Thursday, March 22, 2012

A History of Post-Secondary Maltese Engineering Educations

Last week, the ICEX faculty had the opportunity to meet Professor Carmel Pulè, faculty in the Department of Electronics Systems Engineering at the University of Malta. Dr. Pulè has played an influential role in the development of engineering education in Malta during the last 45 years. He graciously shared his contact information with the faculty, and I contacted him by email earlier this week to ask him about the similarities and differences of the engineering educations provided by MCAST and University of Malta.

His response was fiery and passionate, but well informed and based on an experience with the Maltese education system that few others have had. I’m lucky to be able to hear his story, and am excited to share it. The following is a summary of his account of the history of the Maltese engineering education. It largely focuses on the history of the development of the different engineering degrees offered today by the University of Malta and the Malta College of Arts, Science, and Technology (MCAST). In my next and final blog post, I will discuss some of the statistics concerning the two post-secondary schools and elaborate on the ways in which this history has affected each institution.

**Some comments about the Institutions of Education in Malta by Professor Carmel Pulè (18 Mar 2012), summarized by Erik Nelson **

Malta lived under British rule for around 150 years (up until 1964), so most of the economy was devoted to establishing and maintaining a skilled workforce for military needs. The British established their own schools in Malta that trained Maltese students in naval studies, military technique, and other similar forms of education. Of these schools, the Dockyard Naval School at Senglea was the best, manned by extremely qualified British teachers. Most students graduating from this school followed a six-year trade apprenticeship and the best students were given an opportunity to go to Britain and proceed to work at Chatham, Devonport, and Portsmouth. Some of these highly skilled Maltese would then return to Malta. (Note: The important role of the Dockyard Naval School as a site of technical education had previously been highlighted for us by Timmy Gambin during our tour of the Maritime Museum the first week.)

In addition to the post-secondary educational opportunities provided by the British military, in the time period prior to independence in 1964, there was the old University of Malta, which had been established by the Knights of Saint John 400 years earlier. At the time, the university focused on arts, culture, and education in the traditional professions of law, medicine, and religion. It offered no Engineering courses. (Research prior to our trip indicates that the size of the student population at the University in the 1950s was approximately 200 students per year.) This lack of attention to technical education was mirrored in Maltese teacher training colleges and at the Lyceum – the “junior college” that students attended in between secondary education and enrollment at the University of Malta.

Since the University of Malta did not provide any engineering degrees, pathways to technical education that were not provided by the British military were largely apprenticeship-based. A number of vocational schools were established beginning in 1945. However, these trade schools were not primarily focused on producing academically trained engineers. (An exception to the lower-level vocational-only focus was the Technical College at Paula, which offered Ordinary and Higher National Certificates and Journey Men Certificates and produced students who were able to compete successfully against other students in the British Commonwealth and whose degrees were recognized abroad.)

Up until 1960 (aside from the years of World War II), life in Malta was tranquil. The country had gotten used to its tie to Britain, and had sufficient economic influx to maintain its peaceful lifestyle. However, circa 1960 it became clear that Britain would not be able to continue financial support for its ‘oversea empire’, including Malta. Maltese politicians and educators became aware of this, and realized that secondary and post-secondary education should be shifted in such a way that the product of the University of Malta would be a labor force for a self-supporting nation. This labor force would be, by necessity, largely composed of engineers. The University of Malta did not agree with this outlook, and continued to offer its traditional degrees while rejecting the development of courses in engineering.

Meanwhile, Britain (in conjunction with UNESCO) decided to finance a new technical institution in Malta called the Malta College of Arts, Science, and Technology (MCAST). The goal of this new college was the same as the goal of the aforementioned Maltese politicians: to produce workers whose skills would be useful to a competitive independent economy post-independence. The subjects included were mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, tourism, finances, accounting, and economics.

