Monday, January 31, 2011

Studying Abroad at the University of Malta (semester one)

I decided to wait a full semester before writing this so I would have the full University of Malta "experience" behind me. This didn't go exactly as planned.

I was up late last Thursday night studying and woke up at 5am that morning to cram in every bit of Neoclassicism and Romanticism I could. I arrived at the university and none of my classmates were waiting outside the room our exam was going to be held in. Yes, I got the date wrong, my last exam was not last Friday, it is next Friday. It conveniently ends 2.5 hours before our flight to Dublin. So I haven't really "finished" my semester yet but I'll go ahead and describe what my time here has been like so far.

There is so much to say about the University of Malta that I’m afraid I will bore you with minute details that I find fascinating but may not appeal to most normal people. I will try to concentrate on the differences between school here and in Canada. I do not intend for this to be a list of complaints but there have been a lot of things here to adjust to. However, after my first semester in Malta I am very happy to have decided to study abroad this year.

Lemon trees on campus

The University of Malta (UofM) has operated since 1592! It started in Valletta, where the Masters programs are still held at the Old University Campus. UofM is a moderately sized school with 10,000 students (600 International students). It offers the standard academic programs, comparable to a school like Dahlhousie University (Halifax, Canada). The main campus in Msida (in sight of our apartment) occupies about 115,000 square meters.

Main campus

Students at UofM in the Faculty of Arts follow three year programs. UofM students must choose what program they intend to follow before they begin university. They also chose a "subsidiary" (or minor) subject in addition to their main area of study. This is quite different from the North American credit system  in which majors/minors are declared in year 2 of 4. At UofM the courses you take are mostly laid out for you according to your program and there is an emphasis on completing a semester or year instead of accumulating individual credits like in Canada.

Local students do not pay fees and are given maintenance grants by the government during their studies - at all levels at the university. Plus, all Maltese students following a full-time degree at the University of Malta under the age of thirty receive a stipend. That's right; they get paid to go to school. I'm not going to debate whether this is right or wrong, but while I don't agree that the poor should have to pay for the rich to become richer, I do believe in a state that values the education of its citizens and feels that their education is a direct investment in the future of the state. Imagine a place where money would never dictate your education, where anyone could become a doctor, or a lawyer, or an art historian, no matter what their financial background. That is Malta. At least, for now.

For a Maltese perspective on free post-secondary education, and why Maltese students should pay for their education, check out this great article by Mark Biwwa.

I attend lectures at UofM once a week for 2 hours, whereas in Canada I attended lectures several times a week for 3-8 contact hours per class. Faculty of Arts classes at UofM are generally graded 100% on exams. At UofM they refer to being enrolled in an undergrad programas "reading for a degree" and doing exams as "writing papers". My exams were each 2 hours long and were essay-based (10 essays, 5 classes). Some classes have a small presentation or paper component that may or may not form a small percentage of your final grade. I was asked to do several small assignments that I was never graded on but I had to complete them anyway. This was a big adjustment from the North American system of semester long assessments and papers. In Canada I was constantly writing essays or assignments (and receiving marks for them). At UofM the only assignment I had was to read, read, read.

Library, University of Malta
At UofM learning is expected to be very independent. A "suggested reading list" is supplied, but syllabi and course schedules are rarely issued. In the North American system the issue of syallbi is compulsory in all Arts classes and most classes have 1 or more standard "textbooks" that they refer to and assign readings from each week. In Malta you most likely receive a short lecture on a topic and are expected to teach yourself the rest afterwards, hence the expression "reading for your degree".

You aren’t allowed to bring anything into the library here – no bags allowed, no food or drink, only what you can carry in your hands and unlike in Canada the university library is only open until 8 pm at the latest.  None of the students in Malta live on campus. The only University Residence is for international students and is located in Lija, a 40 minute walk from the university campus. Most Maltese students live at home with their parents, or if they live really far from campus (a whooping 25 km away in Gozo) they sometimes rent apartments in Msida but many return to visit or live at their parent's house on weekends. Since no one lives on campus there is no campus social life and there isn’t a really popular campus bar. There are also no varsity sports teams (presumably because there are no other university sports teams to compete with nearby, being on an island).

Architecture (Built Environment or BEN) building where art history courses are held
The biggest difference for me between UofM and Canada is the way you are treated as a student. In Canada I feel like I pay for a service and (while the customer service isn't always great) I have some consumer rights and can complain about the services I receive. And because I pay I have high standards for those services. It seems that here, where university might just be an extension of public schooling, you are still subject to the "rules" of your instructors - no chewing gum, eating or drinking in class, do not leave lectures to go to the washroom, no late arrivals will be admitted to lectures, the list goes on. It's all very formal, and so university should be, but I've even seen a prof yell at a student for walking around a museum during an on-site lecture with his hands in his pockets. Apparently this is unacceptable public behaviour for a university student! Instructors are never referred to on a first-name basis at UoM and are very formal with students. Is this the dark side to free post-secondary education? Or is UofM simply old-fashioned? I’m still not sure.

