Both the Nationalist government and the present Labour administration have given education high priority in their agenda for the country. The Nationalists invested heavily in getting larger number of students to continue their studies at tertiary and higher education levels, expanding the number of students at our University of Malta. The establishment of MCAST is acknowledged as one of the biggest successes of that administration. The government invested in new buildings in schools, reorganised secondary education and launched a process of digitisation in teaching and learning. The present Labour administration has followed the same route conducting various experiments in teaching at both primary and secondary level from which are reaping satisfactory results. However, there is still something which seems not to be working. I pin point it down to education, and you can argue about this… perhaps you can say that it more of a matter of culture.
One of my biggest disappointments lately has been the casual manner with which we are describing educational institutions as universities. The National Commission for Higher Education (NCHE) founded by the Nationalist government of which I was the first chairman between 2006 and 2008 was adamant in strengthening further the standards of our University of Malta that traces its roots to 1590, as well as to encourage competition to the University from prestigious higher education institutions that could only be entitled to a university status over time. The NCHE which was originally intended to benefit from independent and impartial thinking acted as a conscience to government in the formulation of policy in the area of higher education. A university is not only a teaching institution. It is a site of democratic citizenship reflecting the ethos and culture of the location where it is sited. It is a national actor in the cultural context in which it is established and grows. The teaching and practice within the university have a direct effect on the development and sustainability of the democratic culture in the larger society. My long experience in Cyprus has brought me into contact with a number of education institutions that were given the title of university but which unfortunately never reflected the ethos of a university. I remember very well the effort made by the Cypriot government in the late nineteen eighties early nineties to have their own University of Cyprus which was opened only in 1992 to fill in the culture gap, and to provide a continuous source of scholarship and research.
It might be a cultural issue therefore that we have not yet realised the intrinsic value of a university as a socio cultural phenomenon besides being a teaching institution. The main cultural problem derives from the other strata of our educational development including the primary education level. If we are unfortunately losing the cradle for socialisation within the family, primary education needs to play a more fundamental role as a partial substitute. The situation that we are in at the moment as reflected in anti-social behaviour, the collapse of effective relationships in family, friendship and commerce, the propagation of petty crime, corruption and cronyism, and the lack of genuine appreciation of the arts, traditions and culture is also a result of the decline of family values and the quality of education given to children in their first years of their development.
We need a rethink on primary education where more time is spent on the imparting of values of honesty, justice, independence and integrity. We need children to rediscover the value of a frugal life and hard work and merit as well as the benefit of earning one’s living rather than depending on the state whether for a job or for a welfare benefit. We need children to be able to choose between what is right and what is wrong, what is genuine and what is false be it in relationships, in commerce, crafts and the arts. Our energies should be directed towards the more basic levels of education. Quality in higher education will follow naturally from the strengthening of values.
Joseph FX Zahra