18 January 2006

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Business Today

Zero based budgeting planned for university and higher education

Karl Schembri

The university of Malta and all higher education institutions will soon be subjected to what is called “zero based budgeting” and “formula funding”, requiring specific programmes and courses to be budgeted and justified every year.
The policy laid out in the Chalmers Report on higher education will now have be implemented by a national commission for higher education which has yet to be set up later this year, but the university rector has already urged departments on campus to prepare themselves for the new rules.
“The university has always been very careful to make every penny it is entrusted with count,” Rector Prof. Roger Ellul Micallef said. “It is no secret that it has been asking for formula funding to be introduced when its financial requirements are being worked out. To this effect it is at the moment looking at how best to implement zero based budgeting.”
Apart from the university, other higher education institutions that will be included in the reform include the Junior College, sixth forms, the Higher Secondary, MCAST and the Institute of Tourism Studies.
Education Minister Louis Galea said the commission will regulate financing and ensure accountability in higher secondary institutions, ascertain quality, and accredit institutions and educational programmes.
“The commission in conjunction with the government and the education institutions will have to see that there are finances for the institutions to offer programmes of study and courses of the best quality, by using a system of formula funding,” the minister said.
The commission will be appointed by the minister and is expected to remain independent from any other post-secondary and tertiary institutions.
“Government is committed to preserving the autonomy of the institutions and their academic freedom,” the minister said. “Indeed they themselves need to review and appraise their programmes; the performance of their academic staff; the quality of their graduates; their facilities, services and resources. Adequate funding is required, and the institutions remain responsible to allocate such funds to programmes and their outputs, establishing the true cost of producing those programmes, and defining their specific aims and deliverables.”
The university has already started doing the first audit trails for its courses, but these are set to intensify so that every department justifies its programmes from the ground up each financial year, with student intake for each course being an essential ingredient for funding.
While this increases accountability, the notion of ‘functionality’ raises eyebrows among certain academics, particularly at the faculty of arts where making an argument about the functionality of some of the courses offered is not as easy as in the case of medicine, IT and engineering.
Defending the humanities territory, the dean of the Faculty of Arts, Professor Dominic Fenech, admits the new funding system mentioned in the Chalmers Report on higher education should get the faculty “to start thinking ahead”.
“We definitely cannot take the backseat and assume everything will remain the same, although that applies to any faculty which wants to remain up to date,” he says. “When Mintoff closed the faculty of arts in the 70s, he introduced a policy of keeping only vocational courses. The new zero-based budgeting policy which the government wants to introduce cannot really be said to take us back to the 70s, but certainly it does not go against that policy either. Government does not say it is adopting Mintoff’s policy but it is not rejecting it in its attitude.”
The commission entrusted with funding will be financing specific programmes, not the departments, meaning that every course has to be costed and justified.

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