The other big change from Canada was the administrative structure and organization at UofM. In Canada I had a bit of a shock when I transferred from King's University to NSCADU. At King's everything was online (tuition payment, marks, adding and dropping classes, assignment submission, etc.). At NSCADU all I got was an email address and the ability to register for classes online (but not to drop them). At UofM it is much the same. But to NSCADU’s credit they were very good at communicating with students about course and campus related issues through email and website updates. At UofM there is no such thing as electronic communication. I feel like I’ve been transported back in time twenty years. 

Interior of the Architecture (BEN) Building
 At UofM to check class times/locations you need to walk to campus, find your faculty building and check a bulletin board where the schedule may or may not be posted. Notices about cancelled lectures, off-site lectures, tutorials and assignments are only posted on the bulletin boards. What if you are sick? What if you can’t make it to campus? Well, the bulletin board doesn’t come to you. Lack of communication has obviously been a sore point for me at UofM so far, especially as an International student who is unfamiliar with how the “UofM system” works. I usually feel like I’m out of the loop on something, like the Maltese students are hardwired into some super-secret campus wide telepathic communications system that I am unaware of. Isn’t it easier to post things online these days instead of tacking them to a bulletin board?

N.B.: I think this is now changing! See the University of Malta's Art History Department Facebook Page here!

Exams at UofM were stressful (I'm sure M will give you a blog update on how miserable it was to live with me in the run-up to exams). The pressure is certainly on when your final mark rests on two papers that you cannot do research for or write at your own pace. One hour is not very long to write a good essay (by my standards)! But I have apparently survived, and I start my new semester of classes in mid February.

campus cat
My lectures at UofM have been informative and I learned so much about Maltese art and architecture that I will never use again, but that will forever enrich my knowledge about the country and culture I live in. It is also very cool to walk around the campus and discover little corners of architectural oddities you never knew existed, or to take shelter from a winter downpour in one of the outdoor hallways, or to try not to trample on one of the dozens of “campus cats” on your way to class. And they sell strong espresso, cappuccinos and pastizzi at the cafeteria on campus (yum!).

Guest lecture by Paul Williamson, British Gothic sculpture expert
The Maltese students are nice, although they are a very close-knit group because they follow the same program with the same group of people for three years. The students and staff primarily speak Maltese to each other at the university (and everywhere in Malta, really). I had some problems with the Maltese language, as instructors accidentally “switched over” to Maltese during a lecture. I’ve learned not to become offended at this, I don’t think most people even realize they do it. It is slightly irritating to get half a lecture in Maltese, or to be assigned readings or to watch documentaries in class in Italian (Malta's unofficial "third" language) when the language of instruction at UofM is supposed to be English. But the Maltese students have been nice enough to translate for me.

I have enjoyed the change of pace at UofM. At NSCADU in Halifax I was working myself into the ground in studio classes and lectures, but here I got to relax a little under their hands-off approach. I am taking some great courses here that I could never have done at NSCADU, so I’m really broadening the scope of my knowledge which was the the point in coming here (besides the sun, obviously). 

I’ve met some great international students and I am learning a lot about the Maltese culture. And there is nothing quite like looking out the window during a lecture at a hillside full of palm trees, prickly pear cacti, and little honey coloured houses. That makes me forgive the stupid bulletin board system, a little.

I'll wrap up with some pictures from my on-site lectures that I attended through my Late Medieval Art in Malta class. We got sneak peek access to historic sites in Malta  and I am now sufficiently informed to annoy our visitors with endless useless facts on the art and architecture in Malta from the years 870-1530. (Update - as of the end of semester two I now have years 870-1798 under my belt!) Cultural and organizational adjustments aside, this is what studying abroad is all about.

On site lecture at Mdina
On site lecture at the Roman Villa
On site lecture at the ruins of a church
On site lecture at Rabat Cemetery
Mdina (12th century Norman column)
Church ruins (15-16th century)
Newly discovered sculpture relief at Mdina
Roman era floor mosaics, Rabat
Secret access to the top of Mdina
Mdina Gates
Rabat cemetery (12th century)


  1. I've just come across your blog, and, as a UOM student myself, found this particular post extremely interesting. It was fun to see how uni life in malta compares to that abroad. I totally agree with a lot of the stuff you say, I avoid the library because it makes me feel like i'm entering a prison and there's very little community spirit at UOM, unless you take into account student politics. I also understand where you're coming from with the lack of technology issue, however, I must point out that not all faculties refuse to use the medium. I'm studying law and am able to do EVERYTHING online, I get my results, receive e-mails daily, apply for classes etc. Having said that my subsidiary is philosophy and thus falls under the arts faculty and i've never so much as received a notification e-mail from them to tell me that a lecture was cancelled; pretty primitive lol. Also, the reading for a degree thing is something that i'm finding extremely hard to adjust to, i'd much rather have it as you do in Canada. Lastly; I can't complain about not paying for my education, I'll be the first lawyer in my family and I could never have done it had i had to pay. Anyhow, great blog :)

  2. @Anonymous Thank you for your lovely comment!

    It's good to know that not all faculties are technologically challenged. If one faculty can put more content online hopefully they all can in the near future.

    Best of luck in law school, and congratulations!


Let's talk.