Thursday, October 20, 2005

The Politics of Stipends (OPN)

Category: Opinion
Subject: Stipends (believe it or not)

Jacques talks about stipends in a recent post and gives a clear account of the politics and history (or the history of the politics) of the whole matter. I won’t hypothesise about the extent to which KSU is under the PN’s thumb – I suspect that it is not (although I'm not quite convinced by the argument that protests achieve nothing - if nothing else it is complacent and couched in a misunderstanding of the power of a public outcry).

What I wish to question is the wisdom of the route that we had chosen back in 98-99 (and which I had fully supported) that is a system based on maintenance costs, equipment costs and academic resources. There is one fundamental flaw in that analysis that I think requires attention. I shall base my analysis on an underlying principle of maximisation of resources.

The survey that KSU conducted back in the day when Jacques was President of KSU and I was trying to help to run SDM (a very different SDM), makes one assumption that I believe is misguided, that is that students should be entirely autonomous. The flaw lies in that there is no distinction between maintenance and academic requirements.

Certainly, no student should be denied access to the university on financial grounds. However, that does not mean that students should buy all their books, should all own a computer and every piece of material that will no doubt become outdated in no time at all. The only people who really benefit from that are a few publishers of basic texts, computer dealers etc.

The alternative would be to allocate a specific fund to the University library. In this manner, rather than 100 copies of basic texts being sold every year, the library would buy a few copies to be kept in a short loan section. This would free up funds for the library to buy more books and subscribe to more journals (including the growing mass of excellent online resources). Would this not allow for greater academic development all round? Funds could also be set aside for student-requests for materials that are not available in the library (with supervisor approval of course).

The same applies to computers and other equipment. Would it not make more sense for government funds to be allocated to computer labs and hi-tech course-specific equipment rather than buying computers for students to chat on, play games and occasionally conduct research? (sounds condescending but is it untrue?)

I am pretty sure that dedicating funds for specific allocation to the university would allow for a vast reduction in government expenditure. Moreover, it would allow government to dedicate funds to the real issue in the stipends matter - student autonomy in social terms. The excessive demands of direct financing have meant that students end up with lots of books and photocopies but not what they really need: cash in hand commensurate to cost of living plus quality academic resources.

In the final analysis I fear that at the time we may have been victims of our own independence...we sometimes were too keen to prove, perhaps to ourselves, that we would stand up to a PN government as much as we did to the short-lived MLP one.

Junk television, and worse (INT)

Category: Interest/Opinion
Subject: Media/Immigration
Original Author: Mark-Anthony Falzon

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I am reproducing in full an interesting article by Mark Falzon an old colleague of mine at the Office for Fair Trading before he moved on to lecture at University and continue his studies in anthropology. I would enjoy discussing various issues with Mark at the old office particularly because his way of thinking was always unique and surprisingly informative. I think I can say that Mark was another of those individuals who encouraged the "think different" philosophy beyond difference for difference's sake. Here is the Times article today. I cannot find anything in the article to disagree with....

Xarabank does not normally concern me. So long as the rebel without a clue and his guests discuss Verdala's ghosts or Chiara's misfortunes, I put it down as a harmless circus and make sure I'm miles away from a telly.

Last Friday, however, I had to make an exception, not least because of a professional interest in the subject of migration. It turned out to be a disturbing evening.

Three thrusts in particular held sway over the discussion, and all three missed the point. First, the "Africa is poor" argument made by members of the audience and taken up with self-righteous gusto by Peppi Azzopardi. No one in their right mind would seriously deny that many African populations face problems, but that is really quite a separate issue and not the one the programme claimed to discuss. Poverty and migration are related of course - in very complex ways - but this does not mean that they can be dealt with simultaneously.

Predictably, a second point of departure was Christianity - Bibles were brandished, déjà vu songs about St Paul being an immigrant sung, and I'm sure I heard someone screaming that Christ was crucified "ghax kien stramb" (because he was weird). Totally pointless. The Bible is a source of spiritual sustenance to millions but as far as I know it does not contain detailed plans for an immigration policy in a 21st century secular state.

A good chunk of the programme was spent harping on a matter which in the civilised world is obvious. I was very struck by the frequent use of the word "umani". The argument was, apparently, that immigrants are "human beings like us". A medical student in the audience sounded genuinely baffled that immigrants are "like the Maltese" and that they had offered her tea, and a member of the panel actually said that her main point was that "we are all human". At one point Mr Azzopardi, with the straightest of faces, posed that most difficult of moral dilemmas: What would we do if we came across a drowning boatload of immigrants? I had to pinch myself. But seriously, is this debatable? Do we honestly need to convince ourselves that Africans are humans? Is this mainstream television in contemporary Malta or a Klan debate?

Responsibility for this intellectual mayhem must rest squarely on Xarabank's shoulders. The main problem was the choice of panel, which included a priest hell-bent on martyrdom, a TV chef who halfway through the programme apparently rushed home (draped in a Maltese flag!) to turn off the oven, a singer of sorts, and a man who divulged that he had paid for his son's iPod himself. The only two people who deserved to be there were Martin Degiorgio and Adrian Grima. The first, not because his group's agenda is anything to be proud of, but simply because he stuck doggedly to the point and tried, quite unsuccessfully, to get Mr Azzopardi to discuss immigration. I'm sure Mr Grima had much to contribute but when he tried to start an intelligent discussion on multiculturalism he was immediately cut off by "Carabott" and his usual round of adolescent jokes. (In fact the real joke of the night was the sight of a Dominican priest screaming for a liberal agenda.)

And is it possible that the Xarabank team could not find a single articulate immigrant to air his/her views? The side panel consisted of the deafeningly silent Brigadier, the Police Commissioner who seemed understandably bewildered amid the chaos, and Parliamentary Secretary Tony Abela, who from time to time produced little sermons on the fairness of the world while he is in power (no prizes for guessing the implication).

We were also treated to a short film of a rescue operation, complete with heroic voice-over and military music reminiscent of the trailer for Rambo. Mr Azzopardi directed this embarrassing operetta with a typical string of threats of "naqtaghlek il-micraphone" (sic - and Freud please note) and cheap adverts. The gem was possibly the televoting question: "Int thossok razzist?" (do you feel you are a racist). Oh dear.

My argument is not that Xarabank is, in the words of Malta's sharpest media analyst, "junk television". It is that and much worse. Whether we like it or not Xarabank sets the agenda for much public discussion, as my Saturday morning visits to the grocer regularly remind me. When serious subjects like immigration are discussed we simply cannot afford to get it wrong. As it is, the Maltese are being forced to choose between the clueless sanctimony of the Peppis and the rabid banality of the Normans. Friday's programme was a disservice to the Maltese public and to the precarious lives of thousands of immigrants.

Dr Falzon is an anthropologist and university lecturer.

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