Sunday, 4 April 2010

That Vision Thing

That Vision Thing

4th April 2010

The Malta Independent on Sunday

Alfred Mifsud

Maybe it’s because it is Easter. Maybe because spring brings a more positive outlook to life as we emerge from winter hibernation to breathe fresh cool air and to enjoy the colours of nature. Or maybe it’s because I ferociously believe in this country’s great potential and suffer from chronic stomach acidity as I see it underperform so spectacularly. Maybe because of all these things, my-glass-is-half-full attitude to life fills me with courage that we can do it.

No new discoveries were cracked in “The Vision 2015 and Beyond: A Path to a Knowledge Based Economy” interim report and presentation by a US specialist consulting group tasked to revamp and refocus our vision for achieving excellence in a well-defined medium term programme. It still is, however, an illuminating and timely reminder of areas where we are underperforming and of the direction we should focus our resources and efforts to leverage our potential.

As is well known, we continue to suffer two major handicaps for making optimum use of our most valuable asset: human capital. In spite of slow improvement there is still an alarming dropout rate of youngsters who do not proceed to post-secondary education. And there is still a shocking deficiency in the female rate of participation in the labour force.

The gap in these two deficiency areas is so wide that gradual improvement will just not do. We need a step change, a major stimulus to change a long-ingrained pattern. We simply cannot afford the waste of 16-year-olds quitting the education system and we cannot tolerate well educated females staying at home pressing flesh to the kitchen sink and guarding house furniture against settling dust.

At the risk of being laughed at, I propose a bold new initiative to address these two deficiencies. We have a valuable idle or under-used asset in the form of the former St Luke’s Hospital. This is an ideal location capable of being transformed into a new branch of the University of Malta for Creativeness, Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

This will be a university targeted for the over 16s who are put off by the traditional classroom lecturing type approach education and to the mothers who want to upgrade their skills to re-enter the labour market. Most of all, this university has to be endowed with generous childcare and child minding facilities where students can safely leave their offspring while being re-trained.

The finality of this education system must not be that its students will be absorbed into the labour market in the normal way where they find a job to earn a decent salary. It will be different from the normal university in that there will be no certificates and no graduation. The success of such education will be measured only in one way: the success of students to gain enough creative, innovative and enterprising spirit to set up their own business singly or collectively.

The university will provide the needed training and environment to understand how business works, how dreams could be converted to ideas and how ideas could be transformed into real business ventures. For this purpose the new university will support such initiatives with administrative facilities, including bookkeeping, secretarial services, business mentoring, marketing co-ordination and a rich business research library.

The ‘graduates’ from the New University for Creativeness, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, will be prospective new business owners of health studios, web designers, on-line vendors, electronic games developers, fashion designers, communication and digital media services, internet security services and so on and so forth. But not just cutting-edge technology based projects. Even traditional services like personal services (baby sitting, child minding and so on), logistics and delivery, and similar plain vanilla business activities lend themselves to successful new ventures for those who believe they can deliver a better service at a more competitive price.

The consultants for the Vision thing also re-affirm their belief in the potential for much more accelerated development of our financial services industry. We score favourably on strategic considerations like Tax and Policy Structure, ICT, Quality of Life, and Educated Work Force. We have so far attracted the smaller players but if we build up momentum, the big names will start to take a second look at us especially as it keeps getting crowded and expensive in Luxembourg.

Here again we need a stimulus event to give us a step change and not merely gradual organic growth. The opportunity for this step change could come when and if the Marsa power station is shut down and dismantled. Its site could become our own version of London’s Canary Wharf. There must be local and international investors interested in a public-private partnership for the development of this site for the indicated purpose, which could put us on the map as an international financial centre offering a flexible and economic alternative to Luxembourg and Dublin, not to mention some crumbs from Hedge Funds who might find life in London no longer as interesting as it used to be.

Our social model is getting more expensive by the day as the population ages, baby-boomers move out on pension and health care becomes more sophisticated and expensive. To maintain it, let alone improve it, we need more aggressive economic growth than we have been registering. Cyprus and Slovenia, two countries that are a natural benchmark to us, have sprinted forward as we merely strolled. It is time to look reality in the eye, get off our laurels and accept that we have been adopting a too leisurely approach to win in the fierce jungle out there.

May be I am over-simplifying things and maybe I am an Easter dreamer with an overdose of spring optimism which has lifted my feet off the hard reality on the ground. If that is so, let me dream, don’t wake me up to a harder reality. I just can’t stand it. Happy Easter!

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