Copyright © The Malta Historical Society, 2005.
Source: Melita Historica. [Malta Historical Society]. 5(1970)3(275-276)
[p.275] ANDREW P. VELLA, The University of Malta, Malta National Press, 1969, pp. xii 165.
Professor Vella's history of the Malta University, "A Bicentenary Memorial", is much more than the sub-title suggests. Covering two hundred years of university education in these islands, it touches the whole variety of social, economic and political as well as cultural life, and becomes thereby indispensable reading for the student of Maltese history at large.
The first half of the book, drawing extensively on Maltese and Vatican archives, is devoted to analysis of G.M. Pinto's foundation of 1769, which is, the author argues, the most adequate point from which to date the existence of a university precisely as such. In the general diplomatic manoeuvring and chicanery regarding the use Pinto might make of the property of the suppressed Society of Jesus one feels that Pope Clement XIV agreed to the foundation of a university because that was at least a respectable solution, and Prof. Vella leaves us few illusions about Pinto's over-grand and under-financed institution, which had, on the Grand Master's death, to be cut sharply back to the limits of economic realism. At the same time, Prof. Vella maintains, the full legal status of a "Public University of General Studies", granted in 1769, was crucially different from the right to award degrees accorded by the Jesuit General to his Society's Malta Athenaeum in 1727. Whether 1727 or 1769 should be considered the 'true' foundation date is, the author observes, 'largely a matter of words', and Prof. Vella has performed a notable service by showing that questions of fact are not at issue: while a number of important points remain to be clarified (particularly the creation and endowment of the Jesuits' Theology courses), the basic problem is the definition of 'university' adopted by the historian. The author presents in detail the case for strict legality. He also satisfactorily disposes of the strange myth that, because the Society of Jesus could award degrees, its Maltese college was ex officio degree-giving from its inception in 1592.
Connection of the book with bicentenary celebrations may cause some overshadowing of its second half, which is, however, in many ways as important as its first. Chronicling the University's progress (if that is the correct term) through the period of British rule, the author uses official minutes and records in skilful relation to the Maltese situation as a whole. He has excellent things to say of the frustrations of colonial domination, and the Maltese Church and politics of the time; and his balanced comments on the University's role in, for instance, the Sette Giugno, or the Constitutionalist-Nationalist confrontation, will be of great assistance when these temper-rousing topics are given the full-scale scholarly study [p.276] they deserve.
Apart from a valuable appendix of documents, Prof. Vella conclude;) his book on a note of optimism for the University's third hundred years. Since he clearly emphasises the continuous importance of keeping education on a sound and sensible economic basis, one may perhaps add the hope that by the tercentenary the University will have learnt not to charge quite so much for the works of its Professors.
J. T. McPartlin