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category: Culture,Gazette,Politics

The Lords Of The Flies

Wednesday, October 15, 2014 by

My first real experience of politics at the university level came at the annual general meeting of students in my first year. It was a meeting beset by problems, with an incompetent chair, a stream of students entering and exiting the hall without registration, a large crowd of Pulse supporters from Junior College whose presence would have meant the approval of a new electoral system proposed by that organisation, who were later joined by a similarly large crowd of young SDM supporters hastily organised and brought over in the time allowed due to the filibustering strategy used by SDM. Votes were taken, invalidated, re-taken, scrapped again, only to be re-re-taken once more students supportive of one side had come into the room, This ended with a walk-out by half the people disgusted at what was happening - a collapse of civility and a blatant show of political expediency. At the peak of tension, as a group of students were fighting it out on the floor (yes, fighting with fists and such), I found myself for the first time ever with my hand raised over another - a fellow student. His look of incredulity when he noticed a complete stranger might hit him is something that has stayed with me till now as a constant reminder of how high emotions can run, and that no matter how much crap someone is capable of spewing, no matter how unethical and immoral their actions become in their quest for what amounts to a worthless position but a valuable line on their curriculum vitae, physical violence means you lose, always. After that I ran twice for the council on an independent ticket, and sat through enough filth thrown around to give me a good idea of what university politics actually is. Here is what I learned in three years as a student activist.

The Highest Educational Institution in Malta
The Highest Educational Institution in Malta

The University Students’ Council (KSU) elections are an exercise in smoke-screening that allow the main parties’ protégés to get experience in the devising and marketing of a political campaign. They promote political tribalism and blind faith in your club, eschewing the kind of reasoned, level-headed arguments that make people think in favour of parties, slogans and mud-slinging, using the same puerile and noxious tactics employed at Junior College and revising them for a more well-educated, moderate electorate that includes many who come from the higher-class (and more PN-leaning) backgrounds of the likes of St. Aloysius and De La Salle.

In a complete waste of time and money, these elections are held to elect a set of ostensibly well-meaning and hard-working students over another set of equally well-meaning and hard-working students. Their manifestos often include much the same things, with the differences being on the topics themselves rather than divergent views on a single topic. This means that were there no elections but a co-optation every year of more students with the will to strive for a better university, more things could get done at a faster pace, without all the hoo-ha of an election which pits students against each other for no discernible reason.


Tribal hoo-ha

I called the elections an exercise in smoke-screening – a smokescreen of what, though? The answer lies in another question – who holds power at University? While a section of the student body whips itself up into a frenzy every year over the election of a council that has no say whatsoever in administrative or educational matters, the elections for the students who do have a say on the matter pass by with little fanfare. These are the student representatives, and many would be surprised to hear that these individuals hold a far more important position in relation to university matters than anyone in KSU.

You see, in the University administration, KSU exists removed from the main power-holders. While this could arguably be seen as a good thing, allowing it greater flexibility and autonomy, the result is a severe disappointment reminiscent of Lord of the Flies – let children alone, and they will create a monster of a society. These above-mentioned power-holders are the University Council, the University Senate, and the myriad faculty boards. The former is focused on administrative matters, the Senate takes care of the educational side, and the faculty boards do both with a narrower scope.

Da Big Bad Boards

It is on these boards that the decisions are taken. Lecturers are appointed, curricula and entry requirements set, rules made…but by who? The Council can be considered ‘the employer’ and overall boss, so you will not be too surprised to find out that 12 of the 35 seats are on direct appointment of the Prime Minister, with another one given to the Education Minister’s trusted man. So much for an autonomous university. The students’ allocation is 3 seats.

But let’s not question government influence at University. After all, the country pays the bills, so those 13 government appointees on the Council might not be the great scandal they would be elsewhere. In fact, when it comes to educational matters, the government is much less intrusive, with only 2 of the 47 members on the Senate appointed by the Education Minister. The rest are, for the most part, representatives from each faculty.

And do the students get a say in their education? Barely – they are given 5 seats, slightly more than 10%.

On the faculty boards the numbers vary greatly, as these tend to be composed of the heads of each department, with student representation fixed at 3 seats. For a faculty with 10 departments, this will mean a smaller proportion of students than a faculty with 5 departments, but the number is always between 5 to 15% of students. With new departments opening every year, the students’ voice gets proportionally smaller and weaker.

