The view from Gibraltar

Taking geography into account, you’d imagine that Brexit would be hitting especially hard at the fledgling University of Gibraltar. But Acting Vice-Chancellor Catherine Bachleda is pragmatic and hopeful.

“No one knows what will happen, of course, but we have tried to mitigate the obvious risks as much as possible,” she says, Her response is perhaps coloured by the spirit of a people who have – in living memory – faced the hardest of hard borders. From 1969 to 1985 the British Overseas Territory was cut off from neighbouring Spain, with political and constitutional wrangling stopping everything from roads to telecommunications with the neighbouring Spanish town La Línea de la Concepción.

Image: Acting Vice-Chancellor Catherine Bachleda

These days a number of the university’s nearly 300 students live in Spain and commute over the border for classes, joining classmates from as far afield as Australia. Mitigating the obvious risks, it seems, is easier when you are small, newly formed, and have a great relationship with your government.

Building a university

It was the Government of Gibraltar, led by Chief Minister Fabian Picardo, and in particular, Minister Gilbert Licudi, that brought about the 2015 University of Gibraltar Act which inaugurated an entire higher education regulatory environment and the sole institution that sits within it. Previously, young people had travelled overwhelmingly to the UK to study, with fees and a stipend covered by the Gibraltarian government.

But some local skills needs were still not being met, some young people were unable to travel to the UK, others had completed their studies and were working but wanted to study for a postgraduate degree. Bachleda told me that a flourishing business and financial sectors also wanted professional development opportunities, with the law of Gibraltar (similar but not identical to English law) a particular priority. Right from the start the new institution has offered a range of professional qualifications but the other part of the early offer was more of a surprise.

Rather than following a typical new university approach of first establishing undergraduate awards, then postgraduate and then PhD we started differently – with a PhD programme validated using UK standards and quality processes. We now have 16 PhD students (two full-time commonwealth students and 14 part-time students from the local community) covering topics from the literature of Gibraltar through to dementia care.

The perfect size

The institution itself is small by design. Based in a beautiful former fortress, it has only modest plans to expand to a neighbouring former school and (from September 2019) a set of modern halls of residence.

Image: the proposed new halls of residence at the University of Gibraltar

Longer term we will never be a typical large university. We are proud to be small, and we feel this gives us a competitive advantage.

Bachleda is passionate about the benefits of small classes and a supportive and participative learning experience, reminiscing about having to “teach herself” during her own large-scale UK HE experience. The opinions of some of today’s students bear this out – two Gibraltar undergraduates started on a business degree at a UK institution, before transferring to the University of Gibraltar’s bachelor of business administration (BBA). Their feedback has been that they greatly value the small classes and find the course much more practically orientated. Part of this practical experience comes from a focus on placements – BBA students get one each academic year.

These ties to local business inform the development of new courses too such as the MBA which is due to be launched in September 2019. The plan is to look at matching what Gibraltar excels at such as developing a centre of excellence for FinTech, due next semester. Fans of blockchain-based initiatives will recall that Gibraltar leads the world in regulatory structures that support these emerging forms of financial innovation.

There’s also an ambition to build capacity in sports science; the Island Games this June and July will leave a world-class purpose built stadium right on the institutional doorstep. And a nursing degree, currently in development with advice from the UK, will follow in 2020.

As the institution expands, there will be a need for new academic staff. Currently many academics are on short-term contracts, but I’m assured that these are carefully designed to support staff in managing their attendance, and that the hourly rate is significantly higher than in UK.

Quality and regulation

The University of Gibraltar enjoyed degree-awarding powers from day one – a far cry from the UK expectation of a track record before TDAPs (much less RDAPs!). But quality is taken very seriously with a conscious decision to align with the most rigorous and internationally-respected system in Europe – that of the UK.

Image: Students at the University of Gibraltar

It will be the QAA that inspects the new organisation at some point in the next two years and every effort has been made to ensure that internal systems adhere to the quality code. Tim Burton, formerly Head of Standards, Quality and Enhancement at the QAA, is the author of the institutional quality manual.

The QAA has been brought in by the regulator of the tiny HE sector – the Gibraltar Regulatory Authority (GRA). More usually an OfCom-like telecommunications regulator, the University of Gibraltar (Regulation and Accountability) regulations of May last year gave it Office for Students style powers of oversight.

The GRA requires – via a memorandum – annual internal assurance statements, periodic external reviews, and monitoring data. The latter includes information student retention rates, student graduation rates and graduate destinations. There’s is an annual student survey, a summary of which will also be seen by the GRA. Above all, the Act was designed up to produce a functional university and GRA have a mandate to ensure that this happens.

A supportive government

One thing that struck me during our conversation was the harmonious relationship between the government of Gibraltar and the university. Used to the mild antagonism that has characterised recent interventions in the English HE system, it was both surprising and refreshing to hear about the benefits of a close working relationship.

For example, a year ago saw the beginning of a review of the Immigration Act. The university made the argument that it would help both recruitment and the wider economy if overseas-domiciled graduates could work in Gibraltar for two years after graduation. But unlike in the UK, there’s a real sense that the Gibraltar Government will take these concerns into account. We shall see.

As things stand, the government is the principal funder of the institution during the start-up phase, but this direct support is already coming to an end as tuition fee income begins to rise. However, as in the UK, benchmarked fees are paid for local students via government grants not student loans.

So when Bachleda tells me, “In general we are confident in our government supporting us through Brexit” – I believe her.

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