James Calleja has been involved in vocational education and training since 2001, when he was appointed Administrative Director of the Malta College of Arts, Science and Technology. Since then, his career trajectory within the industry has taken him full circle, landing him as CEO of that same institution, with a few notable stops in between. 

Likening his journey to “an obstacle race”, Prof. Calleja recalls the starting point, at a time in which Malta was looking at joining the EU, but needed to work on having a robust vocational education and training (VET) sector. “At that time, VET in Malta was sporadic in the sense that there were disjointed institutions under the Ministry of Education, and our task was to bring all of them together under one statutory and legislative framework – the foundation Act of MCAST, which was signed in 2000.”  

Since then, he’s moved through different roles within the sector, being entrusted with the setting up of the Malta Qualifications Council (today known as the Malta Further and Higher Education Authority), where he coordinated the drafting and publication of the Malta Qualifications Framework. After that, he moved into the Ministry for Education and Employment as Permanent Secretary, followed by five years as Director of the European Agency for Vocational Education and Training before circling back to MCAST.  

“It has been quite a journey, with many mountains to climb, but a lot of satisfaction – we have seen huge developments in vocational education and training, not just in Malta but also at a European level, and this opens up the opportunity for many students to really get the education they are entitled to,” he smiles. 

Looking back on landmark moments, he highlights the setting up of the Malta Qualifications Framework as particularly noteworthy, describing it as revolutionary in many respects. “The fact that we can today say that a degree at MCAST and a degree at the University or any other institution of higher education is held in the same esteem is thanks to agreements reached at that time with a variety of stakeholders,” he explains, making reference to the fact that today, having MCAST confer a doctorate degree in vocational education and training is a first not just for Malta but also in other countries. “20 years ago, we never dreamed of having even vocational Bachelors’ degrees in the field, let alone a Doctorate.”  

Indeed, over the last 20 years MCAST itself has seen many developments, in terms of everything from infrastructure to an increase in courses – 190 courses in the upcoming prospectus – as well as the quality of those courses. “You can’t recognise MCAST from what it used to be 10 to 15 years ago. This is something which we are very proud of,” he maintains. 

Today’s MCAST offers courses from entry level to doctorate level, focusing on hands-on learning relevant to the world of employment, and according to the CEO, it is probably the only institution in the world that provides the whole range of qualifications in the qualifications framework under one structure.  

Working hand-in-hand with industry is one of the cornerstones of MCAST. Sharing his thoughts on the value of apprenticeships and the importance of working with industry on upskilling, Prof. Calleja affirms, “our core business is to give students hands-on experience in real work environments, which is why the apprenticeships programmes are so important to us. This is what it’s all about – when you learn something, you need to practice what you learn, and ideally, you do this in the real work environment. We expect employers to be teachers – for me, the best teachers in the world are employers – the nurturing experience you gain in the workplace is invaluable.” 

It is for this reason that MCAST collaborates closely with industry, he notes, having both the CEO of Malta Enterprise and the President of The Malta Chamber on its Board of Governors, with more institutions set to follow suit. “We always want to be in touch with the outside world, as this is how we remain relevant,” Prof. Calleja states, explaining that the world of employment today is changing by the minute. “The world of education and the world of employment are two altogether different things. The more bridges we build with industry, and the more time young people spend in places of work, the better they are for it. We want to change the image of VET because we firmly believe that hands-on education and work-related education is the education of the future.”  

Next on the agenda for the CEO and his team is the opening of the new MCAST Resource Centre, which has just been inaugurated. Speaking of the project with pride, the CEO provides a virtual walk-through. “It comprises four floors: the ground floor will be an exhibition space in which people can meet formally or informally, have conferences and hold exhibitions and public talks; above it is a floor that is made up of offices, as well as a further two floors which are dedicated to the library, housing over 7,000 books and various spaces for studying and socialising.” 

But what is perhaps most interesting about the Resource Centre is that it will be open 24/7 – that is, all day and all night. “People can come in and use the library, or make use of laptops and computers, with free WiFi. It’s a place where you can go at 11pm or 2am if you can’t sleep – truly a community college philosophy,” Prof. Calleja says, affirming that MCAST’s resources derive from the community. “The idea here is to pay back the community for what they have invested in MCAST. This forms part of the core vision of our 2022/2027 strategy, really making us a college for the community.”  

This filters into what the CEO believes to be the qualities of a good business leader, chief among which are having a clear vision which others can own, in order to move together towards your goal. “In our case, that mission is a vision which gives the VET sector more relevance both to the economic growth of our country and the quality of life of the citizens. More young people who are employable, who can really add value to our society, should really be what a good leader in our sector should aim for,” he says. 

Another quality is accountability, and being proactive. “What limits young people from getting a good job or qualifications is not them, but us. It’s the system that fails, not the students,” Prof. Calleja maintains, pointing out that 28 per cent of students who graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree would have come to MCAST without any SEC qualifications. “While they may have been classified as failures, it is the system that failed, because given a different environment or opportunity, they flourish. That’s what we are trying to rectify with MCAST – having a system whereby every single person can fulfil their potential.”  

To achieve this, the CEO sees many opportunities moving forward, and has an ambitious set of goals for the years to come. Among them is the completion of the infrastructure of the campus by 2030; continuing to improve the quality of their output; and becoming a centre for applied research. “This is how the image and the esteem of VET will continue to change and improve,” the CEO determines, dispelling his final piece of leadership advice: “do not be afraid of change.”  

The interview forms part of the 50 Business Leaders 2022 project. The new online serialisation on MaltaCEOs.mt will feature 50 distinguished business leaders, CEOs, and emerging business minds to create debate and encourage business leaders to share their journey with our readers.

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