insiteronline

Of pancakes, hot dogs and beer

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Hello children, it’s me again.  Forgive the condescending tone, but you must all be pretty used to it by now.  After all, you’ve just spent two whole weeks being told what the nice people in the big photos are going to do for you if you tick the box next to their name, all the while being stuffed with free pancakes and hot dogs and beer.  The fatter the pig, the richer the meal.

This year’s student elections had their own beautiful oxymorons to reflect upon, and who better to do it than your not-so-friendly neighbourhood Nitpicker.  The first glimpse I got of this year’s campaigns were the approximately five thousand and seventy four colourful banners leading up to Quad, half of which were shouting PAVING THE WAY at me, which ironically turned the whole pathway into a narrow corridor of awkward shuffling of students rushing off to their lectures against others who were just casually strolling up to listen to that horrible One Republic song being played for the sixty sixth time that afternoon.  No more counting dollars, we’ll be counting how many times I had to listen to that tune while having to walk past the SDM vs. Pulse Daily DJ Mix-Off, gathering enough flyers and booklets to kill a tree or two on the way.

One of the easiest criticisms to whip out when it comes to student elections is the commonly-held belief that SDM is as much of a collection of Nationalist puppets as Pulse is a Labour megaphone.  Representatives from both organisations have over the years done their very best (which is clearly not nearly good enough) to overcome this dogma, and yet, here we are, in 2014, with a now one-year-old new Government, with both groups opting for slightly different shades of blue, and most people still can’t tell the difference between student elections and national ones.  All we know is that one of them has a larger bearing on society in general and our futures, and that we have an obligation to vote since our voice will have an overarching difference in the grand scheme of things – I’ll let you be big boys and girls and decide for yourselves which is which (NB: be wary of trick questions, it might be neither).

The sheer beauty of it all, however, came about when, during a heated (it was around 21 degrees if I’m not mistaken, and I stupidly had a jacket on) debate between SDM and Pulse, if one had to – if only for a second – deviate their awed stares from the two gods-to-be on the panel, they could see Lino Bianco, a Labour Party MEP candidate, sneaking around, talking to disinterested people at the back of the crowd, handing out business cards like there’s no tomorrow.  He eventually made his way towards me, and because my affectionately cradling a pint of beer at the far back didn’t put him off enough, actually started talking about why he was there.  I’m honestly not trying to play the part of a nonchalant cool kid here – I have no idea what he said.  All I know is that by the time he was finished, I grinned and said, “What a way to promote non-political allegiance to a student group by coming here to do this today of all days, am I right?”, to which he smiled, said he agreed, shook my hand and left to harass another lonely soul.  The poor bugger didn’t even get my snide sarcastic comment, and he wants my go ahead to go to Brussels.

I’m writing this on midnight of Thursday the 10th of April.  In a coupe of hours’ time, my phone is going to start going off every couple of minutes, with people I barely know from sight calling me up and speaking to me as if we were long-lost lovers.  I’m actually going to leave my phone charging all night, with the hopes that it would be ready to face the day with a much-needed 160% battery.  One can only hope that this year, I’m offered a chauffeur service to campus, with an all-inclusive pit-stop at the new McDrive on my way there, so I won’t be forced to vote on an empty stomach.  The funny thing is, I’m probably not even going to add anything to this rant after the results come out. I would have, but then again it wouldn’t make any difference whatsoever.  This feels like that one time when Matt Stone and Trey Parker, creators of South Park, had finished an entire episode that was pretty much all to do with the presidential election on the eve of the results coming out and of the episode airing, and then just added Obama as the protagonist instead of whoever the other guy running against him was.  Different name, different country, same bull.

Now I understand that no one can afford to do the incentives we’ve seen happen these last couple of days all year round (unless whoever gets elected receives an additional 250,000 Euro just to spend on more pancakes and hot dogs), but why splurge on this one-off occasion? Why does Quadrangle need to be literally dead and dull on practically every other day, only to be transformed into the Paceville stairs when the people behind it expect something back for all the air hockey and Nutella they’re willing to offer for free (given you line up like hungry dogs and wait an hour or two in the blistering sun)?  Surely, the people who get my vote are the ones who want it to be this way as often as possible? Who am I kidding though, talking about votes as if I was actually considering voting this year round.   Of course, I’m not in any way urging you to do the same; brainwashing was never my forte.  If you feel like things will really change if you vote for one specific group of twenty somethings and not the other, or if you’re afraid that your candidate friends won’t speak to you anymore unless you rush off and vote for them, then by all means, go forth and tick boxes.  As for me though, when I feel that there’s a bigger difference than a couple of names (because I can’t even say I prefer one colour to the other anymore), then I might actually have a ponder or two about the matter.  But until then, it’s downing free beers and listening to One bloody Republic yet again.

