250 years later and more relevant than ever

Rector’s Speech 
Opening of Academic Year 2019-2020

250 years later and more relevant than ever

Onorevoli Ministru, kollegi u għeżież studenti, speċjalment il-freshers tal-2019. Merħba f’din l-okkażjoni dalgħodu fejn inġbarna flimkien kif nagħmlu kull sena sabiex niċċelebraw il-ftuħ tas-sena akkademika. Din id-darba, imma, l-okkażjoni hija iktar speċjali għaliex tiġi l-250 sena minn meta l-Gran Mastru Pinto stabbilixxa lil din l-istituzzjoni bħala l-Università tal-iStudji ta’ Malta. Għadna hawnhekk, naħdmu għalikom u għall-benefiċċju tas-soċjetà Maltija u ‘l hinn minnha, iktar relevanti minn qatt qabel. U m’aħniex fi ħsiebna nħallu l-isfidi li hemm quddiemna jaqtgħulna qalbna għaliex intom, għeżież studenti, prezzjużi wisq u Malta għalina hi importanti u ħelwa wisq biex nonqsuha mis-sapport dejjiemi tagħna. 

Dear international staff and students, I bid you a warm welcome to the new academic year: as I was saying to your Maltese colleagues and friends, this is a very significant year for the University since it happens to be the semiquincentennial anniversary of its establishment by Grand Master Pinto following a papal decree (Clement XIV) to permit the act, as was required in Roman Catholic Europe at the time (1769). Previously, higher education had been provided by the Collegium Melitense, a Jesuit-run college to serve the mission of the religious Order which however also included the needs of society as perceived by said order. Pinto’s University was set up partly to fill the void left by the closure of the Collegium once the Jesuits were expelled from the islands in a story of high political and international intrigue and subterfuge. Such stories appear to have always been as typical of Malta as pastizzi and ħobż biż-żejt. That said, Pinto did redefine the role of the local University to include the study of disciplines that were previously not in the remit of the Collegium so that now the institution became focused on the national rather than the ecclesiastical need. From that distant start, with only about a dozen academics on board including an Italian cleric and famous preacher imported specifically to act as first Rector (Roberto Ranieri Costaguti), the institution has grown to what it is today, with over 960 full time academics and another 780 who teach part-time and an administrative staff of about 900. 

It is an auspicious fact that in this anniversary year UM has, for the first time, found its place on the prestigious world university rankings administered by the Times Higher Education: we have been placed in the band 601 – 800 which means that, out of 28 000 universities worldwide, we’re ranked with the top 3% in terms of excellence of performance. Our aim now is to improve this position moving within the group of the first 500. The criteria used by THE to rank universities and their relative weightings are as follows: (1) teaching and the learning environment 30%; (2) research measured by volume, income and reputation 30%; (3) citations or the research influence 30%; (4) international outlook in terms of students, staff and international research collaboration 7.5%; and (5) industry income by knowledge transfer 2.5%. Clearly, the rankings are dominated by the research production of a university in terms of volume and quality. Especially for you, undergrad freshers, the overwhelming interest should probably be that related to the ability of the University to provide you with a good teaching and learning experience, since your degree shall be assured if you’re properly looked after and supported in your learning by a high quality environment for the next three or four years. Although I hasten to add that academics active in research are normally much better teachers since their teaching mission is informed by the research experience. Also, a university without a significant research output is only so in name. It is interesting to note that, even at its inception by Grand Master Pinto, the University of Malta had valued research. Rector Emeritus Ellul-Micallef, in his book Roberto Ranieri Costaguti From Pulpit to Chair to Bishop’s See writes that “the salaries of the teaching staff would be reviewed and increased after five years, especially if they had published, in the meantime, works of a certain standard…under their academic title, ‘Professor of the University of Malta’”. 

Now to perform substantial and impactful research, the University needs to have enough money at its disposal to be able to build physical infrastructure, acquire necessary hardware and employ doctoral students and post-doctoral fellows to help with the work. I am happy to report that we have recently acquired EU funds running into multimillion Euro to permit us to develop and expand our research infrastructure, both in terms of equipment as well as concrete, brick and mortar for laboratory spaces, as the cranes, trucks, dust and some tedious noise on campus testify (unfortunately).  We will continue to ask for additional money from our State in order to be able to attract to our faculties more masters and especially full time doctoral and post-doctoral researchers without whom the work cannot happen in sufficiency. 

This year also marks the 20th anniversary of the Declaration of Bologna, signed by 29 ministers responsible for university education including Malta’s and the 30th anniversary of the invention of the World Wide Web which gave us the Internet as we know it today. Both have had and will continue to have a huge impact on the way UM and other universities in Europe and beyond work. 

Erasmus exchanges of students and staff between European universities would not have been possible without the Bologna Process: at its heart, Bologna is rooted in the principle that students are to be placed at the centre of learning and teaching. For this to be effective, the Bologna accord mandated measures to increase transparency and accountability in academic governance and administration, required universities to introduce systems of quality assurance, made it obligatory to give students a strong and meaningful voice including that of soliciting them for feedback on coursework and programmes of study and involving them in university governance among other measures. UM has adopted these practices fairly early mainly during the previous rectorate where, as Pro-Rector, I was among the more ardent and avid promoters of Bologna. Several would probably have argued, then, that I was more an inane and vapid Bologna promoter because those changes as were being introduced, were not immediately palatable to all, initially. I’m glad to say that 12 years later, we’ve managed to change the university ecosystem irreversibly. 

