Chairman, NCFHE sets out the facts about the application for accreditation by the American University of Malta

Publication Date: Jun 03, 2015
The Chairman of the National Commission for Further and Higher Education made the following Statement today, setting out a number of facts about the current application for accreditation by the American University of Malta.
“I have called this meeting today because it is important that you – and through you, the public – are fully acquainted with the work we are doing on the American University of Malta and how we are setting about doing that work.
I am giving you copies of this Statement to take away and to use fully as you judge fit. At the end of my Statement, I want to encourage you to ask questions as fully and freely as you like. And we shall try our best to answer them.
Clearly, the details of the on-going analysis of the American University of Malta application are confidential. But I can tell you that the process is now under way with our Panel of experts performing its normal work, as it did in other cases and following the same procedures and rigorous process as in the past.
Let me at the outset, however, correct some misconceptions that may have arisen about this project and put some facts before you.
First, my Commission is an independent Commission under the Education Act. The judgement which will be reached on the accreditation of the American University of Malta will be reached by my Board independently, after a most rigorous due process. There will be absolutely no lowering of standards. The methodology being adopted under my watch will be correct, pragmatic, practical, objective and within the rules set down under the law.
Second, my Commission is carrying out the accreditation process with the same due diligence as it would apply to any other further or higher education institution requesting provider and programme accreditation in Malta.
Third, my Commission is not qualified or required to consider land-use environmental issues. They do not fall within our remit. In due course, we shall simply ensure that the premises selected for the American University of Malta, or any which are built by them, are in line with relevant national planning regulations and that the proposed teaching space is fit for the stated educational purposes.
Fourth, I think it is important for you to put the application of the American University of Malta in the wider context of government policy. There are currently 99 Further and Higher Education institutions in Malta. Of these 14 are publicly funded by the government and 81 are private locally-funded institutions. 4 are internationally run and funded. It is the government’s policy to encourage pluralism in education and the internationalisation of education providers with a view to raising standards of higher education in Malta and stimulating further investment in the education sector to the benefit of the wider Maltese economy. This, I think you would all agree, is where the national interest lies.
The current proportion of students in non-public sector higher education already stands at 17% of the student population, having risen steadily from just 2% in 2008. Pluralism and internationalisation in higher education, if properly controlled and encouraged, should lead to greater choice, sharper competition between institutions and a general rise in overall standards. We are determined to find the right balance between wider choice and the continuing maintenance of high standards.
Against that background, that’s where my Commission comes in. The Commission is the competent authority for licensing, accreditation and quality assurance of further and higher education, as well as the validation of non-formal and informal learning and for classifying these validations at the level of the Malta Qualifications Framework.
Accreditation entails formal approval of both the further or higher education provider and the education programmes offered to ensure they are up to the high standards laid down. My Commission applies the most rigorous scrutiny and standards in line with international practice throughout Europe.
A rigorous accreditation process is designed to achieve four purposes. First, to safeguard the quality of further and higher education in Malta. Secondly, to encourage and help education providers in Malta to use appropriate quality assurance measures as a means of improving the standards of teaching and learning in further and higher education. Third, to stimulate the general raising of standards in the provision of further and higher education. And fourth, to encourage a mutual exchange of information across borders on quality assurance and accreditation in further and higher education, and to provide close cooperation between the educational institutions.
Much has been made about the fact that the Legal Notice has recently been changed by the government. But what you should know is that the Legal Notice, as designed three years ago in 2012, catered for a particular kind of university provision rather like the University of Malta. That was then our template.
But this excluded other forms of university that are successfully operating today around the world, such as the technical universities in Germany that do not offer PhDs. Or universities (sometimes called Colleges or Schools for historical reasons in Europe, Canada and America) that have a defined focus such as in law, business or a specific branch of medicine.
Just to offer you some examples of reputable universities abroad which are already successfully operating on these lines. Mount Alison University in Sackville, New Brunswick in Canada has a student population of 2500 students and has only 3 faculties (arts, sciences and social services) and today totalling 40 programmes. It has been ranked as the number one university in Canada 18 years in a row for the category of small universities. It is quality, not quantity that matters. Algoma University in Ontario is a smaller university with 1300 students in total. Another example is NSCAD University which specialises only in fine arts. Total student population just under 1000. Emily Carr University of Art and Design in British Columbia in Canada with just under 200 students.
In Germany, there is Beuth Universitty of Applied Sciences and HTW Berlin Technical University. In London, we have the outstanding London School of Economics.
Time has moved on. Malta must also move on. It is by our enterprise and ability to spot new niches that Malta has become so successful. The changes in the Legal Notice were designed before the application from the American University of Malta came to the notice of the Commission. They were intended to allow for a wider definition of a University in line with international practice without – I stress, without - reducing the required high standards of accreditation.
As to Regulation 47 of the Legal Notice, about which there has been some misplaced concern, this is not about the minimum provision that applicants for university accreditation need to have in Malta. Its purpose is to present seven due diligence tests of eligibility in terms of the background of the applicant as a higher education provider. The applicant has to pass these tests in order for the application itself to be considered.
The additional clause that was inserted in Regulation 47 of the Legal Notice refers exclusively to  two previous clauses in the same regulation that define the number of programmes any prospective applicant for university accreditation has to have already in operation to be eligible to apply for accreditation in Malta.
