Malta's state nurseries pave way for university growth

July 23, 1999

Malta University's monopoly as sole provider of higher education on the Mediterranean island republic will end next year when the government sets up a national technical college.

Education minister Louis Galea confirmed this week that the Malta College of Technology, Applied Arts and Sciences will be opened in September 2000 to provide vocational and technical education largely for 16 to 19-year-olds.

Details are still under wraps, but a government discussion do**** reveals that it intends eventually to offer degrees.

The college would bring the 3,800 students studying in the island's 14 pre-higher education colleges under a single, autonomous governing body with the same legal status as the university. With an initial recurrent funding budget in the region of LM5 million (Pounds 7.8 million), it also expects to drive up participation, providing for adult education and retraining, with part-time, and unitised courses.

The college is intended to be "an alternative" to the university, according to the discussion document. "With the setting up of MCTAAS, Malta will have two routes to higher education - the academic route, which can be followed at the university, and the vocational route, to be followed at the proposed college," it said.

The university, set up in 1592 by the Jesuits as a base to engage with French and Italian scholarship, but also to proselytise in North Africa, has successfully absorbed a massive increase in participation among 18-year-olds from 6 per cent in 1987 to almost 20 per cent today. But while its mission is to see participation at the university increase to closer to the European average of between 30 and 40 per cent, the plans for the new college clearly involve diverting students who would otherwise have gone to university.

"Students who feel they are adequately qualified to go on to (higher) education today have few options other than the academic courses," says the discussion document. "This situation could artificially inflate the number of students at the university with the possibility of their taking up courses for which they are not sufficiently motivated."

Paul Heywood, president of the council, helped draft plans for the new college and believes that it is inevitable that the university will lose students in the short term.

"Some of our 18-year-old cohort will be reduced," he said. "We have a feeling that many of the young cohort are not well served by the system. A lot are girls, whom we haven't catered for and a lot of boys take courses for which they are not suited. Malta has been weak at preparing people for middle management."

But Malta has a population of 300,000 and the college is also expected to become an alternative route to the university, as well as a competitor for students.

There would appear to be scope for expansion for both institutions. Ministers are looking forward to the latest matriculation figures. A 1980s initiative to set up state kindergartens in every town has led to more than 90 per cent participation among Malta's three and four-year-olds. "The four-year-olds of 1984 are 19 now," said Malta education minister Louis Galeta at a recent international widening participation conference. But the university is determined not to be pushed back to its largely elite roots. "We will have no problems working alongside the new college," said rector Roger Ellul Micallef.

The university has seen massive expansion in the past decade, student numbers have risen from 1,000 in the early 1980s to almost 10,000 today. It is already looking to expand in the adult education market and also its 500-strong overseas student population.

The university, host of this year's annual conference of the European Access Network, has already began to embrace lifelong learning. "Until very recently you had to have three A levels to study here. We now let people in with non-traditional qualifications," said Professor Ellul-Micallef.

The college already has links with two of the existing post-secondary colleges to allow late access to the university's courses in tourism, and mature students can gain access without traditional A levels, "but our faculties will look very closely at them", said Professor Ellul-Micallef.

Expansion is also planned for overseas student numbers. "We have been an Anglo-Saxon university for 40 years," said Professor Ellul-Micallef, a former chair of the Council of Europe's research committee. "But in the past few years we have sought to create links and bridges."

The university has 400 overseas students from 70 different countries but is set for massive expansion. "I have just returned from Istanbul, to make contact with a Turkish agency," said Dr Heywood. "Next year we hope to take 20 students from Turkey, but it is just a small fraction of the 1.5 million who sit the university entrance exam in Turkey."

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