The money invested in student stipends should instead be allocated to funding research and laboratory equipment, according to the dean of the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Malta.

The University’s research budget is probably comparable to what is spent on the Eurovision song contest

“Although our work fares well at international level, our University does not place highly in the world university ranking systems due to the limited capacity and investment,” said John Betts.

The academic’s statements echo similar unheeded calls made in the past by independent stakeholders, but Dr Bett’s plea comes as both of the major parties are not only pledging in their electoral programmes to keep the system but also to adjust it in line with the cost of living.

He pointed out that the emphasis on stipends came at a price, which was paid through under-investment in other areas.

“I think that it’s time for the stipend money to be invested in funding research instead. Our research budgets are too low,” said Dr Betts, 45.

He explained that, with insufficient funds, his faculty could not operate and, in the long term, would be unsustainable.

“In the best of cases, the quality of the degrees will fall drastically; in the worst, we will be reduced to a full theory-based research-free institution,” he warned. The higher the international standing of a university, the more renowned its reputation, the more paying foreign students it would attract and the easier the access to international funds.

As it is, the whole research budget for the University of Malta for 2012 amounted to €600,000.

“That is probably comparable to what is spent on the Eurovision song contest,” Dr Betts said, with a touch of humour.

On a more serious note, he does not believe that without stipends there would be a drop in the number of students.

“I think, in this day and age, students who are capable and determined would still enrol. I ’d say that, in our faculty, we’d perhaps have some four or five freshmen fewer every year, if at all,” he said.

He was quick to highlight, however, the importance of a means test to help students who do not have the necessary financial backing so that education would still be open to all and no one would be under any form of means discrimination.

“Contrary to the perception out there, the majority of students are really keen on their studies. They’re not here to party,” he said.

Malta spends more than €23 million on giving post-secondary students an €80 monthly stipend. By 2020 the figure is likely to exceed €30 million as the student population rises in line with EU targets.

Dr Betts stressed that he had “no political agenda” and that he did not want to be “negative” on the state of the University. He said that his faculty was well equipped and regularly published papers in international journals.

“Moreover, our students constantly do well in post-graduate studies abroad. They are often snapped up and recruited by the universities,” he said, adding that there was a culture of excellence in the quality of the engineering courses at the University of Malta.

His staff is constantly trying to explore options of how to generate funds and, most of the time, the output comes from EU project funding and structural funds that are used for research by post-graduate students.

‘The future looks positive but hard’

“The problem is that we do not have the funds to employ students after they finish their PhD, so we do not have any people specifically employed on research.”

Without full-time researchers, the University could not make a name in research.

“Our personnel consist of lecturers and technical and administration staff only. Ideally, lecturers would have their heavy lecturing load reduced to be able to focus on research portfolios,” he explained.

There is also the problem of space and he explained how they were constantly doing “miracles” to try and squeeze out more room. His office attests to this: it is smaller than the size of a box room.

The faculty’s official source of funds is the €9,000 given by the central University to each department and another €9,000 for the faculty as a whole.

This is meant to be used to maintain equipment, for stationery, computer stations, lab materials, overtime of administrative and technical employees and staff training and development.

To cover most of the high maintenance cost of equipment, the faculty offers services to the engin-eering industry.

“If I had to depend on the budget given to me by the central administration, we would have to close down the faculty labs and workshops,” he said.

The other source of funding is through non-EU foreign students.

“At the moment we only have two Kuwaiti students,” he said. Although his faculty has embarked on a PR project to promote the University of Malta in countries like India and China, to attract paying students, the University needs to have a high international standing.

“There are other alternatives to stipends such as loans to students, which can be repaid on graduation,” he said.

In essence, he feels that, at this stage, something needs to be done. His only wish is to raise “realistic” awareness about the situation at the country’s foremost academic institution.

“The future looks positive but darn hard,” he quipped.

The stipends issue

• Chalmers Report – in 2004, a commission headed by Roderick Chalmers questioned whether grants should continue to be universally applied and had mooted the introduction of tuition fees. It concluded that the “maintenance grants for all” policy “should go”, as of 2005.

• In January 2009, a European Commission report blamed stipends for delivering less than satisfactory outcomes while increasing public spending. The Ecofin Country Focus said it was doubtful how much maintenance grants actually led to increased participation in tertiary education because, despite the “relatively generous grants”, students appeared to “deliver less than satisfactory outcomes”.

• In March 2009, University Rector Juanito Camilleri argued that the money could be put to better use rather than spreading it so thinly among all students, many of whom could already afford cars and other luxuries.

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