NEW STATESMAN: You’re clearly opening your new university any time now but let’s take a step back and talk about how the education system works on Gibraltar.
GILBERT LICUDI: We follow the UK model. We align ourselves to the National Curriculum set in the UK and have the same system with primary schools, which over here are split into first and middle schools, then onto secondary education with two comprehensive schools, one for boys and one for girls. These include what would traditionally have been called a sixth form element. Then traditionally students would go to further or higher education, or vocational courses, or into employment. We see a very large number go on to higher education, and every year we seem to be increasing those numbers.
NS: How many schools do you have in total?
GL: A total of 17 including primary and secondary. We draw a distinction between first and middle schools in primary sectors.
NS: And are they aligned with the UK model to the extent of taking GCSEs and “A” levels?
GL: They are because we follow the UK’s national curriculum. Pupils do GSCEs traditionally in year 11, then in year 12 they do their ASs and then their A2s, which combine to form the full “A” levels.
NS: How do the results stack up?
GL: We compare very favourably with the general results across the UK. We have a very high pass rate, particularly for “A” levels, in the high 90s and GCSEs vary from one school to another but we have results comparable with the rest of the UK, a 60-70% pass rate at A* to C. We have what we consider to be a good broad-based education system, with our teachers generally trained in the UK and therefore we have a very good standard.
NS: The big news at the moment is the university. How long has this been in the planning?
GL: The University is something that the political parties and educators have been talking about for a very long time. We [the ruling Socialist Labour Party] came to power in 2011 and we made a manifesto pledge – we said the University of Gibraltar would commence in our first term of office, and that’s precisely what we’re doing. It’s not just because we’re ticking a box because we made a commitment, it’s because we genuinely feel this adds to the educational offering that Gibraltar has and it will benefit not just locals but Gibraltar as a whole. We will attract students from abroad to continue their studies and add to life in Gibraltar. When I presented the Act of Parliament to establish the university it was unanimously supported by every member; it really has captured the heart of everybody.
NS: So it would be true to say that although it was in your manifesto it’s had cross-party support.
GL: Absolutely. It’s something people had been talking about but nobody had got to grips with but we decided it was a worthwhile project. Looking at what we’ve been able to achieve in terms of the building and the infrastructure, it is something that will benefit Gibraltar in many ways.
NS: So where did Gibraltarian students go before – the UK, elsewhere?
GL: The Gibraltar government has a very generous system of scholarships, we offer mandatory awards. Students are entitled as a right to obtain a government scholarship to study at a higher education institution in the UK for a first degree. Traditionally when our students finished year 13 and got the necessary requirements they were automatically entitled to a scholarship including: tuition fees, which we’ve seen go from £3K to £9K in the UK, and we’ve funded that in spite of the increase to our budget. We also provide a generous maintenance grant, we even pay for flights to the UK and train journeys to particular universities so it’s a fully-funded programme.
Gibraltar is small: we’ve got a population of about 30,000 and this year we had a total of 866 students fully funded by the Government in higher education. These are mostly in the UK but there have been some who have found alternative courses in Poland, in the Czech Republic and in Malta, particularly for medicine. That has also been funded by the Gibraltar government.
One thing we did when we came into office in December 2011 was to extend the scholarship system we had; it applied to undergraduate students and we decided to extend it to postgraduate studies. So anybody who gets a place, having done an undergraduate degree, and gets a place for a postgraduate course, whether a PhD, Masters or professional qualification like lawyers or teachers do, that is also fully funded as a matter of entitlement. So we’ve expanded the scheme and seen the benefits. It’s not just good from the political point of view, it’s very beneficial to the country from an educational point of view and it provides additional opportunities to the students. Because most of them come back to Gibraltar it seems most of the community benefits from them.
In the second part of this interview we explore the new university: check the New Statesman’s Gibraltar hub on 22 September, the day after the university’s inauguration