21 September 2005

The Web

The educonomy

A pioneer in the teaching of computer science and IT, Charles Theuma, principal at the St Martin’s Institute of Information Technology, believes education could be the next big service industry for Malta.
Apart from offering part-time courses, St Martin’s has for the last two years ventured into offering full-time courses leading to undergraduate degrees by the University of London. The Blata l-Bajda office block has the vestiges of a small private university and Theuma believes that this is a niche, which is beneficial to the economy since it attracts foreign students.
“I believe in competition in the education sector because a plurality of ideas and teaching methods is healthy,” Theuma says. But he cautions that Malta risks losing out to competitors such as Cyprus where conscious decisions have been taken to market the country to foreign students wanting to obtain degrees by recognised European universities.
“The pre-budget document does have a three-line reference to foreign students coming over to study in Malta as a viable economic activity for this country. But we have to be quick because by the time we truly realise this is a beneficial economic activity we risk being overtaken by other countries,” Theuma says.

What role does a school like yours perform within the existing tertiary education framework?
We have always been a school that aimed for niche markets not catered for by the educational set up in the country. The educational system is dominated by the Church and central government. Between them these two organisations have practically occupied almost all of the educational market, offering a complete education. But they have also left a number of niche markets untapped and since St Martin’s inception we have always aimed for these pockets. When computer science was unheard of in government schools because it was not a priority and church schools did not have the resources to go for such a subject matter, we at St Martin’s filled in that gap.
Another niche we have occupied is that of undergraduate degrees from the University of London offered to part-time students who might not have had an opportunity earlier in life to study at university. These part-time courses gave people already engaged in the work force the chance to obtain a first degree.
Currently there are around five players in the private sector offering masters degrees but we wanted to target the niche sector of those wanting to obtain a first degree before progressing to a masters degree. And this decision we took consciously in view of the pan-European framework Malta is now operating in.
Anybody obtaining a masters degree without first having an undergraduate degree can experience problems to justify the certificate in a European context. Many individuals are seeing the MBA degrees as a short cut to obtaining a first degree.

Over recent years there has been an influx of private institutes offering all sorts of degrees from foreign universities. How can we be sure that standards are being maintained and degrees offered are recognised internationally?
EU membership has necessitated the creation of a board that manages tertiary education. Two committees were created, one dealing with vocational training and another with tertiary education. The aim of such a board is to act as a reference point for any employer, prospective student or student to check whether a particular degree being offered is valid or not and whether it is recognised internationally.
At the end of the day it is up to students to shop around for the degree they believe will open up new horizons.
After all a degree is just a benchmark used by an educational institution such as a university to signal that the particular student in possession of the degree has reached that university’s standard. Eventually, it is up to the student to make good use of that degree but different universities have different levels of standard.
A polemic that often arises is that Malta lacks behind the rest of the new EU entrants in terms of new graduates coming out of university. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are ahead of us but we have to also look at the standard of the degrees offered by their universities. From my contacts with agents in these countries it is clear that their standards are below ours and far less rigorous and demanding.

We have one public university. Should it be Malta’s target to have more competition in the tertiary education sector?
We now form part of a wider economic and social model where decisions are also taken at a pan-European level. No sector should be subject to a monopoly.
I believe in competition in the education sector because a plurality of ideas and teaching methods is healthy. Currently the formation of every student at tertiary level is passing through one funnel at the University. Thoughts, ideas and information filter through one system, through the same lecturers. Every university, or department within it, has its way of educating and transmitting ideas and these are determined by the people who teach there.
Pluralism in this aspect is also important so that prospective students would be able to choose between the different methods, styles and perspectives. We at St Martin’s have a different perspective, particularly because the University of London demands it. The international dimension is introduced to students from day one. University courses dealing with the economy and management in Malta tend to focus a lot on micro-business because the Maltese context posits a micro-environment. But we teach differently, offering a wider international context because our students would be competing with others from different countries.
The teaching method at St Martin’s has already given students a different option to choose from. The students who come to us normally want an international perspective even to widen their employment opportunities abroad. Employment mobility is increasingly becoming an issue for many people and a degree from a renowned university is a bonus.
I am not saying that a degree from the University of Malta will not enable job mobility but some countries don’t even know where Malta is, let alone that it has a university.