 

 

Posted in Opinion

Gerada vs Callus: who came out on top?

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In case you missed it, and in which case I suppose you can be accused of being possessed by the demon that is student apathy, then yesterday at UoM saw the last major pre-KSU election event, where Gayle Lynn Callus and Clive Gerada, SDM and Pulse’s respective presidential hopefuls, squared off against each other in a heated and very well-balanced debate.

The two were never really at odds over the importance of certain implementations. Both Callus and Gerada highlighted the need for KSU to continue bridging the gap between University and the workplace. The two both plan to ‘go green’, partly through increasing the number of available bicycle racks on campus and through the promotion of carpooling strategies. Both of them also made their stances on the civil union bill clear; both agreed whole-heatedly with it, with Callus arguably going against SDM’s recent press release that suggested the student organization’s willingness to engage in ‘discussions’ about the issue. Clive Gerada also praised SDM for their soon-to-be successful Quad Refurbishment Project and Gayle Lynn Callus promised Gerada that Pulse’s plans to make Gozo Ferry trips transport-refundable for Gozitan students will be drafted into SDM’s ambitions for 2014-15 should they win the election.

All they really disagreed about was each other’s strategies for dealing with the same problems faced by UoM students. For example, with regards the parking problem, Gerada argued in favour of a future deal with the government to extend their current Park-and-Ride scheme to cater more effectively for those students who live in the south of the island and of a future negotiated deal with the University regarding the resurfacing of Car Park 6. Callus’ proposals included the setting up of a sensor system within the car park outside Quad that will automatically inform students as soon as it reaches its maximum parking capacity, thus saving them from frustrating and fruitless drives down the narrow road leading up to that car park. He also pledged to continue working on last year’s white box parking proposal that will, after midday, allow students to park in the white parking spaces that are currently reserved for lecturers. The argument that was raised by Gerada against this scheme concerns the fact that the white parking spaces will still not be available to students before midday which is when students have most trouble finding parking. However, I find it highly unlikely that University officials will allow for the possibility of lecturers not finding any parking spaces in the morning and having to cancel or arrive late to their lectures as a result. It is students who need lecturers, not the other way around, and as such it is only right that they possess certain privileges that students do not.

With regards events, Gerada criticized the previous KSU for focusing too heavily on them. While they are important contributors to student life, he asserted that KSU should not have spent almost 50% of their annual funding on them. It is a point that many KSU-critics have raised against them and by looking at their financial report you will find that KSU’s expenditure on events including Freshers’ Week during 2013 was a whopping grand total of around 147,000 euro. However, you cannot just focus on one side of the coin and indeed KSU’s income generated from events including Freshers’ Week throughout 2013 comes up to 159,000 euro, around 60% of their total income. It still remains difficult, in my opinion, to justify the splashing out of over 70,000 euro on one single Grad Ball though and perhaps the educated cutting of some event costs is not a bad idea.

One of Clive Gerada’s major proposals was the creation of a far more transparent KSU, particularly where finances are concerned. I do not in any way claim financial and legal expertise so I will not linger too long on this point. Gerada proposed the publication of monthly KSU audits in a transparent manner. Callus reminded him that KSU cannot just decide to publish an audit whenever they feel like it and that their financial reports are already available on their website. I will leave the first point to the lawyers but, with regards the second point, I have to admit that I did not find such financial information after three minutes of browsing through their website. Surely it should be front-page information.

