Education: a hostage of the market

 

The discourse on the subject of education is centred on forcing students into following the diktats of the market: the skills gap needs to be addressed. The assumption is that the market is some kind of given – independent of everything else – that invisible hand that is directing our lives.

What should we expect from vocational education and training?

The major institution in this sector in Malta is MCAST (The Malta College of Arts, Science and Technology). Originally set up in the 1960s through funding and support from UNESCO, it had developed into an institution offering degree courses in business and engineering, amongst other new areas of study. Instead of encouraging it to develop and flourish with its own particular ethos and identity it was abruptly absorbed into the University of Malta as a result of the reforms in the late 1970s – the student-worker scheme!

Arguments for and against this absorption are plenty. What is sure, however, is, that a particular style and mode of education was lost for over 20 years and technically inclined students who followed courses at technical institutes instead of in sixth forms -with their rigid and uninspiring desk based teaching – found themselves practically shunned by places of higher education.

A lost generation.

In 2001, MCAST was re-established and existing technical institutes were brought together under one umbrella organisation. Over time, degree courses were developed and educational paths were offered at different levels – from foundation level courses, to technician level courses, up to degree level – all with different entry requirements according to the areas of study. These were backed up by different support systems catering to the differing needs of students, who can choose where to start their post-compulsory educational trajectory, depending on their progress to date. Cooperation with Dutch and Finnish technical universities and other universities of applied science are a positive development which must be further nurtured.

MCAST has developed over time, but the out-of-date mentality, still present as a colonial inheritance, which falsely splits education into ‘vocational’ and ‘academic’ streams continues to haunt the mind-set of policy makers’. Way back in the early 1900s, the progressive American educationalist John Dewey had already riled against a system that separates the practical from the so called ‘academic’. He had warned against a narrow education that pigeon-holed students, generally on the basis of their socioeconomic backgrounds.

MCAST should retain its identity; it should strengthen its cross-disciplinary and contextualised pedagogical methods. Science and technology do not exist in a vacuum and MCAST students should be given the opportunity to study languages, the relationship between science, technology and society and how policy-making depends on the power structures inherent in society.

To achieve this, the policy makers and the politically appointed board who are resisting improvement in the conditions of academic staff at MCAST are transmitting the wrong message: ie that MCAST is there to impart simple, pre-packaged ‘skills’, to train and not to educate, and that academic staff – with a wide range of qualifications and experience – are just there to transmit information.

Lecturers and technical staff should be given the opportunity to develop and apply knowledge and pedagogies which really enable students to flourish. The managerialist culture, copied from Britain, is destroying initiative and restricting innovation. Academic and technical programmes should be designed, implemented and managed by proper boards of studies made up of academic staff. Sure, input from industry is important, but the main focus should be a holistic education.

Unless technical staff and academic staff are given the right opportunities and conditions, brand new equipment will remain underutilised, new ways of teaching and learning will not be developed and, above all, treating MCAST as some kind of ‘lesser’ institution – even as regards conditions of work and the resources afforded to its academics will just strengthen long standing prejudice at the expense of society.

It is curious that Education Minister Evarist Bartolo, who is usually so vociferous when it comes to improving the educational infrastructure and the reform at the University of Malta – including the professional development of academic staff – has so far been silent on the entire subject. But then we might remember that the University of Malta will also shortly be made subservient to the interests of the business world!

published in the Malta Independent on Sunday : 7 January 2018

5th October – Students’ Day

Today may not mean much to some of the readers.

To others it means a lot. In particular it is Student’s Day.

Student’s Day commemorates the day when the students stood up in protest in 1977. I was there.  A second year student in the then Faculty of Engineering and Architecture

It was 1977 when Medical Students had their lecturers locked out as a result of the trade dispute between MAM, the medical doctors’ union,  and Government.  With their lecturers locked out students could not attend lectures.

Chained to the railing at Auberge de Castille, the students carried placards stating “I want to study in Malta”.

Early in the afternoon of the 5th October the Students’ Council Annual General Meeting at University suspended its session and those present proceeded to Valletta in full support of the Medical Students. Almost immediately a substantial number of police from their Floriana HQ caught up with us students and chased us all the way from Valletta to University. Some were manhandled and beaten.

It was the beginning of a very long and sad story, a very difficult time for tertiary education.

The Labour Government led by Dom Mintoff commenced substantial changes to the tertiary educational setup. Labour devised a “one size fits all” student worker scheme based on government’s requirements in state hospitals. Six months study were to be followed by six months work with some holidays and examinations sandwiched in between.

The work experience, if properly planned was beneficial. But unfortunately it was not as students ended up as part of the ordinary workforce with insufficient time to dedicate to their studies. Various submisions were made to government to change the system, but Labour would not listen.

The university student population at that time was around 400. A substantial contrast to the current 10,000+ population.

It was Labour’s darkest hour in tertiary education.

originally published in di-ve.com on 5 October 2012