Education is rising up the ranks as one of Malta’s most important service exports. The island has become a top English-language teaching destination. Foreign educational entities are moving into Malta in ever-increasing numbers, establishing international campuses on the island in an effort to attract globally mobile students seeking education abroad. Malta’s English-speaking environment, its EU membership and multiple options for higher education, coupled with safety and high quality of life, are making it an attractive study destination. Meanwhile, the island is also positioning itself in the booming e-learning industry by inviting global online education providers to set up on the island, tapping into a market estimated to have reached US$51.5 billion in revenues by 2016, with a pool of over 2 billion potential learners.
Despite advances in the international educational sector, many people claim that other parts of Malta’s educational system are long overdue for reform. The island is looking to Finland as a model to emulate, where students consistently outperform the rest of the world in maths, science and reading grades. An emphasis on modern teaching methods and the selection of high-quality teachers are seen as crucial in ensuring Malta’s young have the thinking, creative and entrepreneurial skills required in today’s globalised world.
The other challenge for the sector is to address the heightening skill shortage, with many companies reporting difficulties filling positions due to a lack of specialised talent. Malta should aim to better adapt its educational systems to business needs in order to help locals qualify for the high-skill, high-paying jobs that the island’s economy is creating. Importing talent at the current level does not seem to be a sustainable model for the long term.
“In the last 25 years, the English as a Foreign Language (EFL) industry has come a long way, today contributing a significant number of tourism bed nights to the island. The vastly improved quality of teaching, Schengen membership, very good value for money and great quality of life have all contributed to the success of the EFL industry in Malta.”
Andrew Mangion, Executive Chairman of EC
With the island’s history stretching back thousands of years, Malta’s educational system has been influenced from many directions. The University of Malta can trace its origins back to 1592 when it was set up as a Jesuit College under the name Collegium Melitense. After the expulsion of the Jesuits from the Maltese Islands, the University itself was founded by the Knights of St John in 1769. It is the oldest university in the Commonwealth outside the United Kingdom. Today it offers a broad range of degree courses across all disciplines, at bachelor, master and doctorate levels.
Under the control of the Knights, Malta’s education was the preserve of the wealthy elite. Schooling only became universally available at the primary level with the arrival of the French in 1789 and was made compulsory in 1946. In the 19th century, schools were changed to the British model, thus English was introduced as the language of instruction and still remains so today. Children are taught mainly in English; only in the early years is the Maltese language used.
Public spending on education amounts to around 5.5% of GDP, which is slightly higher than the EU average of 5.2%. Parents can send their children to state, church or private schools. The entire sector accounts for some 14,000 full-time jobs. Church schools are either for boys or for girls, while state and most private schools are co-educational. The minimum curriculum to be followed in all schools is established by the government, with the Ministry of Education and Employment overseeing the sector.
In the primary and secondary sector, parents are offered a wide choice of educational options for their children. State school education is free of charge, financed by tax revenues. There are around 55 church schools for which parents make a donation. With some 20 institutions, private schools form part of the smallest, yet most vibrant sectors of the educational field. Leading schools are San Andrea School, San Anton School, Chiswick House School and St Martin’s College. Having adopted an international curriculum, Verdala International School serves mainly, but not exclusively, the island’s expatriate community. Although all private schools are funded by tuition fees, some of them operate as non-profit-making organisations. Half of Malta’s children attend either private or church schools. Due to population growth, there is a demand for more schools, in particular independent institutions, and most private schools have children on waiting lists.
Further and higher education is provided by the University of Malta, the Malta College of Arts, Science and Technology (MCAST), the Institute of Tourism Studies (ITS) and a number of smaller non-state educational institutes providing training in such areas as IT, management or marketing. They have been joined by foreign institutes setting up in Malta such as Middlesex University and Global College Malta which offer different degrees delivered by UK universities in key sectors such as oil and gas, IT and management.
Another segment, the English-language teaching sector, consists of some 40 schools, including many locally founded ones, such as AM Language Studio and Easy School of Languages, as well as international players that include Education First (EF). The Maltese-owned English Language Centre school(EC) has reached one of the biggest achievements. Founded in 1991 on the island, EC now also runs successful schools in the US, Canada, the UK and South Africa.
A New Push to Nurture Talent
In the past years, Malta’s government has rolled out a programme of free childcare for working parents, which has led to a rapid rise in day care centres and women entering the job market. The government has also committed to improving educational standards and results. A move from an exam-oriented curriculum to one that gives more emphasis on critical thinking, analytical and communication skills, creativity and problem solving is one of 26 recommendations included in a recent report on the future of post-secondary education in Malta.
