Your Excellency Madame President of the Republic, Prime Minister, Minister of Education, Chancellor, Rector, members of Council, distinguished guests, colleagues, family and friends.
It behoves me this morning to begin my address by thanking all of you present here today, who fill this historic church to celebrate an occasion that is important in the life of a University: the passing of the baton from one Rector to the next. In particular, on behalf of my colleague Pro-Rectors Richard Muscat, Mary Anne Lauri and Joe Friggieri, I would like to formally thank Juanito Camilleri not only for establishing (or is it re-establishing?) this significant ceremony, including bringing back to life this magnificent mace, but more importantly, for having led this institution for ten years with loyalty, energy and vision: a leadership that inspired all of us who worked closely with him.
Another special thanks goes to my family, especially my wife and soulmate, Evelyn, who once thought that as from tomorrow I would have more time on my hands to help with the housework and to get those light bulbs changed more promptly after they burn out! Thank you for agreeing to stay the course for another few more years.
Having served this University and its students for over 30 years in different roles, I am deeply moved and honoured to be entrusted by Council with the leadership of this venerable institution as its 81st Rector: I promise to continue to serve with dedication, honesty, fairness and firmness in order to ensure that the community which hosts and maintains us and gives us purpose is itself, in return, properly served by our services.
I do not need to stress the importance of universities to the life and development of society: strong universities make a positive difference to the quality of life of the citizens of any nation not only by delivering specialist knowledge and expertise in a variety of disciplines but mainly by stimulating the minds of those women and men who come to absorb and share knowledge in the lecture rooms, laboratories, workshops and other learning spaces of the university, including the digital extensions of these spaces and by so doing, causing fresh and youthful minds to be propelled forward and liberated and given the courage to go beyond acceptance of the given knowledge. Indeed, in my view, effective “higher education” should manage to instill in students a sense of curiosity and a propensity for extreme inquisitiveness; for being able to question and to question again and then to think critically and analytically and not just accept submissively and then mimic and imitate. Higher education is at its best not when it directs minds along rigidly set standard protocols and formulaic procedures and practices to be learned and mastered as presented by the professor or the book but when it manages to unshackle and free the mind allowing it to bravely improvise and innovate using, at times, incomplete or fragmentary information; to exploit such information carefully, appreciating the risks and limitations but also the prospect of delightful success of such approaches. Such mind sets and thinking skills will serve our graduates to navigate more safely around future problems and challenges that will surely present themselves in their chosen careers and for which current knowledge may indeed be insufficient.
Higher education is mainly about learning how to learn and looking at the ever-changing world circumspectly and thoughtfully. Perhaps, the most important components of any degree programme are the ones that are more future-proof and can stand the test of time indefinitely: the so-called transferable (or generic) skills of learning how to communicate well and intelligently and with an eye for detail, both in the spoken as well as the written word; how to steer clear of plagiarism and still be able to tell your story; how to stick to deadlines and word counts; how to be a good team player; how to tactfully defuse potential or actual conflict situations; and above all, how to be guided by ethical and morally decent considerations in every decision taken. The rest of what we teach is indeed also important for the here and now but a fair fraction, if not most of it is likely destined to deteriorate and become obsolete, given time: just take a look at any university text book on any subject published 100 years ago or even 30 years ago and see what I mean.
I have been in work continually during these last 45 years and in each and every one of these years I spent a good part of my time in a class room: for me, nothing beats the class room experience! Interaction with students can be so morally uplifting and, in truth, I have personally learnt much more from teaching and advising students than from reading and studying books or even working in the laboratory. It is indeed my intention, now as rector, not to abandon the class room but to continue to teach a few hours every week and to supervise a couple of postgraduate students: this, also to remain in contact with the fast pace of change in the science I profess. To my dear academic colleagues here gathered, may I beseech you to teach, tutor and supervise our precious students as best and as well as you possibly can and to consider this mission of your scholarship as essential and fundamental. And need I tell you that good teaching can only be done from the heart? Because teaching is a supreme act of giving and like any other kind of altruism, the giver herself receives in return probably more than she gives: a good educator is himself gratified and enriched by good and effective communication with students.
As a small university with very limited human and material resources, we may never be able to generate total research outcomes on the scale of the big, splendidly endowed institutions that populate the top few hundred places of the league of world universities. Please do note that university rankings are not much influenced by the quality of the teaching effort and student satisfaction and degree completion rate but largely by what the university produces on the research front. Now, of course, research production is hugely important and indeed defining for any university. But the point I am making here is that while we do have significant challenges in performing research at the rate of production and on a scale that would be comparable with richer and larger and more endowed universities, there are far fewer hurdles in our path that stop us from delivering top-notch teaching to our students.
