Fabian Demicoli

Achieving Higher Performance in Higher Education

The Education Strategy 2020 Conference organized by the National Commission for Higher Education last Friday 3rd April was very timely. During a period of reduced economic activity due to the adverse international economic situation, government should be seeking how to move ahead faster than ever with the investments necessary to give the economy the revival stimulus it needs.

Investment in Higher Education is an important way forward for a small economy like Malta. Malta will survive and have a higher quality of life, and hopefully close the gap between our economic well being and that of the EU 15 in a shorter time, only if we succeed to have higher quality labour. Higher quality manpower means more investment in Education. Higher quality manpower means higher value added employment – people earn more, they produce a higher value of goods or services, the economy grows more and our specializations make us less subject to the whims of ongoing economic turbulences overseas.

More investment in higher education is a must and we must shorten the time-span. What can be done now should not be left for ten years down the line. If government has €50 million to spare all of us who genuinely  love this country and want a better future for our children, we would rather see Lawrence Gonzi spend this money on expanding our higher Education facilities than on some refund scheme invested by Joseph Muscat for people who bought cars at the then going market prices.

Higher Education is costly. To reach the targets set by the strategy plan aiming at 2020 Malta will have to fork out moneys in the region of €1.2 billion. These  funds will primarily come from our own taxes but they will also include substantial EU funding. The point, however, is that quality education is expensive. Some income will be forthcoming by turning our institutions into income generating enterprises should we make them attractive enough to local businesses willing to buy university research and development services that are increasingly important if University is to be liked to the practical business and environmental needs of the country. Post – doctoral and other research is essential if you want to place our University to research departments at the hearth of the countries economic engine. Income should also be forthcoming as our institutions learn to sell more to foreign students and to foreign organizations willing to use our higher and further education facilities. The bulk of the expense will however remain one of a national investment prerequisite.

The Further and Higher Education Strategy 2020 document is available on http://www.nche.gov.mt/.  It is essential reading for all those who want to understand what the role of higher education in our economic development  will look like in the years ahead.

The plan aspires that the Government charts on effective and sustainable educational strategy with this provision of an adequate regulatory framework so that education becomes relevant in meeting the nations long term aspirations in an efficient operational system. The strategy drafters also expect government to provide for adequate institutional funding to meet both capacity and quality targets as set in this extensive plan. Government is also expected to provide students with support for fair access, adequate information, effective guidance and choice. On the other hand the institutions in further and higher education are expected to be fully committed to enable individuals to adapt and learn, consistent with the needs of a flexible knowledge based economy and life-cycle requirements.

The strategy as drafted cannot be faulted but the budget necessary to implement the strategy needs much more thought. The concept of our educational facilities being given funds and then allowed to perform under the sole guidance of other state bureaucrats institutionalized in the form of  Public Regulators is a system that needs to be also revisited. The concept of the Public Regulator with power to intervene on behalf of the general public and ensure that Budgets and performance standards are met and objectives achieved has not been developed enough in Malta and definitely so in education. In education we continue to pump millions of Euros yet public accountability is very poor. We are expected to measure by the many figures published in educational statistics. This is simply not good enough. The concept of education delivery and the Public Regulatory function has not been developed in education. Elsewhere it has not proven to be successful and it is time that in Malta we think of newer forms how to ensure that the operators in Higher and Further Education are accountable in a much more measurable method.

I believe that the time has arrived for the public, whether as parents, students or as enterprises and taxpayers, to be involved in a contractual relationship. This is a process that has been successfully proven in the USA and I believe that in small country like ours it make sense for a contractual relationship to be developed whereby effectively consumers buy, or albeit through public moneys. The educational services that are on offer and the sellers i.e. the educational establishments will provide the services according to the standards and the performances and targets contracted for. Educational establishments will have to meet not only the their obligations and their responsibilities according to the agreed plans, but also suffer the consequences for failure to meet agreed performance. Government will have the obligation to provide the public as consumers with the necessary organizational set-up to enable them to enter into contractual obligations with the higher and further education establishments. One cannot overstress how important it is that performance, standards and budgets are effectively controlled. Failure by the higher and further education establishments to take us to the promised land as drafted in the strategy agreed with the stakeholders will be the failure of a nation. There will be no way to bring back the years lost and the people damaged.

Democratic institutions though their Public Regulatory structures are not proving adequate enough to safeguard the public interest. We need therefore to devise contractual obligations with penalties for failure to achieve targets and reach performance standards. Higher and Further Education is one good area where to start. Hospital and medical services are a good other second option.

Malta is too small a country to leave things to chance, people in public office must learn to be more accountable to the public. Failure for a small country like ours is too costly.

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