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From the schoolbench to the workbench

Interview - February 13, 2017

Established in 2001, the Malta College of Arts, Science and Technology (MCAST) is the country’s leading vocational education and training institution. Through its six institutes in Malta and the Gozo Campus, it offers 185 full-time and over 300 part-time vocational courses, ranging from certificates to degrees. In this interview, President of the Board of Governors, Dr. Silvio De Bono, discusses MCAST’s close relationhip with industry, which allows it to provide students with a practical, “hands-on” experience, preparing them for the workplace as best as possible.


Malta will hold the EU-Presidency from January to June, 2017. What are your expectations of this presidency and what do you think it will bring to the educational sector here in Malta?

Yes, this is the first time as you all know, that Malta will take the Presidency, so it’s a very exciting time for us. It’s a learning process and as islanders we learn very fast. So we’re learning the ropes. It’s an exciting process in itself.

Now I’ll focus particularly on the education sector. I attend different meetings as the Director Generals for Vocational Education all over Europe. So it’s a meeting which is held twice a year, according to who’s holding the presidency. Through this presidency, when it comes to vocational education in particular, I think we have an opportunity to show our counterparts what we have achieved, in as far as vocational education is concerned, to show that notwithstanding that Malta is a small island, our basic resource is human capital. And we have thrived – not survived, but thrived – through the development of human capital in various areas.

I think that vocational education and education – because as I was saying earlier on, we have to stop making this distinction between vocational education and general education. It’s either good education or there’s no education at all. But there’s education of a vocational nature. And what we do here, we have a number of programmes in education.

Our expectations are what we’re doing in Malta and what’s happening abroad is at par. There’s a complete permeability between what we’re doing and what the rest of Europe is doing. But there’s a lot of expectations to learn, there’s a lot of expectations to set the agenda. There’s a lot of expectations to set a skills agenda, there’s a lot of expectations to set a skills gap agenda. Because one of the things which is happening in Malta is that Malta is finding its economic growth much faster than the rest of Europe. So what are we facing? We’re facing a huge skills gap. And this huge skills gap is in different areas, in several areas. Hence we’re having a lot of employees who are European, coming from different parts of Europe, being the West and the East. And they’re finding good employment in Malta.

What should we do to ensure that our students are trained to fill this gap? Do they want to fill this gap? So we’re in a constant state of flux. Education and employment, and Malta is the only European country where the Ministry of Education and Employment is under the same Minister. So that’s an advantage in itself, but it could bring some problems too. So the idea which we’re constantly talking about is: how can we bridge the two? My idea, to work for the next 3 years, is to work on a project which I’m calling “From the Schoolbench to the Workbench”.


So, there is a strong relationship between the industries and the education stakeholders?

It’s critical. MCAST is successful because it works hand in hand with industry. So that’s the success of MCAST. Over the past 3 years, the vision has been this transformation programme, where we’re focusing on 3 different needs: foundation students, technical students, and university/college students. We had put the workbased learning on the agenda. And in 3 years we have managed to get around 1,000 students on workbased learning, on different types of apprenticeships. And we’ve started as well the entrepreneurship programme.

We have all our programmes, which are home-grown programmes, so we no longer depend on foreign Universities. So we’ve done a lot. As what we have achieved so far, what’s the future, what are we expecting? I think the future is trying to be more pro-active. In fact, even the word pro-active is not good enough in education.


So what are, in your mind, the future trends of the employment needs for Malta?

Undoubtedly, the service industry is growing, in different areas, that being the financial services, being the gaming industry, being the IT sector, being in artificial intelligence, particularly going into big data analysis. So that’s where the future is going.

Unfortunately, we’re no longer finding students to take up the traditional trades, for a different number of reasons: because they’re highly influenced by the high-tech trades, because they’re finding better jobs and employment elsewhere. So the drive has to be twofold. A: we cannot stop progress, so we have to ensure that we prepare our students in that direction. B: we have to maintain our traditional trades without being too nostalgic.


Just to cover one more question regarding the relationship with the European Union. It is regarding the importance of EU funds and also the partnerships that you have with different universities in Europe.

EU Funds have been very critical, particularly both ESF and ERDF Funds. We’ve building a number of partnerships with different universities. Our education system is very British-based. So we have had a number of collaborations with the British system, particularly in our area, the BTEC qualification. Now we’re going in different directions as well. So we no longer have a foreign qualification. All our courses are home-grown programmes, which were managed because we’ve managed to get a good ESF Project.