After independence in 1964, the Maltese government did force the University of Malta to offer degrees in engineering. Students who could meet the admittance qualifications at the University of Malta – which involved Religious and Maltese Language qualifications – were able to earn B.Sc degrees in engineering at the University. Students who did not meet the Religious and Maltese Language qualifications were able to earn a Diploma in Engineering at

MCAST instead by taking the same coursework. Professors from MCAST – such as Professor Pulè, who had returned from England in 1969 to take a leadership position at MCAST – were required to teach the B.Sc as well as the Diploma students, but were not offered any additional compensation for doing so (in contrast to the medical doctors at St. Luke’s who also taught at the University and received additional salary). For Professor Pulè, who was the first Maltese to earn a PhD in engineering, this continued lack of respect for academically focused engineering education by the University was incredibly frustrating.

Thus, while the University had yielded to the government in a sense, it still refused to shift its focus from the arts, culture, and traditional professions of medicine, law, and religion to the work that Professor Pulè and the Maltese government had identified as necessary – producing a highly skilled, technically focused workforce for an independent Malta. The University also continued to refuse to offer degrees in finances and accounting or to increase attention to the training of secondary teachers who were qualified in technical fields.

The situation came to a head in 1978, when the Maltese government (under the leadership of Prime Minister Mintoff) cut funding to the University of Malta because of its refusal to make these changes. The “Old University” literally disappeared from the map. MCAST was shut down at nearly the same time, and its entire staff, all of its students, and its subjects were transferred to the “New University of Malta.” The New University had roughly ten times as many students as the Old University (a total of 10,000 students), and initially focused only on offering degrees with direct economic benefit (such as engineering and tourism). As Professor Pulè put it, “the modern professors [had] stepped in to University surroundings.” Many faculty members from the Old University left Malta and took positions in England and Saudi Arabia.

Beginning in the 1980s, the (New) University of Malta began to expand its focus to teach all the old subjects plus the new subjects of Engineering, Science, Mathematics and Computer Science. Today, the University has many associated subject institutes focused on topics such as sustainable energy. However, in Professor Pulè’s opinion, even the technical courses in today’s University of Malta have become too soft and theoretical, with not enough emphasis on hands-on work and hardware. Its engineering degrees have less lab-based courses than most other universities, and the work with computers largely focuses on accounting, economics, banking, video games, and personal media communication rather than embedded systems, image processing, and robotics. According to Professor Pulè, this means that Malta has recently lost out on investing and manufacturing opportunities with international companies such as Lufthansa.

Thus, Professor Pulè began to work in the 1990s for the opening of a new MCAST that would provide more hands-on education. The goal of this process was to produce high-caliber engineers who have a firm technical and hands-on background. His desire came true, and the “New MCAST” opened in 2000.

However, Professor Pulè is not entirely satisfied with the new MCAST. According to him, the new MCAST had a slow start due to the fact that it was under staffed and poorly funded. Initially, instructors from the old trade schools were hired, many of whom did not have proper university qualifications. Additionally, Professor Pulè believes that the examination standards of MCAST are not sufficient. While MCAST offers ample hands-on training, Professor Pulè has found the opposite problem from the new University of Malta: the coursework of MCAST is not theoretical in the least. For example, MCAST’s course in Plant Maintenance does not include thermodynamics – a topic necessary to the class. While Professor Pulè was excited that Professor Maurice Grech was brought in to take over MCAST approximately five years ago, he is concerned that the degrees awarded by MCAST are not equivalent to engineering degrees at other universities. More broadly, Professor Pulè is concerned that the standards of admission to both MCAST and the University of Malta, and examination while at university, are too low.

Today Professor Pulè remains hopeful about the development of his vision of high quality engineering education in Malta. He continues to believe that Malta must produce high-caliber, technically focused, creative engineers, educated via a combination of theoretical and hands-on training in order to create a truly independent and successful Malta. At the same time, Professor Pulè sees a continued role for vocational training. Above all, Professor Pulè wants Malta, its government and its citizens, to commit to the hard work of the development of a practical workforce and to maintaining high standards in its educational system.


[1] Pulè, Carmel. "A Few Questions about MCAST vs. University of Malta." E- mail interview. 18 Mar. 2012.

No comments:

Post a Comment