Finally, with regards the thorny issue of ‘student apathy’ which I have already stated my personal view on in a recent article, both parties seem to me to have their heads faced in the right direction. Both Gerada and Callus proposed schemes aimed at reducing the bureaucracy within KSU and at granting students, including those students who do not form part of an organization, a platform where their opinions can be heard. Of course such opinions should extend far beyond students’ thoughts on the locations of two new water fountains or their input in a Facebook competition to decide on the new face of Quad. Both Callus and Gerada promise to do just that but then again do the two parties not promise the same thing every year? What were their campaign slogans last year? ‘Together, Authors of a Better University’ and ‘Youniversity’. Will things be different this time round? I hope so, but I certainly won’t be getting my hopes up.

As a concluding remark, I strongly believe that a positive first step in tackling bureaucracy within KSU involves students voting for a mixed council. From listening to last Friday’s ‘KSU Candidates in the Hotseat’ debate and from personally speaking to several of the candidates from both sides, I believe that Pulse are stronger than SDM in some areas and SDM are stronger than Pulse in others. Not everybody knows this fun fact and indeed I only discovered it within the past few weeks but the KSU election voting system is a first-past-the-post one. This means that candidates are elected to KSU depending on how many votes they themselves personally garner. A meritocratic mixed council based on the individual merits of every single candidate and not on their allegiance to the more popular party on campus is therefore possible. I will be voting in this way tomorrow and I encourage everybody who is reading this to do likewise.

Posted in Comment, Opinion

SDM and Pulse Manifestos: The differences

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Earlier today SDM and Pulse launched their manifestos for Thursday’s upcoming KSU election. While SDM released their whole manifesto booklet from start to finish this morning, Pulse opted for a more gradual approach by publishing a set of pledges on Friday, and then revealing their complete manifesto today a few hours after SDM. The documents of both sides are evidently longer this year, with focus as usual made on effective presentation. Still, Pulse maintained more concise content in comparison to SDM, with the latter going into far greater detail.

 