Encouraging progress is being made in achieving Malta’s ambition to become a regional hub for higher education. Malta has long been a magnet for English-language students, welcoming some 80,000 students annually, and the country has now successfully widened the net by attracting Jordanian group Sadeen, which set up the American University of Malta. In addition, on Gozo, Malta’s sister island, a UK medical school, Barts School of Medicine and Dentistry, will open its first offshore campus later this year. Some 200 doctors have already expressed interest in lecturing at the new medical school at the Gozo Hospital, which is run by Vitals Global Healthcare. Malta’s commitment to establish itself as a hub for medical training and education has also attracted the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland, which recently made Malta a centre for examinations for surgeons.
The opening of additional foreign institutes and international branch campuses are part of the long-term strategy for the sector. A national body has recently been established in Malta to promote the internationalisation of education and entice foreign institutions to set up a presence in the country. Education Malta is a non-profit foundation created as a public private partnership, working closely with the Ministry of Education and Employment, and the Malta Chamber of Commerce, Enterprise and Industry.
“We intend to be the best American-style university in the Mediterranean region and beyond. The founders of the University see this institution as a legacy and their contribution to education in Malta. The American University of Malta will be a convenient, affordable alternative for those who are seeking American-style education without relocating to the United States.”
John Ryder, Provost of the American University of Malta (AUM)
A Move to International Qualifications
Educational levels in Malta have been significantly enhanced in recent years, and the number of university students has risen from just 7,300 in 2007 to 11,500 today. More than 3,000 students graduate annually. A number of international masters programmes are being offered on a dual-degree basis, with each degree accredited by the University of Malta and at least one other American or European university. Efforts to internationalise courses and programmes have also attracted more than 1,000 foreign students from 92 different countries. This figure is expected to rise in the coming years with the opening of the new academic institutions.
The vocational college, MCAST, is one of the island’s success stories. Some 6,500 students are enrolled in one of the school’s 120 full-time and 300 part-time courses. Many programmes were developed in response to the needs of specific industries. One such example is the introduction of courses for aviation technicians following the arrival of Lufthansa Technik in 2003. Among MCAST’s more recent additions to its course list is a nursing degree course in collaboration with Vitals Global Healthcare and Northumbria University. Malta is also reporting increased interest from UK universities who are looking into the possibility of opening satellite campuses on the island in order to continue receiving EU research funding after Brexit.
“We are currently analysing requests from even more foreign universities wanting to set up a presence in Malta. We are positive that several of these opportunities will come to fruition. We are also looking to re-enforce our offering at a primary school and college level to respond to demand driven by third-country nationals relocating to Malta for work, with their children.”
Charles Zammit, Chairman, Education Malta
Despite its past and present efforts, Malta today faces a number of HR and education related challenges.More than 20% of students in Malta decide to end their education at age 16 with just five or fewer ‘O’ Levels – this percentage is double that of the early school leaving average across the rest of Europe.These high rates of early school leavers and exam failures have long made Malta’s educational system the subject of discussion. Many industry professionals are seeking a shift from an emphasis on factual academic knowledge to an approach focused on developing thinking and problem-solving skills. Schools – secondary schools in particular – also need to do more to incorporate vocational education into their curricula.
Parents are also requesting alternatives to the traditional conservative transmission model, which sees the teacher at the front of the class imparting knowledge, while students absorb and consume the information passively. Instead they repeatedly point to Finland, where children have little homework yet always score near the top in international rankings. Possible alternative concepts for the future that have been suggested include the introduction of a non-prescriptive national curriculum that can be modified by teachers in order to better suit the learning needs of their students, as well as the end of standardised testing methods. In addition to Finland, other high-performing countries such as Japan, Shanghai and Hong Kong, have been placing an emphasis on teacher education and teaching quality in relation to student success. These countries have found that when they raised the standards and salaries for new teachers, they increased the status of the profession and attracted the best and the brightest.
Experts argue that in particular the high rate of early school leavers in Malta is unsustainable and that more people need to be equipped with skills that matter to Malta’s economy today and in the future. Companies are already confronted with a skills shortage in certain sectors such as financial services and the creative industries. Malta’s desire to attract investment from companies in information and communications technology, high-end manufacturing and life sciences means that there is also a need to channel more students into science and technology-related areas. Businesses often turn to recruiting foreign labour to fill gaps in the local labour market, and a recent survey has shown that over the past three years 48% of employers recruited foreigners.
