University Academic Autonomy: from little to less? – Arnold Cassola

A consultation paper on the state of the University was launched by government last April.  Caught up in the run up to the electoral campaign, very little has been written about it in public, though some “murmurs” have been going on behind the scenes.

Of course, there are various points brought up for discussion in this consultation paper.   I would however like to concentrate on the supposed autonomy of the institution.  In its preamble on Autonomy, the document states:  “The objective of the University of Malta Act is to promote institutional autonomy, operational flexibility and efficiency. The University of Malta fosters diverse organisations characterised by a fundamental philosophy with autonomy as a core principle. Increased independence, financial security and sustainability, appropriate governing structures, strong management and leadership are essential elements for any university to accomplish its diverse missions and respond to the current challenges in an increasingly complex academic environment”.

According to this brief, autonomy should be the core principle.  Of course this is blatant bull. I get the impression, when leafing through the text that the real autonomy the writer of the text is concerned about is financial autonomy rather than academic autonomy.

In 1994/95 I had written various times that a University whose Rector is elected exclusively by a University Council  made up in its majority of members directly or indirectly appointed by the government of the day is not autonomous at all.  I had written that University should be more autonomous. This implies less representatives of the state on the University Council with representatives from students and staff being increased. The University Rector and other high posts within the institution should be elected directly by the academic corps, elected representatives from KSU and representatives from the non-academic staff. The Rector should be directly accountable to the academic and non-academic staff and students.

Ironically, I find myself repeating the same thing twenty two years later:  the call for real academic autonomy fell on deaf ears in Ugo’s time; it has likewise been given the cold shoulder by Evarist. The Maltese malady of Ministers wanting to be in control of everything persists.

But Evarist is going two steps further in eroding the academic autonomy of the University. This consultation paper is proposing two new bodies, a Governing Board and an Executive Board which, in theory, should serve as a trait d’union between the University and society in general.  In reality, these two new boards – nearly totally made up of non-academics-  risk undermining completely the role of the University Council and Senate.

The Executive Board would have a majority of non-Academics, being  made up of the Rector (elected by  the Council, nominated in its majority –directly or indirectly – by government), a non academic Executive chosen by Council (ditto, as for Rector), and a non academic Chief Operations Officer.

The Governing Body would be made up of a minimum of three to a maximum of five members, including the Chair (the Rector, elected by  the Council, nominated in its majority –directly or indirectly – by government) and 2 to 4 members, who should not have any direct interest in the university, governmental ministries or be members of parliament.  Basically, therefore, a Governing Body made up in its overwhelming  majority of persons coming from the private industry or world.

This would mean that the academics and the people working at University, those who know better the university’s needs and its best interests, are being left out of these two new bodies which, in reality, will be the ones calling the shots.

These new proposals are being presented under the pretext of modernizing governing structures.  Mr Minister, I do not buy that: these proposals are being made to further divest the university of its academic autonomy and to give the governing politicians –with their pro-business mentality- a stronger grip on its functioning.

Those wanting to increase university academic autonomy, rather than seeing it further diminished, should speak up in public…. now.

Arnold Cassola
Published on the Times of Malta​ – 11th July 2017