Both propose SDM PULSE
More sockets, charging bays and wi fi connectivity 1. More charging bays in the canteen, quadrangle and common room
2. More electrical sockets on campus, in lecture halls and green areas, as well as more wi fi spots
1. More electricity sockets at Quadrangle, OH and ALT
ERASMUS and exchanges 1. More ERASMUS+ opportunities for medicine and FEMA students
2. More information campaigns for prospective ERASMUS students
3. Minimum of 2 exchanges
1. Develop an Erasmus+ project to identify European-wide projects for the benefit of all
Better opportunities for Gozitan students 1. Work with GUG to maximize eligibility of Gozitan students going under exams in Gozo
2. More courses on Gozo campus
3. Luggage room with adequate security
1. Introduce refunds for Gozitans in conjunction with the Ministry of Gozo and the Gozo Channel
2. Set up a KSU Gozo subcommittee to facilitate transition for Gozitan students
3. Keep pushing for exam sessions in Gozo, particularly resits sessions
More Go Green initiatives 1. Discuss with University authorities the improvement of recycling facilities
2. Car pooling promotion on KSU website
3. More bicycle racks
1. Launch a car pooling strategy to encourage people living in the same vicinities to share car trips to University
2. Commission a waste separation management plan through KPS
3. Public air compressor for cyclists’ benefits
Regulate revision of paper and correcting 1.Ensure objective corrections and track correction of exam papers
2. Student sub committee in education office
3. 5 minute reading time during exams
4. Discuss possibility of eSims web app
1. Support the introduction of two Turnitin submissions as a common minimum for assignments
2. 5 minute reading time during exams
Reduce deadline to publish exam results 1. Reduce deadline publishing of January exam results 1. Introduce an Esims application notifying you about new publications of results
2. Engage in discussions with faculties targeting the timely publishing of results
Opportunities related to V.18 1. Ensure campus plays leading role in V.18, and creates plan of action 1. Aim to offer art scholarships for all students in collaboration with the V18 Foundation
Cultural events and activities 1. Art in Action space
2. Weekend live ins for all students
3. Festa Campus during Summer holidays
1. Organise activities such as KSU World Cup Village and KSU Sports Marathon
2. Promote the inclusion of student-organised activities on Campus such as the Malta Arts Festival through discussion with Malta Council for Culture and the Arts
Enchanced communication with Junior College 1. Training seminar for Sixth Form student councils
2. Organisations Fair at Junior College
1. Introduce a KSU JC App
2. Negotiate with MATSEC Board to introduce new subjects such as European Studies and Legal Studies
3. Hold discussions with the MATSEC Board to make subjects such as Psychology and PE available at Advanced Level
Sports facilities 1. Set up University sports complex
2. Emphasize well equipped sports facilities
1. Engage in discussions with University and Government officials aiming to create a Faculty of Sports and Physical Education
2. Campaign to place artificial turf on the 11-aside ground
3. Install a rubber surface on the University running track
Extended library hours 1. Ensure that extended hours during exam periods remain 1. Lobby for the extension of library opening hours to Sundays and public holidays during exam periods
Refurbishing of Quadrangle 1. Continue working on already advanced Quad refurbishment 1. Finalise the Quad Refurbishment Project
2. Increase Quad’s seating capacity and install extendable tents
More communication between KSU, student organizations and other bodies 1. Strengthen already functioning working groups and offer students new internships with KSU
2. KPS meetings in easily accessible areas with live streaming
3. Hub on KSU website for student organization to coordinate events
4. KSU seminar with organizations at the beginning of academic year
1. Publish online the latest approved Executive Board minutes
2. Hold bi-annual consultation session with every Faculty
3. Re-launch Organisations’ Day to increase student organisations’ exposure
4. Re-launch the International Officers’ Meetings to discuss international opportunities of benefit
Proposed funds 1. Rebuild 5,000 euro Junior College Fund
2. Strengthen KSU’s Transport Fund
3. Set up Student Welfare Fund to help students in financial need
1. Launch a 10,000 Euro Landscaping Fund
2. Establish an Alumni Contribution Fund through which past University students may voluntarily donate an annual sum in aid of RIDT
3. Launch KSU Sports Fund
Refunds and other reductions 1. Continue building on Culture Card 1.Improve the Smart Card Refund System in collaboration with SMGB
2. Introduce a KSU Resource Card offering discounts for international students with emphasis on local products
Student House and study areas 1. Continue working on future plans to relocate Student House
2. Convert the common room into a night time study area
1. Create a storage room in Students’ House
2. Develop a community kitchenette open for all students
3. Develop outdoor study area
Student inclusivity 1. Encouraging voluntary work amongst students, including through Freshers’ Week campaign
2. Improve accessibility for mobility impaired
1. Implement trans-inclusive policy to ensure equality for all
2. Hold a conference to evaluate and resolve the possible discrimination of international students
3. Improve accessibility for disabled person through an accessibility review
4. Promote civil rights and multicultural diversity amongst others through an official KSU Community Policy
Transport and parking 1. 15 minute notice before clamping
2. Time sensors in Car Park 4
3. Follow up on last year’s proposal to start Park and Ride
1. Resurfacing of Car Park 6
2. Improve KSU Application by incorporating bus routes to and from University
3. Extend park and ride proposal for students living in the South

 

3 Redundant Proposals by SDM:

1. Keep offering services such as parking permits, complaint handling, toga rentals and smart card refunds.
2. Build platform on KSU website for Gozitan students.
3. Keep KSU website up and running and improving it.

3 Redundant Proposals by Pulse:

1. Continue organising already well-renowned KSU events, such as Grad Ball, the Car Treasure Hunt, and the upcoming Summer bash, involving student organisations at the core of the planning process to their benefit.
2. Create a buddy system for first-year students to help them get accustomed to the University lifestyle
3. Give emerging talent an excellent platform to emerge through Campus Fest by widening the concept of the festival

Posted in Opinion

The Problem of Student Apathy

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Student apathy amongst University of Malta (UoM) students has been one of the hot topics of this year’s KSU elections with both Pulse and SDM adopting a strong stance against it and trying to convince students that they have what it takes to counter it. I use the word ‘apathy’ very loosely as the way it has been thrown around has been as a synonym for the gap between KSU and the student body as reflected in the perennially low turn-out of voters.

The language used when discussing this problem is crucial. By describing it as ‘student apathy’, the message is that the overall structure of KSU is fine but can be tweaked to accommodate those students who have to be pushed towards activity.