This despite there being repeated calls for more student engagement, with even the ministers responsible for higher education putting the importance of ‘preparing students for life as active citizens in a democratic society’ in prime position, even over the preparation for their future careers. Meanwhile, the European Students’ Union (which KSU forms a part of), in 2011, after the wave of student protests throughout Europe, adopted the Budapest Declaration, affirming that ‘students are the main actors in higher education’.

Meanwhile, back on our sunny rocks where such high-minded declarations lose their impact the second they cross the border, it was only recently that the number of students on these boards have been increased to three, five and three respectively. There was previously one less student representative all around. Let us be fair – these changes are positive. However, when brought under the harsh, unforgiving light of comparison with universities considered at the forefront of an education that strives to do more than churn out worker-drones, these changes seem little more than a bone of appeasement.

Take the German example, where the tradition of student engagement has a rich tradition going back to the ‘60s (and that’s being conservative – students in German universities have played a pivotal role in their own governance since at least the mid 19th century). Students do not merely vote for a student council. They join a students’ union, with a small membership fee to help the running costs. This union in turn aids the student with their needs, and when facing any changes coming from above (which tend to be political rather than administrative, since students have a strong voice at every level of the university administration), has the ability to represent them without the foot-dragging seen locally. This unwillingness to act was rarely more evident than during the ACTA debate, where KSU flat-out refused to take a position since they felt they lack the representational authority to do so. When the elected students’ council feels it cannot present a unified voice, it’s quite clear there are big problems in the systemic structure itself.

Meanwhile, at Konstanz University, the youngest of the eleven German Universities of Excellence, student department-based associations are included into the system to such a degree that any potential lecturers or professors also submit their CVs to that association. Students then discuss between themselves and with the department who would make a better fit based on their research areas and capabilities.

This example is far removed from the Maltese scenario, particularly because of size. There is no choice of universities, and no great amount of academics, but should this mean that students simply bow their head and be thankful that the government keeps paying most of their bills?

The answer is yes, apparently, with our students’ council lapping up the government’s decision (Education Act reform, ‘cos that’s just how autonomous our university is – it requires parliament to do such things) to add one extra student to university boards like Christmas came early. In a stomach-turning exercise in sucking up, KSU bent over backwards congratulating the government, and of course, themselves, for these changes. In this reaction, found on their website (Resources), published last August, KSU pat themselves on the back (‘the council has succeeded in achieving new standards in student representation’), while somehow lacking the self-awareness to hold back from writing things like ‘fulfilling its aim of being the sole representative of all students’ (in reference to themselves). Excuse me, but isn’t the whole first half of that press release about the increase in student representation outside of the KSU structure? More on why this structure itself is as sound as the Labour government’s appointment of the bribe-fest that is the China Communications Construction Company soon.

So, students got one more seat on these boards. For someone who would like to see a minimum of ~40% being composed of students, this is worth less than dysenteric faecal matter, and reeks like it too, of a mere opportunity for one more student to get that coveted gold star on their CV. The counter-claim to that opinion is that the elections for these boards bring forward very few candidates willing to take the plunge into this ill-defined task, and these mostly see the position as an opportunity to act as liaison between administration and students, often unknowingly thrust into positions of greater importance (they are the administration) than they thought. So the elections end up under-promoted, with a consistently low turnout.

For the last elections back in November, ten of the institutes or faculties with vacancies on their boards had no nominations. Zero. Another six had no election as the number of nominations were equal to the vacancies, including for the Council itself. The highest administrative body at Uni did not even draw enough attention to itself to go to an election. Meanwhile, the Faculty of Arts, one of the largest faculties on campus, drew 70 total votes. To be fair, the election for the Senate drew almost 2000 votes, marking one of the largest turnouts in recent times, so there is room for hope, you would think…until you see the list of candidates and you realise why it drew so many – many of them were members of SDM or Pulse.

Is a fierce competition between two rivals the only way to generate interest in anything on our fair isles? Must we transform even the most basic of tasks into some kind of San Gejtanu/San Ġużepp piece of tribal hoo-ha? Well, if even our dearly cherished faith (since Christ was all about one-upping his rivals: ‘Crucifixion? Bitches don’t know ‘bout my resurrection’) is forced into this mold, there is little hope for anything else.

