Not Shortlisted for a Selection Interview even if Eligible for the Post

Case notes investigated by the University Ombudsman

The complaint

An aspiring lecturer lodged a complaint against Malta College of Arts, Science and Technology (MCAST) claiming that the College discriminated against her when the Selection Board unfairly failed to shortlist her for a selection interview related to a lecturing post in Information Technology (IT).  She claimed that she possessed all the requirements for the post as advertised in the call for applications.

Findings

In May 2012, MCAST issued a call for applications for lecturing posts in IT with 11 June 2012 as the closing date.  Applicants were required to:

  • Be in possession of a first degree in IT; or
  • Hold relevant qualifications at Level 5 according to the Malta Qualifications Council and have at least five years relevant and appropriate industrial or teaching experience.

Preference will be given to candidates in possession of the PGCE or any other comparable teacher training qualification.  Higher academic qualifications and / or relevant teaching experience and / or related industrial experience will also be considered an asset.” [1]

The complainant applied for the post citing the following academic qualifications and work experiences:

  • Master of Arts (MA) in Information and Communications Technology (ICT) and

Education obtained from a foreign University in 2008;

  • Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Art History and Education obtained from another foreign

University through open-learning in 2002;

  • Several Microsoft and ECDL short-courses certificates in ICT;
  • Work at a local public entity in ICT system support from 2003 to 2005;
  • IT co-ordinator and teacher at a Church Junior School from 2005 to 2007;
  • IT co-ordinator and teacher at a Church Senior School from 2007 to date; and
  • Teacher’s Warrant obtained in 2009.

The Selection Board for the post was composed of:

–          the Director ICT Institute – MCAST, (Chairman)

–          the Deputy Principal, and

–          the Deputy Director ICT Institute.

The Board considered 63 applications and shortlisted 33 candidates for a selection interview.  It did not include the complainant in the latter group on the grounds that she lacked the appropriate academic qualifications.  The Board declared her “ineligible in terms of the call for applications”.[2] 

On request, the College Principal elaborated further on the complainant’s qualifications and the type of IT qualifications MCAST required of the selected candidate.  He wrote:

The Board was unanimous in stating very clearly that [the complainant’s] degree is in how to use IT in Education, and not in IT proper.  In this connection the Board also scrutinized in detail all the Masters modules.  It resulted that her Masters is in Education and not in IT; in fact it is an MA and not an MSc.  The basis of the Masters is using IT in education.

The lecturers MCAST requires in ICT need to be highly qualified in the technical areas, such as Web Design and Programming, Software Design, and Design and Engineering, Networking and Cloud Computing to mention a few.  This criteria was used scrupulously for all applicants.

In the circumstances, [the complainant] was not considered eligible for a lecturing post in Information Technology in accordance with the provisions of the call for applications.” [3]

The complainant contested the Selection Board’s conclusion and lodged a complaint with the University Ombudsman.

Observations

The responsibility of evaluating and deciding on applicants’ objective and subjective attributes rested primarily with the Selection Board, which was the appropriate body designated by the College regulations to carry out this task.  Consequently, the University Ombudsman’s remit was limited to an evaluation of the Board’s decisions on the clearly objective aspects involved.  In the case of lecturing posts, his remit allowed him only to evaluate and comment on clearly objective requirement criteria such as the qualifications and work experience of the applicants concerned. As University Ombudsman, he would not disturb decisions reached by Selection Boards unless he found erroneous evaluations of objective criteria, or manifest irregularities and discrepancies, or blatant discrimination.  His responsibilities concentrated on ensuring that the selection process was fair, equitable, conducted according to set and approved procedures, and in a manner that was not improperly discriminatory.

The complainant based her claim that she was qualified for the advertised post on two counts. First, that her Master’s Degree in ICT and Education was highly related to IT as requested in the call for applications, secondly, that her other studies and qualifications in ICT reached Level Five of the Malta National Qualifications Framework (MNQF) and therefore satisfied the alternative option for eligibility stated in the call for applications.

An objective evaluation of the complainant’s qualifications showed that her Bachelor’s degree in Art History and Education was unrelated to IT.  In contrast, her Master’s in ICT and Education showed that the first year programme covered the topics ‘Learning with the Virtual Worlds’, and ‘Design and Evaluation of Web-based Learning Environments’.  Second-year subjects dealt with ‘Critical Studies and Issues in ICT and Education’, and ‘E-Learning Principles and Priorities’.  Furthermore, the foreign University’s School of Education literature on the MA ICT and Education programme, inter alia stated:

MA ICT and Education analyses the relationship between ICT and education, and examines how ICT can support learning across a range of educational settings.

The programme analyses the theoretical, professional and practical applications of ICT, and critically evaluates research and development in ICT and education, enabling you to relate the design and evaluation of materials to a range of learning approaches and practices.

