The University of Malta Rector has insisted academic decisions must remain the sole preserve of the academic community, amid controversy over government plans which some see as a threat to the institution’s autonomy.

Speaking to The Sunday Times of Malta, Alfred Vella also acknowledged the government’s need to ensure value for public funds, and praised the “unprecedented” level of consultation on the new proposed University of Malta Act.

“On affairs of a strictly academic nature – such as subjects, regulations and examinations – decision-making must always come from within the university. It would be terrible if the government were ever to interfere with this,” Prof. Vella said.

“At the same time, there is always tension between allowing the University to handle its own affairs and getting value for public funds.

“The government already has a certain power to direct the university because it controls the budget, but I would always expect the government to listen to what the University is saying.”

The University Council, which appoints the Rector and is responsible for the general administration of the institution, currently comprises a majority of members appointed by the government.

Criticism of the new legislation, which is still in the consultation stage, has largely focused on the creation of a new Governing Board which will be made up of the University Chancellor and three to five members appointed directly by the Prime Minister.

The board will have the final say on the university’s business plan, annual budget and academic plan. Its members should not be MPs or have any direct interest in the university or government ministries.

It would be terrible if the government were ever to interfere with this

The Rector will not be part of this board, but will be “encouraged to attend meetings whenever he is invited to do so”.

A separate Executive Board will include the Rector and a non-academic Executive, nominated by the University Council, as well as a Chief Operations Officer. The board’s plans and decisions will be subject to approval by the Governing Board. “Creating structures where the Rector shares responsibility and decision-making power with people outside the university structure, will by definition reduce the power he holds,” Prof. Vella said of the proposed changes.

University Rector Alfred Vella: “On affairs of a strictly academic nature – such as subjects, regulations and examinations – decision-making must always come from within the university.” Photo: Jonathan BorgUniversity Rector Alfred Vella: “On affairs of a strictly academic nature – such as subjects, regulations and examinations – decision-making must always come from within the university.” Photo: Jonathan Borg

“The alternative view is that it is supposed to help the Rector sail this rather complicated ship. What I am observing, however, is that academics and even students are unhappy with the situation and do not wish to see this ‘sharing of power’ between the Governing Board, where the Rector has no role, and the Executive Board.”

Prof. Vella also welcomed the fact that the government was “in listening mode” over the concerns raised, but added that it remained to be seen whether the extensive consultation would ultimately result in positive changes to the proposed legislation.

The University Students Council, and individual academics, have been among several vocal critics of the proposals.

Ahead of a consultation meeting with Education Minister Evarist Bartolo on Friday, KSU expressed concern over the politically-appointed Governing Board exercising such control over the university’s budget and academic plan, and called for it to be given a more consultative role.

Mr Bartolo has insisted the government has no desire for “heavy-handed control”.

“Our record in these last four- and-a-half years clearly shows we have a strong university, a free university, a university which is nationally responsible. We want public accountability but that does not mean that we want to strangle or choke the university,” he said on Friday.

Meanwhile, a separate consultation meeting with the University of Malta Academic Staff Association was postponed last Friday.

President Jean Paul Baldacchino declined to comment on the proposed legislation when contacted, and said the association would be publicising its views ahead of the rescheduled meeting in the coming weeks.

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