Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Stipends: Show me the money? (INT/OPN)

Category: Interest/Opinion
Subject: Education/Stipends/Economy
Source: J'Accuse

Today's Times Editorial discusses the whirlwind reform of the University Stipends system currently being conducted by Louis Galea, Minister of Education in the "Stipendji Shah" government. As a former President of KSU I have been criticised on the blogosphere for having kept my mouth shut on this issue. Until now. My qualms on discussing Stipends is that most people seem to have already decided what I think about them before I even open my mouth. This has always been the case even in that tiring year of 1999 when I shuttled between the most detailed survey on student needs in University (and government history) and my final thesis while striving to obtain as just a system as possible even though I would not partake of any of its returns.

It could be that the reason I could approach this objectively was the fact that I had no vested interest in the matter. The problem of course was that we were stuck with the many labels carried by one-track minded political observers and journalists. Here is a little historical introduction for those who did not follow so closely.

Stipends: The (Not so definitive) History

The Executive I was to preside was elected in May just before the elections that brought about the change of government from MLP to PN. We were elected under the usual cloud of controversy regarding the matter of representation – a discussion that has never abated simply because the controversialists failed to peep closely at the KSU Statute. The Executive in a properly working statute is in fact just that, an executive. For any political decisions (classified under Social Policy and Education) it had to obtain the approval of two Commissions made up of interested parties. This was never understood by most of the nay-sayers who preferred the leftist conspiracy theories to engaging themselves in positive action.

The first task of the new Executive was to try to shed off the image of bias to the PN that it had unavoidably inherited by the questionable Delia Executive. Most people confuse the two executives (and I cannot blame them). The Delia executive is the one that led the students to the streets to protest (and I backed this decision 100%) and subsequently hijacked the whole issue for partisan reasons with disgusting partisan speeches at the end of every March. Delia was on a high at the time and enjoyed the media focus to the extent that he took every chance possible to suck up to the future powers to be and assist the Nationalist cause.

Unfortunately few people realise that Delia and his Executive are not the be all and end all of KSU. Our Executive re-established relations with emarginated associations like Graffitti and Pulse and immediately involved all societies in a
Memorandum to Political Parties outlining what students would expect from a newly elected government. As an Executive that was our mandate when the nationalist government of 'stipendji shah' fame came to government. We were responsible to the student organs and the students themselves and could not give two hoots about what each of the parties promised… we knew what we had told them about what we would expect. That was our agenda.

Our agenda was to review the stipend system (taking opportunity of the mess Labour had left with its headless tactics) on the basis of research and need. We came up with two documents:
a detailed survey of the needs of every student and a document outlining our vision for Higher Education. Needless to say for the press this was all gobbledegook. All they could see was students asking for money and Nationalist promises and Labour rants and an SDM executive that was supposedly pacifying a PN government. How far from the truth! By the start of the negotiations we knew from reliable sources that John "Money" Dalli wanted to just add a token ten liri on what Labour had given us and thus fulfil the 'Stipendji Shah' promise. It was our work with the survey, our principled approach demonstrating the need of investment and temporary need of incentives to attract more people to HE that won the day. I think we deserve to blow our trumpet when we say that government conceded a stipend system that was much more beneficial than the one it had hoped to impose.

Stipends: The Future

We always knew that the stipend solution of 1999 would be temporary. Stipends are a social tool that need to be adapted to the signs of the times. In 1999 KSU concluded that incentives were still needed to increase the University population. Malta was still lagging far behind developed countries in the students/nation ratio. In 1999 the economic problems for investment in University were not clear. What was clear was that the government would try to play the two against each other: more stipends, less university budget. This was more headless reasoning. Investment in education was an investment in the future. The two went together. So long as there was a need to invest and incentivise the two had to grow together. There would be other areas where we could save.

The wool thrown before the voter's eyes is based on some kind of priority list. At one point the government tried to balance stipends with dockyard pay. One or the other. Like a Pontius Pilate in distress the government would try to play its decision making before the people: Who do you giving money to most? The Students? The Dockyard Workers? Who shall we dispense with today? There was no general planning. No grand design in which investment in R&D, investment in the future of the country was planned and balanced out.

I wonder whether today's reforms are really placed in a grand design. Louis Galea thinks he can get away with saying that some courses will be given priority. On what basis? Is there a continuing structure that will be set up to monitor the job market, the country's needs and the University's performance? This is the same government that applied for the European Union in 1990 and still had not thought of having a course for translators and interpreters by 2005.

I still do not feel competent to discuss Stipends in detail. A year in KSU thought me that the details of a scheme combined with the job market and country's needs is a matter best left to experts. The country needs to ask itself simple questions: does it want to be competitive or will it choose redundancy? Will we labour under the illusion that we are saving money now only to find out we are unable to generate any later? Education costs money, but then so does ignorance. That was my favourite slogan at the time and still is.

Of course we need to reform stipends. It is time to begin to decide on issues like means testing and promoting certain courses. We need to do this intelligently though. This is definitely not an area for the MLPN game to prevail. In my time we started an annual Conference on Higher Education bringing together government, employees and the education sector. We were proud of having taken the initiative and of having created a platform for discussion. Unfortunately I do not see the conference advertised on the KSU site this year. I do hope that the decadence of the wrong side of SDM has not reached KSU once again. And by the wrong side of SDM I mean the long arm of PN which, fortunately, during my stay at SDM was conspicuously in its absence notwithstanding what conspiracy theorists had to say.

A web page constructed hastily to provide information to students at the time still exists miraculously.
See it here.

J'Accuse Link

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