The Internet and universities are, understandably, in a tight embrace as both communicate and deliver knowledge to users; in addition, the creators of knowledge rely on the digital realities through which they interact and increase their production. Artificial intelligence will be another driver with the power to enhance the creative instincts of learners and researchers with outcomes that are only just becoming apparent.  On the other hand, some soothsayers predict that the embrace of universities with the digital world will actually prove to be fatal for the former as massive open online courses (ominously called “MOOCs”) would become the standard way of completing a degree programme, making universities redundant.  I heartily disagree with this pessimistic view. Digital education certainly has an important and permanent role to play in university business and UM is already exploiting this resource for the benefit of our students. Going forward, we shall continue to embrace the virtual digital reality because when professionally created and delivered, such content can enhance the quality of learning and teaching and of course the extent of its dissemination. And I don’t believe the students of the future will ever renounce to the total real university experience in favour of lonely and solitary learning from their smartphones through MOOCs. The coming together of young women and men on campus and in the learning spaces offered by a real university cannot be matched by the virtual experience: it is my firm belief that the most important component of university education is the physical, emotional and social contact students make with fellow students when they come together to engage with knowledge and learning in an environment that is often truly challenging. However, without the challenge, there is little worth. That said, at UM we’ve improved and shall continue to improve the support to students and staff that we provide via our Health and Wellness Centre: this, so as to help them overcome any psychological or physical difficulties encountered. 

Last week, our plans for building a state of the art Sports and Performance Centre were approved by Planning Authority and I look forward to delivering this facility to our students and staff within 2 to 3 years, coinciding with completion of the project for student residences on campus which is being constructed as I speak. These are projects that, when completed, should represent a quantum leap in terms of quality of the University experience which we owe to our constituents. 

It will be remiss of me if I fail to mention that 2019 marks another important anniversary for L-Università: it being  the first centenary of female presence on campus. One hundred years ago, two ladies, Tessie Camilleri and Blanche Huber, were admitted as students to follow degree courses at UM. Actually permission to follow courses was already open in 1915, but no one apparently found the courage or had the financial means to enroll as a student for another four years after that. Then, university education in Malta was not free. It is interesting to note that another 28 years had to pass before one of the most reputable institutions of higher learning in the world, Cambridge University, permitted females to study for its degrees in Great Britain. Today, the female presence actually dominates that of the males: of the 3542 graduates of last year, 58% were female. A national problem for Malta is the stark gender divide in political leadership: we have too few women serving in parliament and in the top levels of government, and this despite the fact that the University provides the workforce and society with a steady stream of highly educated women that outnumber similarly educated men. A similar gender divide also exists at the University where although 34% of academic full time staff are female, only 17% of full professors are women. In continental Europe, the situation is somewhat better but not by much and there, as here, women lag well behind men in the escalation of the professoriate.  A similar situation applies to university administrative leadership: in 250 years, only once has L-Università engaged a woman to act as Registrar, the same one who happens to be serving the institution excellently today! We need to find sensible ways to promote better gender parity in our national institutions, including the University, because as in biological ecosystems, the more varied and rich the mix of species, the more stable the system.

In this important anniversary year, we also managed to produce the first Strategic Plan for 2020 – 2025 following a process of elaborate and wide consultation among staff and students of UM as well as stakeholders beyond the campus: a campaign that involved communication with 15000 persons and almost a year of work and effort. The Plan is now on our website and I invite you to view the document. Now we move forward to its execution, which we shall do in manageable steps. The Plan will keep us focused but of course it will not detract from our efforts to exploit any prospects that may present themselves as the story of L-Università ta’ Malta continues to unfold in the coming years. 

In the past, L-Università went through some difficult times: if Grand Master Pinto created and had grand plans for it, his immediate successor Ximenes came close to destroying it through lack of financial and other support. Napoleon suppressed it totally for a period during the French occupation until the British conqueror and later colonial ruler re-opened its doors having ousted the Gallic garrison sheltering in Valletta behind the great walls which the Knights built to keep enemies out. Closer to our time, L-Università passed through another turbulent phase in its history as a Maltese Government tried to bring about a misguided reform which the old institution could not agree. The turbulence lasted only a few years and shortly thereafter, under another Government, the University did change and dramatically so: a change that saw a broadening of the scope of tertiary education in Malta and brought significantly more students to Tal-Qroqq. Student numbers continue to increase to the present day. No doubt, the introduction of student stipends in the 80s fuelled this blossoming of student participation, quickly turning the few hundreds attending during my own time as a student in the late sixties into thousands. The introduction of stipends for students was the result of an act of faith of the Maltese Government in its University. This year, the Maltese Government made another act of faith in its venerable Alma Mater when it gifted the University with the lands and the built properties upon and in which it has been operating for centuries but without title. Among these, the magnificent and prestigious Valletta campus, our ancestral home, the Gozo campus in Xewkija and the Junior College campus at Msida. These developments help make the University more sustainable so that it can look with greater confidence towards the future. 

We’ve been here, through thick and thin, for 250 years: long may L-Università endure and meanwhile remain true to its motto, that of “serving students, scholarship and society sustainably”.