Well, the glaring, simple truth is that the structure of KSU is not fine, leastways not as an organization that claims to represent the needs and wishes of the student body. As Mina Tolu said, bluntly, but I believe quite accurately, during last Friday’s Candidates in the Hotseat Debate, organised by Insite Malta, students are primarily concerned about those issues that concern and affect them directly. I will argue that the same principle also applies to KSU candidates.

It is not a deep passion for the well-being of students that drives candidates on but a desire for political experience, contacts and a great-looking paragraph on their CVs. The majority of the student body can see through their pre-election rhetoric and the party slogans that always claim to place the ‘regular student’ at the centre of KSU. Massive faces of smiling candidates all around campus don’t encourage students to vote; in fact, they even repulse a lot of students. They know that, once election-time is over, the winning party will move up to their offices and the losing party will retreat to the background, only to re-emerge in a year’s time. Moreover, a large percentage of students believe that SDM and Pulse are simply microcosms of the two large Maltese political parties and that their views as stated in their manifestos are all but identical to each other.

I believe that Mark Grech was correct when he said, during Friday’s debate, that the way KSU is organised does not encourage active student involvement. Take last Wednesday’s AGM as an example. The KSU officials, dressed in suits, sat at the front of the hall. Doors were shut in students’ faces, a question asked by a student was temporarily dismissed, and the AGM was halted twice so that Thomas Bugeja could publicly criticize Insite’s live blog feed of the event. It was obvious where the power was centred and it was not within the student body as their campaign slogan ‘Together, Authors of a Better University’ had suggested it would be. With such a ‘we know best’ attitude, how can KSU expect anything but large-scale student apathy?

Now comes the tricky bit. How can KSU properly bridge the gap between themselves and the rest of the students?

  1. All KSU’s future decisions must be made transparent. It is not enough for their doors to be open to student queries. They must come out and tell the student body about such decisions themselves. For example, their decision to spend over €70,000 on last year’s Grad Ball was only made public during their AGM. That was a major decision and students should have had the right to know about it as soon as it had left their office.
  2. All announcements also have to be presented in English. UoM has a large body of foreign students, a lot of them who choose to study at the UoM precisely because English is its language of instruction. Whenever KSU presents something in Maltese, they subsequently isolate a significant percentage of students. Rhetoric and fancy buzzwords should also be abandoned. There is no shame in saying what needs to be said in a clear and simple manner.
  3. It is not enough that KSU’s decisions be made transparent though. They must also be decisions that have been suggested or approved by the student body. Working with other student organizations and student representatives is commendable but the majority of students do not fall under these categories. When Pulse and SDM release their manifestos, their respective candidates walk around campus, hand them out to individual students, and engage in discussion with any student who is willing to do so. This is a fine idea but why does it only occur during election time? KSU should regularly approach students in such a manner throughout the year, telling them what has been achieved and what is in the pipeline, as well as asking them for feedback and, dare I say it, advice.
  4. Finally it is about time that SDM and Pulse surrender their bipartisan nature and start aiming towards a more meritocratic KSU. If Friday’s debate proved anything to me, it was that some SDM candidates seem more capable of fulfilling their desired positions than their Pulse counterparts, and vice versa. As far as I am aware, a mixed students’ council has never been implemented within UoM but the benefits a true meritocracy can yield do not really need to be expounded on and I hope that Clive Gerada and Gayle Lynn Callus will discuss this issue and encourage students to vote for the individual candidates and not for the student organizations during tomorrow’s debate.
Posted in Opinion

Big Brother is watching students: The implications of Legal Notice 76

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“Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy,” claimed Ayn Rand in The Fountainhead. But today it seems that civilization is moving ever further away from the privacy of the individual. The latest issue in Malta is Legal Notice 76 of 2014, which concerns the regulation of data of all students enrolled in any educational institution.

Article 4 (3) of the Legal Notice gives the Minister for Education the right of access of “data relating to age, sex, ability, educational attainments and other data of the persons to whom they relate as appear to the Minister to be necessary to be used for research purposes and to provide for adequate advice to be given on employment prospects and to prepare plans for their training pursuant to the provisions of the Act.” Article 4 (2) stipulates that “This data shall include a legally valid identification document number due to the importance of secure identification of students.”

