A news article published earlier today sparked controversy as students were irked by suggestions for reforms in the education system. Dean of the Faculty of Engineering, Dr Ing. John Betts stated that, ”Stipends should go”. Ivan Martin met with Dr Ing. Betts, to further discuss his views on the University of Malta.
“I want to start off by making a few things clear. I’m not retracting anything and I stand by what was said. However, certain points need clarification,” said a welcoming Dr Betts.
Dr Betts explained that the Faculty of Engineering has all the signs of a University of Malta success story: dedicated staff, top rate equipment and diligent students. “We’ve got a good bunch. I recently received an unofficial statute for the ‘resurrection’ of UoM Racing,” spoke Dr Betts. (University of Malta Racing is a group of engineering students who build a race car and travel abroad to race it.) Despite the presence of excellent staff and equipment, the real situation is that the Faculty can barely makes ends. The lack of investment into research is holding back the Faculty from reaching it’s potential level of excellence. This is what troubles the Dean.
How difficult is the maintenance of a university faculty?
“We applied for European Regional Development Funds (ERDF) and it helped in the purchasing of essential equipment… We applied for every scheme and incentive there is, and we continue to do so, but the reality is that the ERDF doesn’t fund maintenance. One piece of equipment costs €17,000 in upkeep every 3 years, another costs roughly € 25,000 every 2 years.” The annual budget for the Faculty of Engineering is just €9,000. To put things into perspective, last year the Faculty spent just over €1400 on blank paper to print out exam papers.
To keep the Faculty going, it has no option rather than to turn to the private sector, but this too is dependent on faculty resources. ” The few tens of thousands of euros gained from collaboration with the private sector (mostly Material Treatment Investigation), come from academic and technical staff working overtime, more often than not on a voluntary unpaid basis!”
The issue troubling Dr Betts isn’t solely the struggle to maintain a high standard of excellence within the Faculty of Engineering, but also within the whole of the University of Malta. ”I’m worried about the University’s direction, and concerned about whether or not the university will develop into academic maturity”, said Dr Ing. Betts. He worries that the University is at risk of ‘academic stagnation’.
Roughly 50% of Engineering graduates undertake post-graduate studies but less than a third choose to do so here at University of Malta. Why?
Dr Betts explains that the answer is two-fold: lack of employability and low wages. ”The stimulus for students to study isn’t stipend at all, but jobs, and good jobs at that…. The stipend system is what is responsible for the lack of jobs. The spending on stipends [projected to reach €30,000,000 by 2020] is detrimental to the quality of the University, and as a result, to the availability of jobs for graduates.”
“How any government can continue churning out 23 Million Euros per annum on a failing stipend system, when the research budget for the whole University is just over half a million, and a department’s entire budget is less than €10,000 is beyond me. It’s sad that stipends are a taboo issue. Politicians won’t discuss it, or the harm it’s doing to our university,they’ll just serve up more rhetoric about the importance of education, give a pro rata stipend increase and dish out tablets.”
So how important is academic research to a University?
“Research is the hallmark of a real University,” insists Betts. “The constant production of academic research is what improves a University’s reputation as a center of excellence, attracting foreign students and academics alike. It’s what brings in new ideas and draws private sector investment. It’s what gives weight to a degree and ultimately opens the door towards better employability… I’m fairly confident that the majority of students in my Faculty would take that over the €80 a month stipend with limited prospects”.
“As the situation stands, full-time research is out of the question. Lecturers are expected to juggle lecturing, research and administration. Research can’t exist without full-time researchers who are dedicated only to their research. A university should foster an environment where researchers come together. It should not be a place where research is squeezed in between lectures, or where lecturers focus more on publication of papers than teaching.”
(This year the University of Malta launched a new lecture training program for lecturers to hone their lecturing skills, it comes to action in May where lecturers will undergo a new set of seminars on lecturing skills.)
A foreign undergraduate student pays roughly € 7,000 per annum in tuition fees. A Masters student pays (on average) just over €11,000 per annum, so a faculty would require 3 Masters students a year just to pay for one full-time researcher. However, if a faculty was to consists of several paying post-grad students, then the funding of such researchers would be a possibility. This, Dr Betts argues is, “a realistic solution to the brain drain facing UM”.
“I’m not saying abolish stipends, I’m not saying we should cast students asunder, but a restructuring of the stipends system, the introduction of a means tested stipend in conjunction with a repayment scheme and perhaps better student jobs, would mean students still get a fair ride and the University remains accessible to all while continuing to grow.”
The Dean concluded with one final illustration, Bio-Campus – a University of Malta incentive. He believes this project should be focused on attracting foreign institutions and start-ups. ”It’s cosmetic, unless research funds are not driven up and investors are given a reason to come to Malta. We’re not offering them tourist destinations or cheap labour (quite the contrary). They’re coming here for our expertise, without full time research I can’t see why anyone would set up here.”
A recent EU study entitled ‘Social and Economic Conditions of Student Life in Malta‘, recommended that UM-
“Extend the financial support granted through the Students Maintenance Grant for students undertaking their first full-time undergraduate degree at the University of Malta to all students up to the age of 45.”