“We believe that Malta’s tertiary education sector can become as internationally acclaimed as the island’s English as a foreign language market. However, we will not lower standards to accommodate inferior institutions. At the same time, we are seeking to address the skills deficit by forecasting what skills will be needed in a few years’ time to ensure that our economic growth is not hampered by the lack of skilled persons.”
Evarist Bartolo, Minister for Education and Employment
This influx of professionals, who often come with their families, has also resulted in growing demand for international school places. Both Maltese and expatriates are reporting that it has become increasingly difficult to secure places for their children in private and more internationally oriented schools. Acknowledging this situation, the government has already announced its intention to issue an expression of interest for the opening of a new independent school offering an International Baccalaureate (IB) programme by March 2017.
Malta’s government is also allocating funds to enhance the educational infrastructure. Various new schools have been built in recent years, while the MCAST campus just got a makeover with the construction of new buildings. A new Post-Doctoral Centre will be built on campus at the University of Malta with the aim of housing post-doctoral researchers as well as providing an interim space for business incubation facilities. The University of Malta also committed to investing €25 million in the construction of an eight-block student village with 600 beds. With this investment, the University of Malta seeks to develop the competitive edge required to attract more foreign students.
The Institute of Tourism Studies, however, will receive by far the largest investment in the years ahead as there are plans for the relocation of the school from St Julian’s to SmartCity Malta. Estimated costs for the new campus, which includes a new faculty, practice facilities, a high-end teaching hotel with 280 beds, dormitories for students, office space and all supporting infrastructure, currently stand at some €75 million. It is projected that the new campus will be operational in 2019.
“We work closely with different industry players, including Malta Enterprise, which helps us operate our Aviation Training Centre. In the field of gaming we have teamed up with the industry to launch a top-up course focusing on mobile apps and games. For the pharmaceutical industry, we launched a unit in our applied science course being taught entirely at the workplace.”
Stephen Cachia, Former Principal and CEO of MCAST
A Focus on e-Learning
Meanwhile, Malta has identified a new growth sector. E-learning courses, which teach students via the web or tablet apps, are today widely credited with having brought about an educational revolution that challenges the traditional higher education’s business model. However, e-learning courses and their providers face a crucial disadvantage when it comes to the accreditation of their courses. Certificates for such courses are often not accepted as proof of an acceptable entry qualification to a traditional degree course, or when applying for a job. Malta is now considering applications to open digital tertiary institutions on the island who offer online degrees and other higher education courses. By attempting to become an important player in the online education market, Malta can potentially offer e-educators the possibility to certify their courses. This would provide them with a quality seal and a competitive advantage when marketing their courses to students in Europe and elsewhere. With hundreds of gaming and IT companies already established on the island, as well as a tech-savvy workforce, Malta is also providing fertile ground for developing new, and managing existing e-learning courses.
There are some 4.5 million international students globally, and that figure is expected to swell to 7 to 8 million by 2025, driven by population and income growth in developing countries where local provision is poor. However, it is one thing to invite foreign institutes to open campuses on the island, and another to recruit and retain international students. To make it onto the radar of the brightest foreign minds, Malta needs to bolster the international ranking of its institutions. The University of Malta, for instance, has not yet been included in the global league table of the world’s top 500 universities published by The Times Higher Education. Clear visa rules and the right to work while studying are also being seen as key factors to successfully establishing Malta as an education hub in the Mediterranean with growing international enrolment.
“Malta’s economy has transformed itself over the last two decades. Most of today's top jobs did not exist a short while ago, hence the need for workers to boost their knowledge is becoming all the more important in today’s fast paced world."
Marvin Cuschieri, CEO of the Foundation for Human Resources Development
Today’s global economies face the challenge of continuous education. In many professions, it has become crucial to acquire new skills as established ones become obsolete. Malta is no exception in this regard. To remain competitive, the island needs to better connect education and employment. Monitoring of skill sets against various occupations can help identify new skills as roles and job categories evolve. This also means there is scope for many new players as more adult learners will require training and re-training in the future. Public-private partnerships are seen as an important tool to establish more education facilities that would enable people to learn new skills throughout their careers. Educational curricula also need to adapt to deliver stronger technical knowledge given the rise of disruptive technologies such as blockchain, artificial intelligence and the internet of things. Recognising these trends, Malta’s public and private institutions are currently identifying new strategic partners to import best practice and future-proof the island’s approach to education.