Rector’s Speech Opening of Academic Year 2021 – 2022

Rector’s Speech Opening of Academic Year 2021 – 2022

Rector’s Speech 
Opening of Academic Year 2021-2022

Reset and fast forward with determination

Onorevoli Ministru Caruana, kollegi u studenti, uffiċjali tal-KSU u speċjalment intom il-freshers tal-2021, merħba hekk kif illum niċċelebraw formalment il-ftuħ tas-sena akkademika l-ġdida. 

Fuq nota personali, ngħidilkom li din is-sena nagħlaq 50 sena xogħol ma’ studenti, li kważi erbgħin minnhom qattajthom f’Tal-Qroqq u l-oħra fil-Junior College. Din is-sena hija s-sitt sena tiegħi bħala Rettur u nixtieq mill-ewwel nippreżentalkom it-team tal-pro-Retturi li flimkien mad-Dekani u Diretturi ta’ Istituti u Ċentri, jgħinuni biex immexxu l-Universita’: Prof Joseph Cacciottolo (Academic Affairs); Prof Carmen Sammut (Student and Staff Affairs and Outreach); Prof Simon Fabri (Research and Knowledge Transfer); Prof Tanya Sammut Bonnici (Strategy and Enterprise) u Prof Frank Bezzina (International Development and Quality Assurance). Minn hawn nixtieq nirrangrazzja mill-qalb lill-kollegi Prof Godfrey Baldacchino u Prof Saviour Zammit li għall-ħames snin li għaddew kienu spalla ma’ spalla miegħi bħala pro-Retturi u li issa qegħdin ikomplu jgħinu f’karigi importanti oħra.

Nispera li issa li ġejna lura fuq il-kampus, aħna nkunu nistgħu ngħinukom tikbru intellettwalment u tiżviluppaw f’persuni maturi, mogħnija b’għerf u ħiliet, u mimlija b’sens ta’ etika u nteress ġenwin fil-bżonnijiet ta’ ħaddieħor lesti għall-isfidi u l-opportunitajiet li se jippreżentaw ruħhom. 

Se nkompli bil-lingwa l-oħra tagħna. 

Dear international students, welcome to the UM campus and may your stay with us in this historic University inspire you to reach tall heights and to make friends from Malta and elsewhere.

Let me remind you and our local students that the University is part of an alliance of six European universities comprising Cadiz (Spain, the lead university), Split (Croatia), Gdanz (Poland), Kiel (Germany) and Western Brittany (Brest, France), all located in coastal regions. The alliance is known as The European University of the Seas - SEA-EU and was set up two years ago under the Erasmus+ programme to promote education, research and innovation and to foster social engagement and environmental responsibility. Between the six of us, we host 123 000 students and 17 000 staff including over 10 000 academics and researchers. We hope this year we will continue to better exploit the opportunities which SEA-EU opens up to our students and staff, via mobility among the six campuses and development of joint degree and research programmes.

As I reflect on the COVID-19 statistics in Malta during these past few weeks, where the number of infections diminish by the day, I cannot not wonder what the effect of this great upheaval has been on people and particularly, of course, on our students. I worry more about the young in our society, and especially the youngest, who are old enough to realize that their universe has been impacted by a sinister invisible presence that has forced them out of their school, their playing grounds and their grandparents’ doting arms.  

For a very long while, the virus seemed unbeatable: one wave surging after another shattered our hopes for a turning point in the pandemic and gave us the impression that there was no going back to life as we knew it. Terms which the global newsrooms bandied about, such as “the new normal” and the accommodation which certain employers made available to their workers, namely, “working from home”, further convinced us that the world may never be the same again. 

