Let me start by putting my cards on the table. I am employed as an academic at MCAST and I haven’t sought any permission to write this article as I believe that. in an academic institution. this should neither be necessary nor required.

I thought I had missed something very important when I read Kevin Cassar’s article ‘The legalisation of oppression’ (January 28).

Cassar conflates two separate issues, Bill 35, a standalone bill replacing the articles in the Education Act regulating MCAST, and the issue of a teacher employed by the education department seconded with MCAST and MCAST’s refusal to comply with a court decision.

I will focus on Cassar’s missive about Bill 35. Cassar misleads because the issue with the bill is not “the legalisation of oppression”. The bill is practically ‘copy and paste’ of whole sections of the previous Education Act. If anything, it is a continuation of the “oppression” in the previous Education Act.

The bill retains the government’s total control of MCAST. But what’s new? It already has control through the fact that institutions such as MCAST and the University of Malta are bankrolled by the state. Financial control is the greatest form of control. Already wielding this huge level of control, governments can afford to let go on other matters to academics and other professionals. The problem is that they don’t.

The fact is that Nationalist and Labour prime ministers and ministers perpetuated, to a lesser or greater extent, the politics of patronage and micromanagement. The politics of putting their own people in key positions. A perpetual control by remote control.

I compared both the old sections of the Education Act and Bill 35. There is nothing absolutely new, for example, in that “a member of the board of governors (of MCAST) may at any time be removed by the minister”. Labour’s proposed bill says this, so did, to use Cassar’s style, the ‘Nationalist’ Education Act. It’s true that there is the additional proviso that the minister  has the authority to sack any board member “if such member is disruptive and or a source of frequent conflict causing hindrance to the proper functioning of the board”.

This just qualifies why a minister may decide to fire a board member; it changes nothing in substance. Board members appointed by the minister serve at the minister’s pleasure. The real issue is that there should have been a discussion on how both MCAST and the University of Malta can become more autonomous.

The problem is that neither Labour nor the PN wants this discussion. The convenient system of patronage means that they have repeatedly rewarded election candidates and party activists  including at the University of Malta, through the government-controlled university council.

What Cassar fails to notice is that Bill 35 perpetuates the control Nationalist governments had. He fails to realise that it is the PLPN system which has infected this country which is the problem. The MCAST board has always been appointed by the minister. Agencies such as Malta Enterprise have always appointed a representative to the board; it is probably being formalised and made more explicit in the new bill.

Yes, appointing the ministry of education’s permanent secretary may be a step too far, the minister has enough control as it is. My point is that both Labour and Nationalist ministers ensured absolute control, over and above the funding, oversight and policy formulation expected by the state in all democracies.

The real discussion should be on how we can move away from the oppressive PLPN system of direct appointments- Ralph Cassar

On the appointment of college academics, again, contrary to Cassar’s hyperbole, nothing changes. The board ratifies decisions relating to hiring and firing. As regards the principal, he/she remains appointed by the board. This is the wording of the old ‘Nationalist’ act: “[The board is empowered] … to appoint a principal and, on his advice, also to appoint the deputy principals, the heads of the institutes and of other educational and training entities, on the basis of a definitive contract, and to set up, and abolish, any post of an academic, technical or other nature.”

The wording of the new bill reads that the board of governors is empowered “…to appoint a principal and, on his advice, also to appoint the headship positions within the college; and to set up and abolish, on the advice of the principal, any post of an academic and administrative nature within the college”.

Cassar mistakenly interprets legalese as some power to hire and fire without due process and following procedures. Ironically this “new form of oppression” is lifted practically word for word from the articles added to the Education Act in 2006. He somehow thinks that this is some “new power”. It is the same power that PN governments used. The real discussion should be on how we can move away from the oppressive PLPN system of direct appointments.

Academic staff, other staff and students should have some sort of say.

As regards college staff, the bill states that the principal should ensure “that recruitment within the college is carried out in a fair and transparent manner and according to laws and regulations as may come into force from time to time”. Go figure.

The new MCAST act will change nothing substantial. It will remain an institution, like the University of Malta, totally controlled by government, with an over representation of minister-appointed governors. There are, however, some positive, if minor changes. Now the MCAST board of governors will include elected academic staff, administrative staff and student representatives.

The balance of representation on the board is, unfortunately, tipped in favour of economic interests and surely more staff and student representation would be in order. The neoliberal vision of education, seeing it as a vehicle for satisfying economic interests unfortunately pervades education policy and legislation. This is the kind of “oppression” we should resist.

Another positive aspect is the power afforded to the college to promulgate subsidiary legislation regulating its courses. Parliament is being given an additional oversight tool.

Bill 35 is mostly ‘copy and paste’ form the previous Education Act. That’s the real problem, that parties in government change but little else does: the inherited “tools of oppression” turn out to be useful to them.

The real discussion should be how to empower academic staff, students and institutions to push back against an education based on producing conformist and docile workers.

Ralph Cassar is an MCAST academic and secretary general of ADPD.  

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