commission was a good one – as if someone had ever said it was not – and then goes on to expound on Labour’s statement saluting Dahrendorf on his death.
Avoiding to recall what had really happened, Vella explained that had Labour then (in the eighties) interpreted Dahrendorf’s dissent correctly there would have been a number of persons who could have moved nearer to the party rather than distancing themselves from it, while others near the party would not have left it. It is in this sense, Vella explained, that Dahrendorf’s role was a positive one. It was an alarm signal, a warning on social unsustainability and political heavy-handedness. According to Vella, in a moment when Labour needed to broaden its ‘hegemony’ (his choice of word!) in all civil society, it burnt thousand of allies that it desperately needed.
Vella concludes his article by pointing out the difference between the tone of the Labour Party’s statement and the other statements and comments made in Maltese newspapers. According to him these show that there some who do not miss an opportunity to raise again the spirit of confrontation and holy war prevalent in times that need a lot of courage and intellectual maturity to be understood.
This is just load of nonsense masquerading as intellectual commentary – an exercise in historical distortion; vacillation and dithering about undeniable facts; and the fabrication of excuses in a feeble attempt to justify an unjustifiable aspect of Labour’s past.
It is an indication of the biggest conundrum being faced by Joseph Muscat’s Labour: it cannot detach itself from the past that condemned it to so many years in opposition. Following the results of the European Parliament election, Muscat is claiming that a new electoral alliance beyond the limitations of Labour’s traditional support is being formed under his leadership. My personal assessment is that this is not really happening.
Moreover, I think it cannot happen unless Muscat makes a clean breast of Labour’s past mistakes. If he clearly declares that labour was absolutely wrong on certain issues – like University reform – and commit himself clearly to new ways while unconditionally burying the past, I think that in the current circumstances he would stand a good chance of pulling off the ‘coalition’ that he is prematurely flaunting.
In trying to justify that past while at the same time indirectly accepting that there was something wrong – as Mario Vella attempted to do – Labour falls between two stools and so misses a unique historical chance to reinvent itself and make the political comeback that matters.


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