We should strive to be among the very best in our geographical region where we are indeed the only comprehensive, research-engaged university which, moreover and above all, uses English (the global lingua franca of academe and business) as exclusive language of instruction. Our geographical location and English-based education delivery makes us special and I don’t see much significant competition from within the Mediterranean littoral and the more proximate European and African hinterlands. No wonder, the notion of promoting Malta as a higher education hub was interesting and irresistible for government but only because the providers are using English as their medium of instruction. It couldn’t have worked otherwise. By the way, I am not worried by this development through which we are seeing universities and other HEIs being set up around us as these entities could, among many other things, provide additional employment prospects for our own postgrads and PhDs.
And I intend to argue the case for our University to be given the possibility of adopting a funding model more similar to that adopted by these private providers. The State would still be able and, in my strong view, should still support through scholarships, all those students who have the entry qualifications which UM today requires: other students would be allowed to access our programmes but against charge. This would require a change of mindset for the university itself, away from an admitting university towards a recruiting one. It would allow us to compete for students from the near shore, including and especially Europe and the Middle East and the income so generated could be added to that dedicated to funding the research effort. One cannot expect successful research to happen on the cheap: you require dedicated researchers, up to date library and laboratory facilities and some, well more than some, luck. Doing research is not quite like opening and running a business: you could spend a lot of effort trying to prove an hypothesis only to find it doesn’t work as you had imagined…although rarely are research results useless once proper methodology is employed and brain power of the right calibre applied to any finding as may be generated.
At the present time, a good fraction of research at UM is reliant on external funds mainly from EU sources with the result that the university can only perform on a biggish scale that research which fits (or is made to appear to fit) the mould of the funding agencies. It is amazing that despite this and other limitations, e.g. availability of adequate work spaces for the researching community of PhD candidates and post-doctoral fellows, we actually do manage to get so much work done. According to the ISI Web of Science, during the 4 year period 2011- 2015, about 2400 entries deriving from UM researchers appeared in the world literature; this number is almost five times larger than that produced during 2001-2005. With more resources, we can and shall do even better in this area of scholarship and this will serve to push the University further up in the global rankings.
We are currently ranked the 1243rd university in the world, i.e. we are with the top 5.2 % of world universities, numbering a total of 23 729 (according to the Spanish Webometrics Ranking of World Universities). Just to put this ranking in context, let me say that in the USA, there are a total of 3280 between universities and HEIs. Our University is well ahead of 2000 from among these institutions which rank beyond the 5000th place in global ranking. In the UK, there are a total of 291 universities and HEIs and, of these, 203 are ranked well below UM. When one considers the resources available to our staff to perform research work, we aren’t doing so badly. Let me plead with my fellow colleagues here gathered this morning so that, within the next five years, we endeavour to escalate the rankings ladder to be with the top 1000 global universities.
And we shall aim to do this without detracting from the third mission of academic scholarship, namely, the scholarship of service by which I mean the direct involvement of the academic with the life of the working community and that of the general community in outreach activities. I am happy to see initiatives where academics are involved (frequently without much fanfare) with the work of manufacturing industry, the financial services, tourism etc. I also shall support and encourage work intended to improve the quality of life of special communities within our society such as done by the Cottonera Resource Centre and the University of the Third Age. I also note and am pleased to see the good scholarly work performed by several of our academics in assisting the President of the Republic in the sterling work being performed by her Foundation for the Wellbeing of Society. We could go even further: for example, working closer with the local farming and fishing communities and engaging with the problems and prospects of the immigrant community. As with teaching, such interactions with real-world issues have significant potential to enrich the academic as a researcher so that the outreach contact can be beneficial in both directions and not seen as simple charity.
In conclusion, I submit that the University of Malta has not one but several roles that it must play contemporaneously in order to remain relevant to the complex needs of a sophisticated, if small, society. For this reason, as you know, I have already chosen to help me five Pro-Rectors who I would like to thank publicly for accepting to join the effort, namely, Prof. Joseph Cacciottolo, Dr Carmen Sammut, Prof. Tanya Sammut-Bonnici, Prof. Saviour Zammit and Prof. Godfrey Baldacchino. I will also be nominating a number of advisors and delegates so that, together with the Deans and other academic leaders, we may move wisely and fruitfully forward during the next five years. I shall be sending to each and every member of the university the vision statement that I presented to Council last March: in it, I outline concrete steps that should help us reach our objectives. In the coming years, we shall, no doubt, take many more steps beyond those already identified.
It takes a joint and concerted effort to obtain best outcomes for this complex institution and here I would like to show my deep appreciation for the essential and indispensible contribution of the administrative, technical and other support staff of the University. Your work at Tal-Qroqq, Valletta and Gozo campuses and other satellite sites is vital and your diligence and dedication keeps the blood flowing well and properly oxygenated as it meanders through the tortuous arteries, veins and capillaries of this academic body. In the coming weeks, I shall try to visit you at your place of work, in order for me to be better able to marvel at how much this body has grown since my first experience of it as a junior student in 1966, exactly 50 years ago. Who would have told me then what lay beyond my personal horizon?