The rules state that a University has to offer four programmes between Level 5 and 7 on the Malta Qualifications Framework and evidence of the capability to offer a programme at Level 8 [Doctorate Level]. 
The additional clause allows the Commission to consider applications from entities whose combination of programmes on offer differ from those specified in the regulations. This clause was inserted specifically to cater for the different forms of universities that already exist internationally, which we are seeking to attract here. The issue for you to note is that this is not about the quantity of programmes (whether 10 or 5), but the need to ensure quality of academic standards. On this, we are firm.
Even in the original Legal notice, the applicants could satisfy the required number of programmes by provision overseas. Part 2 of Regulation 47 specifically states that the requirement for the number of programmes can be fulfilled by taking into consideration provision overseas as a measure of experience of running courses at this level.
Indeed, Barts, the university accreditation of which was processed under the original version of the Legal Notice, is providing only one course in Malta. But was eligible for accreditation on the basis of its already established provision in the UK. The additional clause did not change this part of regulation 47. Nor was quality in any way reduced.
I have to stress – as I shall throughout our presentation today - this additional clause does not change, or in any way reduce, the rigour of the due diligence process of Regulation 47.
As to what the accreditation process for a University actually entails, while a non-University institution has to meet 4 main criteria - including accredited programmes in line with the Malta Qualifications Framework and/or European Qualifications Framework; qualified academic staff; a fully functional internal quality assurance mechanism; and premises that are in line with relevant national planning regulations, in the cases of a University, the requirements are more stringent.
The above 4 criteria will still need to be met, together with seven eligibility tests such as for example: proof of higher education, teaching, research and dissemination of knowledge, the presence of representative bodies of staff and students, the provision of programmes which lead to national qualifications  classified at a combination of either Malta Qualifications Framework levels 5,6 or 7, or foreign qualifications at a comparable level in at least four fields. 
What happens to the application once we have received it? The application for university status is made subject to an evaluation by a panel of independent experts established by our Quality Assurance Committee, of which Professor Portelli is the Chairman. This is what we have already done in the case of the American University of Malta.
The panel is selected by the Chairman of the Quality Assurance Committee (QAC), Professor John Portelli, in consultation with me, the CEO and the Head of the Quality Unit which has been set up by my Board in terms of Legal Notice 296/2012 to implement the accreditation and quality assurance regulations.
The members of the QAC are all Ph.D. holders, and are selected for their recognised levels of academic proficiency, professional integrity, mature judgement and experience in further and/or higher education. Their names are: Professor John P. Portelli, Dr Tatiana Chircop, Dr Alex Grech, Professor Christopher Haslam, Dr Alex Rizzo, Professor Tanya Sammut Bonnici, and Professor Alfred Vella.
The QAC as a whole includes experience in quality assurance in international contexts. The nominated Panel, which typically has three members, is always chaired by a member of the QAC, and includes members with expertise in accreditation. 
The Panel makes its recommendations to the Quality Assurance Committee, which may approve or request further clarifications. The QAC then makes its recommendations to my Board, which may or may not endorse the application. Thus, there is a seamless and continuous system of checks and balances within my Commission stretching from the Panel of Experts to the QAC to my Board to ensure rigour and a thorough due process.
The length of time of the programme accreditation process varies on a case by case basis. The duration is normally dependent on the size of the institution and the number of programmes to be accredited, and the time taken by the applicant to respond to the requests for further information and clarification, or for amendments in the application. There is no fixed length of time in which provider or programme accreditation has to be completed.
What you have to bear in mind is that accreditation is an iterative process – a process that bats back and forth between applicant and QAC Panel. As a matter of normal procedure expected in any quality assurance process, my Commission staff support all applicants in revising and improving their applications so that the required standard laid down is reached. This process would also apply to the current American University of Malta application.
If, in the final analysis, any application is turned down by my Commission, the  University concerned would be able to re-submit an amended application and we would re-start the accreditation process all over again until the high standards we have set are reached.
I must tell you this. My Commission is responsible for undertaking accreditation and quality assurance activities on a regular basis. We do this by granting or refusing, confirming or revoking programme or provider accreditation. And we do this based on thorough quality audits.
I wish to end by making one thing patently clear. It is completely incorrect to state that standards of accreditation have been reduced in any shape or form to accommodate the American University of Malta, or any other institution that may apply. This legal notice has been in discussion for the past few months and was not introduced in order to favour any particular application for University status. It is the policy to attract Universities to Malta and rules had to be aligned to ensure the policy was successfully implemented without undermining standards.
The legal notice [LN 150, a copy of which is attached] only touched the criteria to be eligible to apply. Quality has not in any way been compromised or reduced in standard. Quality is not linked to the quantity, amount or number of programmes offered by a University. Every programme has to satisfy quality criteria and these were established last year and remained untouched by this legal notice.
In October 2014, the Commission released a national quality assurance framework. Reports of the reviewed public entities will soon be published. We have nothing to hide. It is an absolute canard to say that the quality criteria have been reduced in any shape or form. So much so, indeed, that the legal notice even strengthened the procedures for imposing penalties associated with non-adherence, to show that quality remained an overriding issue”.​