Now we’re opening our shores not only to British universities, for example we’ve just signed a very good agreement with a Danish university, Haaga-Helia, to hold a Master’s. We’re working with British universities in terms of nursing, we’re working with Italian universities for art and design, we’re trying to strike a deal with German counterparts for engineering. So we’re trying to find different counterparts in Europe to work together in different sectors. For example, we have different agreements as well in order to start a research and innovation centre particularly for applied research here, with a Swiss institute. So I think we’re moving in that direction. We’re not closing doors, we’re opening doors, we’re opening our shores, and I think that the success would be if we manage to open these doors not ajar, but as wide as possible.

If you were to talk to foreign students, what would you say to attract them to MCAST here? What would be the main reasons to come here?

I think there are 3 main, very positive reasons why students should consider MCAST. Number one, the versatility of our programmes. Number two, I think that our pedagogical systems are exclusive because they are pretty much hands-on, so that gives them the possibility of not only learning the technical aspect but also learning the practical aspect. And thirdly because I think by nature the organisation is very friendly. We give a lot of importance to the paternalistic aspect of the student without being too paternalistic. We’re there to support and to guide.

Notwithstanding that having 6,500 students full-time and an additional 4,000 students part-time, that’s not easy. I may not know the 6,500 students, in fact I don’t, but if you go and talk to the different institute directors, and the different structures which we have in place; we have enough human resources within the structure to cater for this individuality.


Going a bit more into the “hands-on” part: How do the relationships with different industries to ensure that the students have a practical experience?

That’s a very good question, it’s a very tricky question. Because it’s a question of, “are we doing enough?” It’s never enough. And as a matter of fact, up till a few days ago, I was in complete discussions with the Minister, Honorable Bartolo, about how we can induce industry and attract industry more in what we do.

Let me tell you how we go about it: Whenever we’re drafting a new programme, we start with a new draft, we get people from industry to sit on our boards and discuss it. They give us their feedback, we put their feedback in the programme, and as much as possible, we go back to them, and we do tell them, “but is this what you want?”

Now the paradigm shift is always there, and the relationship can always be improved. Why? For the very simple reason that as educators we try to provide education at a general level. Meaning that without having any particular company in mind. Whereas entrepreneurs, they tend to be very specific. So they not only try to influence the generic outline of the programme, but they – as much as possible – they try also to influence the mechanisms behind the programme. And I do understand them, because I come from industry myself, so i wear two hats, in education and in industry, so I do understand them.

So the reality is that this tension between education and industry is always there. And the probability is, it will remain there. We have bridged the gap by talking to different sectors in industry, by bringing industry to our campus, by inviting them to all our activities, by opening discussions with different sectors, I personally think that we did a lot, but we haven’t even started yet. So it’s an oxymoron at the same time.

Why? I think there is one reason as well behind it. Industry is changing at a very fast rate. Much faster than we can change in education. So if industry is moving ahead at a 100 kilometers an hour, and we’re in the highway, and you’re thinking if you’re driving at a 100, 120 km an hours you’re driving fast, all of a sudden you see on your right-hand side, and you see a faster car going at 200 kilometers an hour. So you say, OK, you think you’re going fast, but you’re not going fast enough as the other car. And this tension would remain there, which I also think - thinking about it positively - is important. But saying that it’s important and remaining there, it’s not good enough. So what are we thinking?

So far we have educational-driven apprenticeship. As you well know, there are 2 major models. There’s the Germanic model, which is industry-driven, where the social partners there, the union, education and employers get together, they first identify what are the skills required, they develop the job description, or the position description, they develop the skills, the skills go to the different schools and they develop courses there.

The education in Malta has been very much based on the British system. I would have preferred if our apprenticeships were industry-driven. But if I had to wait for that, it wouldn’t have happened. So we started with the other system, where it’s educational-driven. Where students are four days at the college and they have another day as part of their work-based learning. So it’s not only placing them at a place of work, but what they’re doing at the place of work is also accredited. So they’re four days here, and occasionally during their semester they’re also in the place of work. And I have to thank industry for that.

So that is, we are conditioning what they learn. But I believe that it’s time - and we’re in discussions with government, so I have the verbal approval, now we’re in the planning stage - of starting something, starting a new project which is in my opinion very important. An industry-driven apprenticeship. Let these be employees, and let them work and the employer can teach them the specific skills. We can help. Then we can go in and provide the key skills, the educational skills, so that they get qualified as well while they’re at the place of work.