Is private tertiary education only for the rich?
No. Today, we are targeting two markets; the part-time market with which we started and the full-time student market. For the part-time courses we are not targeting society’s elite. Most of our students are employed and instead of investing Lm30 to Lm50 a month to ensure they have a perfect hairstyle before going to Paceville, they choose to invest in their own education.
I think this is a noble cause. Instead of depending on others’ and taxpayers’ money to obtain a tertiary education, these students are investing a part of their wage in education.
These students are not a burden on society and as a country we should be directing more of our attention to this sector.
As regards full-time students, most of our clients are foreigners. We are offering them a chance to obtain a degree from a renowned university but at a price that is almost half what it would cost in London. We are attracting foreign students with middle class backgrounds because the kids from rich families would probably go to study directly in England.

A furore arose when government decided to stop all visas for Chinese students who came here to study in the wake of investigations concerning allegations of abuse in the issuance of visas at the Maltese embassy in Beijing. Is the country’s administration looking at foreign students as a viable economic activity that needs to be nurtured?
The language schools, whose bread and butter depends exclusively on foreign students, can speak much more on this subject than myself. But we did pass through a storm at the beginning of the year when the Chinese visas controversy arose.
We had Chinese students who were studying and performing well, who suddenly blanked out because they feared deportation. As a head of school I had numerous individual meetings with the students trying to explain that they need not fear since they were here legally. But many a times I personally was not privy of what government’s intentions were. Till today I don’t know what government’s plans are in this regard because as a school we were never consulted about the problem.
To a certain extent we are still passing through a storm where visas for non-EU nationals are concerned. But I prefer to look at the positive side of things and I sincerely hope that we will soon have the Schengen Treaty in force.
But there are bureaucratic problems. Every recognised school in Malta has to have a principal or head responsible for that school’s conduct including the way foreign students are treated. According to the education act the principle is answerable to the minister of education. The problem is that the immigration authorities find it very hard to recognise the school principal as the responsible person when dealing with visas for foreign students. Why shouldn’t I as a principal entrusted with the legal responsibility of my school be able to bring over good foreign students to study in Malta?
There needs to be more communication between the immigration police and the heads of schools, especially after the school would have procured the necessary documentation for the student to come here legally.
Along with the other shareholders, my school has taken the decision to tap into the foreign student market because we feel it is economically viable for us and our employees. But we function in a country. If this country is not conscious of what such an economic activity could mean, that is a question the authorities have to answer.
The pre-budget document does have a three-line reference to foreign students coming over to study in Malta as a viable economic activity for this country. But we have to be quick because by the time we truly realise this is a beneficial economic activity we risk being overtaken by other countries.

There was an outcry in the UK when the government closed the tap on non-EU visas because universities were complaining that an important source of financing risked being slashed. Do we run the same risk?
In the UK there is a phenomenal difference between the fees charged to EU nationals and non-EU students. Fees could even be six times more for non-EU nationals, which clearly shows that foreign students are an important source of finance. In England the teaching of foreign students is a multi-million sterling industry and I believe we can aim for such a success.
First of all, just a drop off the British market’s table will flood us and secondly, apart from Ireland we are the only other European country where English is commonly spoken.
But we have to be careful. Cyprus is currently building five new universities with government support and this is no joke. Cyprus is competing with us in the teaching of English already even if the language is not as widely spoken as in Malta.
But they have realised their potential and are doing something about it while here in Malta we are still questioning whether this industry is still beneficial to us.
I travel to China regularly and it worries me when I see how Chinese agents are allocating priorities. The first destination students ask for is invariably the UK, not even the US. Some years ago Malta was at the lower rungs of the English-speaking commonwealth countries after Australia, New Zealand and Canada. But today we are being further pushed down the rungs of priority by countries such as Estonia and Cyprus. We haven’t gone up the rungs in this table of choices available to foreign students and it need not be so.
We have the potential to be on the top with the UK. My school has proved its worth. In the graduation last March, the only five graduates in computer and information systems who obtained first class honours from the University of London world wide were students at St Martin’s. Foreign students looking for schools abroad look at track records and in this we excel. But it would be useless if they have to face other problems, which could put them off coming to Malta.

