Camille Franke Blog

Drivers’ hell - Belt and Road - STEM for girls

Drivers’ hell

After three months of summer school holidays when drivers had some relief, traffic in Malta has reverted to massive and chaotic levels.  The latest instance started on 7th November, when works on the second phase of the Pembroke junction project started.  The news media reported traffic stretching back two kilometres along the Coast Road and involving almost an hour of delay for most people commuting to work.

Of course, it was the motorists’ fault for not heeding Infrastructure Malta’s advise that they should take alternative routes.  The alternative routes would have taken drivers through the Telgħa t’Alla u Ommu or the central part of Malta – where, guess what, traffic was almost as bad. 

My daughter, who commutes to her workplace in Raħal Ġdid, tells me that she needs to start an hour early to get there from Naxxar and just make it.  I well remember the Transport Minister promising that journey times would be reduced by 79% (and air pollution by 70%) in the Marsa intersection.  That promise cost us €70m – why all the numbers happen to start with 7 is surely not co-incidental.  Reality is another story.

I am not a prophetic person, but I must say that on this one I had posted frequently in the social media that building more and wider roads was bound to fail.  I wasn’t alone in warning it would, and we weren’t prophetic at all.  The facts are that this kind of solution to the problem of traffic had been tried in other countries years before and had also failed.

We have been talking about a modal shift in transport for over a decade.  It hasn’t happened.  I am contradicted by Konrad Pulé, General Manager of Malta Public Transport, who  last June claimed that a shift has occurred, pointing to the higher percentage of people travelling by bus, when compared to travelling by private car or other modes of transport.  He quoted an increase to 11% in 2023 from 8% in 2021.   The problem is that he didn’t say how much the volume of traffic itself had increased.

The evidence for that increase lies in another statistic published recently.  According to the NSO, during the third quarter of 2023, 43 cars per day were being added to the stock of vehicles in Malta.  As at September, Malta “boasted” a total of 436,007 licensed motor vehicles, almost three-quarters of which were passenger cars.  At this rate, the next massive infrastructure propject will be buttressing the whole island so that it won’t sink under the weight of so many cars.

If I were the Minister of Transport’s Permanent Secretary, I would say “No, Minister” to any suggestion for more millions being spent on roads, flyovers, and tunnels.  It is literally the greatest waste of public resources in a century. To that add the socio-economic costs of private transport which run into the millions and are ruining the physical health of everybody, not just drivers, not to mention our mental health.  

The traffic has increased so much that now it doesn’t take you at least half-an-hour to get from Naxxar to Valletta, but also from Mosta to Naxxar.  OK, somebody might say I am exaggerating because that would be in peak time, except that peak time itself has now become almost permanent and been extended.

Mr Minister, listen, for once.  Spend our millions on a state-of-the-art public transport system, and by that I don’t necessarily mean a monorail costing billions, but by a suite of traffic alternatives that work holistically to offer transport alternatives to people travelling for both short and long journeys.

Belt and Road

While I am writing about roads in Malta, I am reminded of anothet road project – that of China’s Belt and Road initiative, more popularly known as the Silk Road.  Launched in 2013, the development and investment project was devised to link East Asia and Europe through physical infrastructure. It then expanded to Africa, Oceania, and Latin America, significantly broadening China’s economic and political influence.

Malta was one of the first to join the bandwagon.  We’re always good at that, though we rarely deliver.  Well, to be fair, we didn’t sign up for the Belt and Road, but we did enter into a Memorandum of Understanding with China which touted investment and development in tourism, ports, health, energy, transport infrastructure, R&D, financial services, and … wait for it …. Confucius classes.

Thank God, we did none of that.  After the initial enthusiasm, it all petered out.  Perhaps we could have had a viable project or two, but probably by now we would have been heavily indebted to China, like many other countries that signed up.  According to the latest report by AidData, the 165 countries which did, owe Chinese lenders at least $1.1 trillion.  Although China gracefully tacked on two additional years to the repayment period after Covid, there are at least 57 countries which are finding it extremely distressing to cope.