A Monster of a Society

Similar to smiling faces and happy meals hiding the brutality of Mcdonalds, this owl's perceived intelligence and depth covers for the ineptitude and crass behaviour of KSU
Similar to how smiling faces and happy meals hide the brutality of Mcdonalds, this owl’s perceived intelligence and depth covers for the ineptitude and crass behaviour of KSU

For those who thought the Lord of the Flies analogy above tenuous, this reflects a misunderstanding of how KSU operates. Unsurprising, considering that there is very little by way of proper documentation except that available on the official website which inflates its roles to parody levels.

The fact is, KSU has a limited function between toga rentals, welcoming international students and organising the myriad events occurring on campus, from Freshers’ Week to the Graduation Ball via the annual Students’ Fest. Not to say that these aren’t worthy of praise in and of themselves. Without them, life at university would be an even duller affair, and it’s a good thing indeed that there’s someone responsible for the organisation of these festivities that bring students closer together outside of the lecture room.

However, does this role require an election? While we may think student A will do a better job than student B, student B can definitely bring something to the table…excluding them and their possible contributions entirely can only result in a loss for the student body. Just to take a couple of examples from the last campaign – SDM suggested finding office space in each faculty’s building for the faculty-based organisations, while Pulse wanted to look into the construction of a third floor at Student House. Will Pulse’s loss at the polling booths mean that their suggestion is ignored? Even if it isn’t, it is unlikely that it will be pursued with the same energy. What about Pulse’s proposal for a five-minute reading time of the paper before the formal start of an exam? Will it be discarded until next year’s elections?

Pictured: Unbridgeable differences. Taken from The Insiter
Pictured: Unbridgeable differences. Taken from The Insiter

Why hold an election at all, is what I’m asking. Particularly since KSU, as a purely executive body, cannot claim the legitimacy to represent the student body. That legitimacy is only afforded to it when matters are brought in front of the Kummissjoni Politika Soċjali, KPS. ‘KPS who?’ I hear you ask: that is, unless you are an active member of a student organisation, which you probably aren’t.

KPS lies at the heart of the inefficient system that is the KSU structure. If KSU wants to hold a public position, whether on ACTA, transport reform, health issues, digital rights or the Budget, it has to go through KPS. The thing that one must understand about KPS is that it is made up of student organisations who are forced to attend if they hope to gain a coveted office at Student House and a good position in Freshers’ Week. These representatives are for the most part not particularly accountable to their executives for any decisions taken, so many vote according to their personal preference, which is often directly proportional to how that preference affects the meeting’s length.

Put more simply, KPS is made up of people who don’t care, are accountable to no one, and just want to go home ASAP. This is the parliament, or legislative branch, to KSU’s executive.

And the mess just keeps growing. You will get the sports club, the student media organisation, and the medicine association, with differing memberships and aims, having equal say on a political matter…when none of them hold that remit as an organisation. To make matters even worse, it is no secret that some organisations, or particular people in them, effectively act as SDM or Pulse satellites.

At first sight, the Malta University Film Club’s active participation in a report on drug policy reform might seem bizarre. After all, the other organisations working on it were the likes of the pharmaceutical, law, criminology, medicine groups, with Graffitti (which I represented) and SDM making up the socio-political area. So why did the film club feel the need to join in the formulation of this report? A certain Radio101 anchor and SDM affiliate was the president of the film club, of course, allowing him to use this organisation with its own proud history as a vehicle for his own political aims. Génial!

sdmpulse

Above: Two of UoM’s biggest problems

Another incident that highlights the sheer political expediency used by the political organisations in KPS: A couple of years ago there was an election. Two candidates were brought forward, neither nominated directly by SDM or Pulse. After the first count of votes, the result was a draw of 18 votes each with a single abstention. Cue a retaking of the vote, where one got 19, the other got 18….and the abstention remained. Whence this ghostly vote? Turned out, an SDM representative simply decided to vote on behalf of the supposedly absent geography society. She was not on the executive, but, she studied geography, so close enough.