Malta is aiming for the higher end industrial processes, which require a higher skilled workforce and more specialised employees. Industry complains that the education system in Malta is not producing the right labour force for today’s needs. Do you have any linkages with industry?
No, we do not have direct contact with employers to determine what job skills are required. But our work as an educational institution is to teach. We do not award certificates. Every student who attends St Martin’s is awarded a certificate from the University of London. I cannot change the international syllabus of the University of London to tailor it to Malta’s needs.
What we do have is the right to teach more than the established syllabus and it is my school’s philosophy to go beyond what the syllabus requires because our mission is to educate not simply teach students how to pass an exam.
We are an academic institution not a vocational institution and few employers make this distinction. An academic university teaches the student how to think and make use of the educational tools transmitted in a versatile way.
The programmes that we teach at St Martin’s are imported from abroad but are geared towards stimulating the student’s thinking ability. If a student simply studies the text book and regurgitates it during an exam, he or she would have a good chance of failing or only just making it. The examiners want to see students roping in different subjects, asking questions and understanding the reasoning behind concepts.
It is our challenge to instil in students this mentality.

Does our educational system gear students towards such an inquisitive mentality?
Unfortunately no, we are finding difficulty. But it is not just our problem. Today we have international experience and I believe that the rush to increase numbers in the educational system in many western countries has left little leeway for flexibility. It is easier to test an individual through a multiple choice questionnaire where marking is uniform rather than through an essay which requires a deeper analysis by the examiner.
In the rush for quantity we have robotised examinations and these allow for less flexibility.
Let’s face it, having two individuals correcting the same examination essay twice, as is the case with the exams we prepare students for, is a logistical nightmare.

Efforts over recent years have been geared towards improving the country’s information technology infrastructure. Having been at the forefront in this revolution, 20 years ago when you began to teach computer science and IT, what would you say is the next step that needs to be taken especially in a global scenario where innovation and technology are constantly evolving?
I do not envy the policy makers in this sector. The strategy to partner with international software companies is paying dividends but we have to understand that as a country we still have a childish mentality. We still believe that Bill Gates will come here and literally give us something. This is not the culture of the IT world out there. Bill Gates could possibly give us a benchmark to be utilised by everybody but we would still have to grow and develop alongside that benchmark to reap dividends.
I admire Maltese entrepreneurs such as the people behind GFI-Fax because they latched on to a niche product offered by Microsoft and went on to develop it further. They have grown enormously by exploiting a niche on the international scene.
The opportunities already exist, they need to be taken. However, in IT we are late.
I do not want to sound pessimistic but I believe the window of opportunity in this sector presented itself towards the end of the last millennium. Today, we have a situation where India is competitive. The work practices there amaze me. They have a seven-day week, working daily between 8am and 9pm with the only exception being Sunday when they start work at 11am.
This is a reality. While France is discussing a 35-hour week, Indians are working practically 24 hours a day. I do not advocate the Indian work ethic but we are competing with these people as well.
As a country we have to try and tap niche markets in IT such as the enhancement of services offered by the Indians in areas like consultancy, systems analysis and IT research and development. If we had penetrated the market during the boom period between 1995 and 2000 when our cost of living was lower than it is today, we could have been the data processing department of companies in the UK. But today these companies have shifted their back office work to the east and it will be difficult for them to come back to a more expensive base. Our challenge now is to find the niche markets.
Just look at the gaming industry. We managed to tap into the market at the right time. When it started booming we adopted an advantageous legal regime, set up the infrastructure and today here we are acting as a focal point for foreign gaming companies.
We have done a good job in the gaming sector and this is why I believe we can still do it in other areas. And education is one such sector. The country has to make a concerted effort to be able to create an educational industry and the time to do that is now. This boom will only last 10 years.

Charles Theuma was
interviewed by Kurt Sansone

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