China has almost become an international crisis manager, having to bail out some of the countries concerned.  Who gets bailed out, apparently, depends on the risks to the Chinese banking sector.  Malta would have been a tiny risk, and so wouldn’t have qualified to be bailed out had it borrowed money and been unable to repay it.

The moral of the story: before you borrow think twice and then twice again, do your sums properly, add in a factor of 30-40% for unforeseen risks and perls, and pray. 

The Chinese-built Addis Ababa–Djibouti Railway. (Photo: Skilla1st)

STEM for girls

A couple of weeks ago, I read that the 2022 Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI) revealed the disastrously low rate of women with education in four areas of any modern economy.  I am referring to what are commonly known as STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.  Although a growing number of women are attaining higher education qualifications, gender disparities in these sectors persist. Only one in five ICT specialists and one in STEM graduates are women. The drop-out rate from digital careers among women working in the digital sector is higher than that among men.

According to a report in the Times of Malta, between 2014 to 2021 local state schools witnessed significant gender disparities in STEM related subjects such as Design and Technology (77 per cent male, 23 per cent female) and Computing (73 per cent male, 27 per cent female). Societal and cultural biases still severely limit women’s access to opportunities for learning and applying digital skills in professional settings. These disparities are often rooted in educational stereotypes and differences in the choices women make when it comes to their studies.

Why does the gender gap in STEM matter? The answer is that the implications of the gender gap in these sectors go beyond individual lives. STEM professionals are relatively immune to unemployment, command higher wages, and can look forward to faster career growth compared to other fields. This is particularly concerning as STEM sectors are vital for economic growth. A study by the European Commission highlights the economic benefits of narrowing the gender gap in STEM, where it particularly highlights that an increase in women’s participation in the workforce could result in millions of additional jobs by 2050.

According to my back-of-the-envelope calculations, if we were to increase the female labour participation rate from the current 57 percent to 72 percent, to match that of males, we could increase the number of women aged 15-54 in the labour force by around 4,700 in the short term and potentially by 35,400 in the longer term.  These are rather big numbers for Malta – we could reduce our foreign workforce by one third!

The problem of low numbers of women choosing STEM subjects starts in families, continues in schools, and then propagates itself in the workplace.  Thus, around a third of all 15-year-olds in Malta are underachieving in maths and science, with no or little improvement over a decade — between 2009 and 2019 the share of low-achieving 15-year-olds has increased from 32.5% to 33.5% in science and decreased from 33.7% to 30.2% in maths. Even at the tertiary level, the proportion of students choosing STEM subjects is low.  According to Eurostat, it is 10.1 per 1,000 students aged 20-29, compared with 21.9 in the EU and a whopping 40.3 in Ireland.

Photo credit: Edukazzjoni (Facebook page)

I asked an education expert about this and he told me that, if we want to boost the numbers,  schools need to increase student interest in STEM by enlivening STEM lessons with new and improved pedagogical approaches, give students a better understanding of the relevance of STEM to life through informal and formal education, link the world of work in STEM and the classroom, engage students in awareness-raising activities around STEM jobs, and organise STEM fairs.

My friend mentioned the InGenious platform, a pan-European partnership between major industry players, national ministries of education, and other key education stakeholders.  I don’t know whether Malta participates, but apparently this partnership has several initiatives to promote interest in STEM studies and careers.  For example, it provides resources for schools to promote the improvement of scientific or technological knowledge potentially related to a company (materials, ambassadors, courses, etc.), establishes direct communication between STEM professionals and students, gives accessibility of company premises to schools/to students, and engages STEM professionals with students’ work.

Tessabelle Camilleri, Senior Manager at Tech.mt, wrote about this in the Times of Malta recently. She said that the workplace needs to have support structures, including gender-smart work policies, to help women balance work and family commitments. Camilleri added that flexibility and autonomy, rather than strict office hours, are key to retaining women, particularly mothers with young children.  Also, it is crucial to have a workplace culture that promotes diversity and inclusivity, and that values equal rights and opportunities.

Main photo credit: Stan

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