Of course, quick phone calls were made by the furious Pulse (the mafia-like atmosphere at these events is insane, with well-dressed men in loafers hovering around the back making covert phone calls and whispering in people’s ears), ending up with the president of this geography society declaring, on loudspeaker, ‘Min iż-żobb hi – ?’

Away from the KPS, we get the education commission, which deserves the highest praises for taking up the task of negotiation with the administration as regards the elections for student representatives. Back in 2011, dissatisfied with the blatant disregard for these elections shown by the people organising them, this commission wrote, and then published online, a letter to the administration. Thanks to this part of KSU, specifically to certain individuals like Luke Buttigieg, the attention given to the student rep elections is increasing…slowly. Now, if only KSU could get over itself and its intriċċi to really focus itself on representing student interests rather than winning the next election we might get somewhere…

The final piece of the puzzle is the annual general meeting of all students. Yes, including those little twerps from JC brought over in vans rented by SDM or Pulse with their t-shirts and told to follow orders. I am not in the habit of putting down those who are younger on that basis – that’s simply crass. I am, however, in the habit of putting down those who are there as fodder for the aims of their organisations. Frankly, as long as there are a multitude of students present every year who have no mind of their own, the AGM will not be able to regain any kind of legitimacy – and those poor kids will continue to be used and abused.

A couple of years ago there was an attempt to reform the entire structure by a group of well-meaning law students. A petition was drawn up and signed, with the plans available for all to see – which included a more prominent role for student representatives. The petition was waved aside by the KSU president at the time since it was deemed not to be clear enough. The proof provided was that members of KSU itself signed it without knowing what they were doing.

Needless to say, 3 years of this kind of bullshit is enough to make even the staunchest patriot give up hope in the future when these are supposed to be the next crop of leaders. The fact that the political game is seen as just that, a game, lacking higher ideals and principles in favour of one-upmanship, with a politically-suave elite preying on the others’ indifference to get themselves that extra credit on their CV, with no real result gained for the students they represent beyond a hopefully better-organised party and sure, a water fountain or two, can be construed as a failure of these supposed representatives. The scary thing is, you can’t even judge them too harshly, because representation is never what they really aimed for anyway.

To quote Jacques René Zammit, ex-SDM & KSU member:

‘it is evident that the urge to prove faithful lapdogs of the party glitterati (and hopefully get a leg-up into the party mainstream) had much more of a pulling factor than the capability to think independently and have a vision of a better future. The zombie tools of the PLPN were nothing more than a mindless rabble programmed to replicate the tribal division devoid of argumentative logic. And it got worse every year.’ The Jungle Out There 21/3/10 (www.akkuza.com)

‘Mindless rabble’ – we’re back to the similarities with Lord of the Flies; and to the national political situation. Neither is a coincidence. In a country where the only politics that matter are the purely personal (see an article on The Times titled Forget the bigger picture…it’s all about clientelism published during the last electoral campaign for a confirmation of that) it seems far-fetched and naive to ask for more from students.

While our parents grew up in a time of ideology, with Mintoff and Fenech Adami representing very different camps and styles while formulating a vision of the future as a call to action, we grew up with the hollow-as-a-used-toilet-paper-roll calls for ‘stability’ or ‘change’. Where are the grand ideas? Where are the plans?

Oh, sorry, I forgot grand ideas don’t get you a million bucks in your pocket from Ċaqnu or Żaren. And with the population at large seemingly content with political messages adjusted for the lowest common denominator as long as the campaign is sufficiently carnival-like għal naqa buzz and you get a permit to build in an otherwise forbidden area, the incentive for politicians to do better is minimal. Likewise for their mini-mes.

So what needs to be done? Zammit has the answer, and puts it more eloquently than I can:

‘Rather than look at their “elders” and “role models” and do their damnedest to mimic them […] students should be getting busy plotting to overturn the hopeless ways we inherit from the PLPN system. They should take their fate in their own hands and become role models themselves.’

As it stands, the idea of these student leaders becoming role models is a frightening thought. These ‘leaders’ have become lords all right, but they are lords who can be swept aside by those who run the institution. We need a stronger system with more determined people. People who are not content to allow students to be secondary. People who want a hand in the running of university itself, as equals.

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The featured video is an edited version of an awesome video that can be found here

Category Culture,Gazette,Politics

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