The sense of despondency and helplessness that gripped society for 18 months is still etched in our collective brain likely thanks to the battering we received from the various media sources.  We waited for the issuance of the daily official bulletins to learn about total infection figures, the positivity ratio, the number of COVID-19 patients in ITU and the number of deaths from the virus. Facebook was exploited by certain local gurus, who with great panache and bravura,  fed their loyal followers with early-bird clandestine COVID data as if theirs was an essential public service. Everyone was hoping for the curve to turn and slope downwards. I doubt if the arrival of the vaccine last December was sufficient good news to release us from the dejection and unhappiness that had settled in. Indeed and incredibly, for far too many including among us, the vaccine itself was considered an added threat. This is not the first time in history that medical science had to contend with folklore and ignorance: it was with great difficulty and over many years that vitamin C was finally officially accepted as a better cure for scurvy than barley broth and (in the 18th century) the country doctor Edward Anthony Jenner had a huge problem convincing established medical circles that vaccination actually worked and was safe. Jenner may have convinced Napoleon about his technique against smallpox but the science of vaccination remains under attack to this day, and unfortunately social media facilitates the work of the global antivaxxer brigade. 

With more than 90% of the local population vaccinated and the number of new infections counting below 20 per day, our health authorities remain wary and continue to enforce their rigid precautions of (diminishing) social distancing, alcohol sterilization and control of congregation sizes. Meanwhile other countries (e.g. Norway) have very recently abolished all safety measures and we now wait, with bated breath, to see what will happen next in these countries.

Last year in my speech, I had told my largely-virtual audience the following words:

“Why is it important for students to be present physically on campus? 
It is because students learn best and gain optimal education when they meet and interact with lecturers and professors and other expert staff through personal contact and direct communication. And then, of course, there are certain subjects which simply cannot be learnt except through physical experience....
But beyond these obvious, almost banal, reasons that speak eloquently for the supremacy of in-person education, there is another, possibly more important: namely, that only physical presence on campus allows for meaningful social interaction among students through which they learn how to communicate ideas, gain insights, provoke and receive reactions, influence peers, learn to plan and execute projects in teams; master the art of social navigation through and around the complexities of friendships and other deeper relationships, experience disappointments, get out of conflicts and understand the satisfaction of helping others and of peace making. It is this total experience, with its ups and downs, that is so special and one that makes University education on campus so enriching.”

I am repeating verbatim these same words today October 4, 2021, because we can’t afford to lose another year like we did last year. We’ve turned a corner and the situation has definitely changed for the better thanks to most of us being vaccinated. This time around, there is no reason why fear should be allowed to continue to wreak havoc with our lives and disrupt progress in your education. The message to you to remain vigilant and cautious in your interactions on and off campus remains valid, because of course we are still in a state of pandemic, albeit probably at its tail end. But the key message today is this: the worst effects of the COVID-19 pandemic as we’ve experienced them during this one year and a half will pass and will very likely soon be forgotten. 

Given that the virus has been much less harsh on the young (apparently for reasons yet unknown), probably very few of you would have suffered the physical pain and terrible effects of the infection. However, many if not all of you would likely have experienced the anxiety and fear of catching the disease, the shock of near or actual loss of loved ones, the deprivation, forced isolation and separation from close family and friends due to the imposed measures. These effects must have affected you negatively because as social animals, we need to be and do things together. Hence it is now time to reset and move on, albeit with caution but also with determination because we want our lives back. 

To be sure, it bears repeating that the virus is still around and managing to find a home in the lungs of those who, perhaps, may have lowered their guard and made it easier for it to gain a foothold. Which is why we have to continue to be cautious, to leave those masks on, to apply alcohol to hands as necessary and to moderate the way we interact physically. So yes, the message is forward with determination and caution.

How can we be (fairly) sure that the battle against the virus is nearing the end at least insofar as the virus can continue to be an effective agent for pandemic? If the richer countries help themselves by gifting the poorer ones with enough vaccines to stop the spread, this defeat will arrive even sooner. 

A closer look at the recent history of pandemics shows that none has had graver consequences than that which broke out in 1918 caused by an H1N1 influenza A virus. This virus managed to infect 500 million people and took the life of 50 million of them which, for comparison, is 10+ times the mortality figure caused by COVID-19 (to date).  The 1918 pandemic coincided with the First World War, itself a cruel killer responsible for 16 million deaths, and it is unfairly termed “Spanish flu” because only the newspapers in Spain, a neutral country in that war, were reporting the terrible effects on the population. Indeed, some historians have unearthed evidence that suggests the war came to an early end in 1919 thanks to the effects this pandemic had on the soldiers of the Kaiser.

