The Age of Enlightenment was in full swing when the University of Malta (UM) was created in 1769, but as with everything on an island that has witnessed empires rise and fall, the institution’s roots stretch much deeper. As much as Europe was blinking into a bright new world in the 18th century, UM today is a bright light in many of the latest technologies that will drive the continent – and the world at large – forward into the uncharted waters of the digital age.
For Malta – the smallest country in the EU, but also one of the Bloc’s fastest-growing and most stable economies – innovation represents survival. Increasing its human capital base, on the one hand, and retaining home-grown talent, on the other, are keys to the continued success story of a nation with fewer than half a million inhabitants. But as the Rector of the University of Malta, Professor Alfred J. Vella, underlines, globalisation also means collaboration – historically the key to all knowledge.
“We need to attract foreign students, some of whom hopefully will prefer to remain on the island to feed into the economy. In fact, we have made provisions – and the government has been very good at this – helping us to provide visas that permit third country nationals to remain on Malta, to work beyond the completion of their degree for a period”, explains Prof. Vella.
The university alliance established between UM, and the Universities of Cádiz (Spain), Kiel (Germany), Western Brittany (France), Split (Croatia), and Gdansk (Poland), was recently chosen as one of seventeen by the European Commission, to form the first European Universities’ Alliance. Dubbed The European University of the Seas, the alliance between the six higher education institutions was selected over 54 other proposals – involving some 300 institutions – making them eligible to jointly receive up to five million euros in funding over the next three years. The European transnational programme is designed to boost cooperation amongst universities, while harnessing and enhancing the quality, inclusiveness and competitiveness of European higher education.
UM currently runs around 800 different courses to cater to 12,000 students annually, around 10 percent of whom are from abroad. And while Prof. Vella would like that number to continue to rise, he points out that nurturing the island’s future domestic workforce is the key focus in a country where human capital remains the most important asset.
“It’s not easy to retain undergraduates once they complete their degree, to keep them here to continue working on their Master’s and more importantly on their Doctoral programmes, to do research with us, because the economy is siphoning them away faster than we can produce them”, says Prof. Vella.
As part of its drive to retain national graduates, UM has a number of initiatives of which, perhaps, the most successful has been TOFSA (TAKEOFF Seed Fund Award). Over the past five cycles the fund has aided 25 entrepreneurial start-ups and fifteen proof-of-concept projects – some of which have developed into successful ventures – with government-subsidised grants of up to twenty thousand euros available for successful applicants.
Academically, and in terms of future employment, there are few better propositions for those overseas students who UM is targeting: Malta has the highest employment rate of recent graduates in Europe, standing at an impressive 94.5 percent, according to research by The Knowledge Academy – well above the EU average of 80.2 percent in 2017.
UM: a Seat of Extreme Innovation
“10% of our students are actually international students and that must remain true.” Prof. Alfred J. Vella, Rector of the University of Malta
UM’s pursuit of non-traditional areas of higher education is a cornerstone of its expansion strategy and the university – alongside experts from the Slovak University of Technology, the Florida Atlantic University and King Juan Carlos University of Spain – is involved in an unprecedented collaboration with NATO to try and second-guess the threat posed by quantum computers.
Experts warn this technology could be capable of cracking the most sensitive codes – a cyber-attack 2.0 – that given recent world events, the international community is extremely keen to avoid. The US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine have led calls to make finding what are being called ‘post-quantum solutions’ a priority issue.
In the field of DLT and other innovative technologies, Malta has recently made international headlines, becoming well-known as a world leader.
Acknowledging the importance of this achievement, UM swiftly identified the role the university needed to play to foster the sector’s growth, working in close cooperation with both government and leading stakeholders in the DLT space. “Malta is the Blockchain Island”, highlights Prof. Vella, “and we intend to assist in all the ways that we can”.
The Centre for DLT was rolled out in 2018, which is annexing DLT specific courses to other university programmes. And perhaps most importantly, UM will soon launch – what is believed to be – a world first: a Master of Science in Blockchain and Distributed Ledger Technologies.
“We will probably be the first university to launch a MSc in the area and, already, we have got over 50 applicants who have applied to follow the programme, that will start this October”, enthuses Prof. Vella.
Another area where UM has carved a niche for itself is in video game design. The university’s Institute of Digital Game was recently ranked by The Princeton Review, for the third consecutive year, as one of the top 25 graduate schools in the world – being one of only two non-US universities included on the list. Catering only to post-graduate students, the institute successfully caters to “a mix of local and international students” says Prof. Vella.
A Global Academic Partnership
“The university is providing the best service that it can to the community that lives on the island when it is training people, especially in being better communicators, having those soft skills that are not easy to teach but are so essential for whoever is gaining them” Prof. Alfred J. Vella, Rector of the University of Malta
As well as working closely with the administration of Joseph Muscat to address Malta’s academic and employment needs, UM is involved in European cooperation initiatives, such as the Erasmus+ Programme – an EU-wide initiative, with a budget of 14.7 billion euros, that seeks to bolster growth, jobs, social equity and inclusion, while promoting higher education. The issue of early school leavers is a factor that Prof. Vella notes impacts directly on Malta, and tackling it is fundamental to the future of the country’s economy.
“It is a problem that we cannot solve on our own because it really starts with the lower school system, and considering that a fair fraction of people in secondary school never make it to university, that is something that we need to help the school system address, so that we get more of those assets – that human capital – to our lecture rooms, our workshops, our labs, to our clinics”, says Prof. Vella.
In addition to its agreements within Europe, UM also works with other international institutions, and recently agreed a dual-degree and global classroom agreement with the University of Arkansas, which will come into effect later in the year.
Meanwhile, the university is seeking EU funds to expand its existing campuses and upgrade various facilities, in an effort to make the prospect of gaining a degree in Malta more attractive to a pool of international students who, today, have such an abundance of hooks dangled in front of them. “Certainly, we have been very busy going after competitive European money to get the funding needed”, says Prof. Vella – who is a leading advocate for the need to attract more investment in research.
However, Prof. Vella is quick to note that UM’s remit goes beyond the purely academic sphere. “Transferrable skills, I feel, are the most important contribution that a university can impart to its students; not so much the knowledge of today, but the ability to, if not foresee the future then be prepared for it – and be prepared to change it.”
Traditionally a country that has adapted to the winds of change, UM is the modern equivalent of Malta’s Grand Harbour, the historical entry point for trade from around the world. Now that the major global bargaining chip is knowledge and technological progress, UM is successfully positioning itself as one of the foremost centres for preparing new generations for whatever that future may throw their way.