According to the Data Protection Act, “The identity card number may, in the absence of consent, only be processed when such processing is clearly justified having regard to: (a) the purpose of the processing; (b) the importance of a secure identification; (c) some other valid reason as may be prescribed.” (Article 18). Article 7 of the same act ensures that “personal data is only collected for specific, explicitly stated and legitimate purposes.”

What concerns many students, as well as Kunsill Studenti Universitarji (KSU), is that the Legal Notice is vague about what these “research purposes” are. The Education Act already gives the Directorate the right to “request, collect and verify any information, data and statistics, as may be required for the performance of its functions.” (Article 16 (1)) Surely such statistics are enough for most research purposes? There is nothing wrong with the collection of anonymous data and statistics for research purposes. But with Legal Notice 76, the data has been given an unmistakeable personal stamp. Parents and students alike have the right to know why the Government is collecting their children’s or their own personal data, especially considering that neither the purpose of the processing of the identity card number, nor its importance, are explicitly stated, as required by the Data Protection Act.

None of the students, or their parents in the case of minors, have agreed to handing over their personal data to the Ministry of Education. They have not been given the option to refuse to share their data and are obliged participate in this research. In fact, the Legal Notice explicitly states that “Any person who fails to comply with any request made under this article shall be guilty of an offence against the Act.” (Article 4 (4)) How ethical is it to force people to hand over personal data for research, even if they do not wish to do so? It is as if they have lost ownership of their own personal information.

Apart from research, it is also claimed that the data will be used to give advice and training. But is this necessary? Most if not all educational institutions in Malta offer their own career guidance services, and we already have the Employment and Training Corporation (ETC) responsible for training.

With around 11,000 students at the University of Malta, and thousands of others enrolled in various educational institutions in the country, the Legal Notice allows access to the date of a large part of Maltese society. It concerns those who are most vulnerable: children, from as young as pre-primary level, who certainly cannot understand the implications of this Legal Notice.

However, the concerns are not limited to just children. At post-secondary and tertiary institutions, students start taking up roles in society, some as activists or as journalists. Is it not worrying that the Government can access so much information about these people?

Since in Malta education is obligatory up until the secondary level, the Government will have the data of every single person between the ages of 5 and 16. It will also have information about children younger than that age, and many others older than that. It is possible that the Ministry will also have access to the information of international students, as the Legal Notice is unclear on the matter. This constitutes a large part of our society. But it becomes even more serious than that, as the Legal Notice also gives the power to access “other data of the persons to whom they relate.” (Article 4 (3)) As with the term “research”, this is very ambiguous as it does not define the extent of the relations.

This could potentially give the Minister an unbelievable amount of power. Those who are affected by this Legal Notice deserve to be given a clearer version which details its limits and removes all ambiguity.

Posted in Opinion

Student Activism: A Myth?

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It’s that time of the year again: university students start getting inevitably caught up in the whole KSU election campaign commotion. Proposals for a better University are pitched in, and your newsfeed is flooded with opinionated posts on what should or should not be done. Campus is transformed into an arena and then after all of this is concluded; it all goes quiet.
However, as hard as we may try, can we really get ourselves to care about what is going on? Are we really engulfed by all of this energy that takes over university during election week, but once everything is over, we are back to being as passive about university related issue as much as we were before it all started? This can be viewed from two different angles; complete faith in KSU, or complete indifference about what is going on.

Yet, no one trusts anything completely. There will always be glitches which lead you to doubt something’s credibility. KSU is no exception. Student representation is one of the council’s main roles, but opinions on this seem to differ. Some believe that they are adequately represented, while others think otherwise. Ironically enough, even though students have these sentiments, stepping up and making their opinions heard does not happen often, and when it does, the faces are rarely new. Then again, this mostly happens during the KSU election campaign, and then interest dwindles again. More often than not, it seems like students vote in the KSU elections either because their friends are contesting or because they can’t take being pestered to vote anymore. It also seems like only a small portion of university students which vote out of their own free will and truly care about their representation. In addition to this, the political tendencies associated with both students’ organisations contesting the elections are still strongly felt and noticeably often resented by the student body.

Can such a situation really persist? Unless there is enough awareness and participation in what is going on at University, and not only during election week, there is no guarantee that your sentiments and difficulties will be channelled, acknowledged and perhaps resolved. Involvement, an open-minded perspective and participation should happen all year round.

Posted in Opinion