The first wave of the Spanish flu broke out in February 1918 and the final and fourth wave petered away two years later, in April 1920. Like COVID-19, the H1N1 virus had genes of avian origin. Unlike COVID-19, the Spanish flu virus was especially deadly for healthy individuals in the age bracket 20 to 40. The disease was combatted using the techniques as then available to science namely, isolation, quarantine, disinfectants, good personal hygiene, the wearing of masks and limitation of public gatherings but of course without the antibiotics needed to fight secondary bacterial infections and a vaccine.  If that terrible plague was eventually controlled using relatively weak weaponry, given today’s vaccines and antibiotics (and most recently a new anti-viral drug), the COVID-19 pandemic has no future. Which is not to say that the virus will not continue to mutate and evolve in one form or another going forward. Indeed, genetics shows that the Spanish flu virus is still with us but in a mutated state that is much less pathogenic and is the cause of seasonal influenza outbreaks. Can we expect the same for SARS-CoV-2, responsible for the current pandemic? In a paper published in Virology Journal last August on the evolutionary trajectory of the virus, Singh et al concluded that “The appearance of attenuating mutations suggests that SARS-CoV-2 is evolving to become less pathogenic in humans...  Reduced pathogenicity of SARS-CoV-2 combined with mounting population-level immunity will likely cause a reduction of severe cases of COVID-19, leading to an apparent abatement of the pandemic, followed by endemic circulation of low pathogenic SARS-CoV-2 variants” similar to that currently found in other viruses (HCoVs) with low pathogenicity.

According to the literature, apart from physical harm, the pandemic appears to have caused psychological damage (Salari et al., Globalization and Health, 2020). A period of quarantine and isolation can cause collateral damage especially in individuals with pre-existing mental illness or developmental problems. For example, Son et al. (J Med Internet Res., 2020) found that students in a US university who were studying from home suffered from increased stress, anxiety and depressive thoughts caused by multiple stressors including increased concerns on their academic performance. Of particular concern was the finding that in order to cope with these issues, some students adopted negative mechanisms. Let me remind our freshers who might have been through similar bad patches during their sixth form studies-away-from-school that at the Msida campus, we have an excellent group of counsellors and professionals in our Health and Wellness Centre who can provide help to students as needed. University life is normally stressful in the best of times but, in this particular period, the situation may be compounded by other factors and so do not fight any personal battles alone. Seek help.

The anxiety and stress caused by prolonged periods of studying from home, either alone or in small crowded areas with other family members with their own needs, was likely eased by recourse to communication via internet apps. According to expert advice, this is a reasonable coping mechanism. 

Freshers are part of the Z generation, those born after 1996, who are digital natives with little if any memory of the world without the smartphone. For them, communicating via WhatsApp or similar applications comes naturally and while this would have helped them cope with the loneliness, it wouldn’t necessarily have helped them acquire good interpersonal communication skills, in either verbal or written modes. Employers constantly complain about graduates being insufficiently effective communicators and this is their principle criticism of students out of higher education.  Good logical use of the English language, the global lingua franca in most fields, is key to a successful future. I exhort you to engage effectively with the English Communicative Aptitude (ECA) course run by our Centre for English Language Proficiency.  If your command of English is poor, this course is crucially important to you and that is why we mandate it on freshers who need it. Organised in small group classroom sessions, the course helps build confidence in English usage and also teaches independent learning. The ECA course is not an imposition of a drudgery but a precious gift to students. 

Dear students, let’s get on with our work: keep in mind that a good university education is proven to give you advantages in your life’s journey. Enjoy the time you will spend with us, do not be disheartened by momentary failings. Our course regulations are designed to help you overcome temporary setbacks such as when you fail an exam. Seek the advice of the head of department or Dean: these University leaders are there to help. If you haven’t followed a point made during lecture, try to figure it out through further later reading and perhaps discussion with colleagues. If you’re still confused, talk to your lecturer: they are there to help. For non-academic subject related difficulties, remember we have a Pro-Rector for Student (and Staff) Affairs: Prof Carmen Sammut’s office takes your problems seriously and will ensure that you’re not left alone to manage the issue. 

May this year be a good one for you and us all!