Regarding the technical aspects of IT, the course description adds:

Important note

“This programme is not an ICT skills training or programming course; we expect our students to have basic ICT competence before starting the programme.” [4]

The above data elicited from the foreign University’s website demonstrated that the complainant’s Master’s programme was related to IT and satisfied the first requirement in the call for applications demanding candidates to “Be in possession of a first degree in IT”.  In fact, her qualification was higher than a first degree.

The College Principal counter argued that the modules covered in the complainant’s Master’s programme did not deal with the ‘highly technical’ aspects of IT, and it was these aspects that MCAST expected its prospective lecturer to teach.  The Principal supported the Selection Board’s conclusion that the complainant’s studies concentrated on computer-led pedagogy and the potential of computer-based learning rather than on such aspects as computer programming, software development, engineering and mathematics, etc. He stressed that the complainant’s Master’s programme did not demand a first degree in the technical aspects of IT as a pre-requisite, which is considered as the norm for students proceeding to higher academic qualifications in the computer programing and design area.  The course description quoted above, especially the “Important Note” extract, confirmed the Principle’s points. It also confirmed that the complainant’s degree was in IT even if it lacked the technical components required by MCAST.

It was a shortcoming in the call for applications for the post in question that it did not distinguish between the various aspects of computer studies. Once the College required a lecturer qualified in the technical aspects of IT, the call should have been more specific in identifying the ‘contents’ elements of the degree requirements.  If the selected candidate was required to be a specialist in the technical aspects of IT, the call for applications should have said so. Precise and detailed information would have avoided ambiguities. Specific requirements would also have made it clear to those applicants who lacked technical qualifications in IT, that their qualifications were not suitable for the advertised post. The University Ombudsman emphasised that the call for applications implied contractual obligations on the agency issuing the call and on the applicants who responded to it.  In this case, as stated earlier, it could not be said that the complainant was ‘ineligible’ since she possessed a degree in ICT as the call specified.

Yet, there was another facet to this case to consider. Eligibility for the post did not automatically mean that the Selection Board could not distinguish between ‘eligible’ and ‘eligible but more suitable’ candidates, and shortlist for interview only the latter category.  In this case, the Selection Board identified thirty-three candidates who possessed the required as well as the desired technical qualifications in IT.  It was reasonable to conclude, that with such an abundant pool of candidates in possession of the desired technical qualifications, even if the Board considered the complainant eligible, it could have decided not to shortlist her for an interview. In these circumstances, the Board was not in breach of the regulations and the decision was based on acceptable grounds.

The complainant also claimed that she possessed the technical elements of IT required in the call for applications. She referred to her various Microsoft and ECDL qualifications, which she claimed reached Level Five of the Malta National Qualifications Framework as required in the call for applications. An evaluation of these qualifications by the Malta Commission for Further and Higher Education (NCFHE) did not confirm her claim.  In reply to the University Ombudsman’s queries, the Chief Executive wrote that with regards of the complainant’s qualifications:

I confirm that, other than ECDL Core Certification and ECDL Expert Certification which are level rated at 3 and 4 respectively, all other qualifications are recognised but not level rated.

The fact that they are not level rated, however, does not reduce the quality and the validity of the qualifications.  In fact, none of the existing Microsoft qualifications are level rated at present.  There is an on-going process to level rate the qualifications, but this is an international process and the NCFHE would have to abide by the level rating once this process is concluded.[5]

In the absence of clear evidence to this effect, the University Ombudsman was not in a position to support the complainant’s claim that her qualifications in the technical aspects of IT reached Level Five of the Malta National Qualifications Framework.  Furthermore, in view of the presence of the Director and Deputy Director of the ICT Institute (both IT specialists) on the Selection Board, the University Ombudsman had no basis to challenge the Board’s decision that the complainant’s technical competencies in IT did not reach the technical levels required for this post.

Conclusion

The complainant’s academic qualifications and work experiences were related to IT as demanded by the call for applications.  Therefore, contrary to what the Selection Board concluded, she was eligible for the post and in this respect the University Ombudsman upheld her claim.

However, her qualifications were exclusively devoted to the pedagogical aspects of computer-use and fell short of the competences expected of prospective lecturing recruits needed by MCAST.  Even if it was not clearly stated in the call for applications, the selected lecturer was required to lecture in the technical aspects of IT, namely those associated with the design and the development of hardware and software for computer-use.  Once the number of candidates was very high, the Selection Board decided on shortlisting, and in so doing identified thirty-three candidates with the right qualification and experiences to choose from.   The Board had no obligation to shortlist candidates who were eligible but did not meet the College’s lecturing needs. Consequently, the University Ombudsman did not uphold the complainant’s claim that she was discriminated against when she was not shortlisted and not called for a selection interview. Moreover, the complainant was treated like all other applicants whose qualifications were related to computer studies but were found lacking in the technical aspect of the subject.

Recommendation

As stated earlier, calls for applications carry contractual obligations on the issuing agency as well as on the applicants for the posts.  Consequently, it is important that the terms and the wording of calls should state clearly and unambiguously the requirements expected of the applicants, and the conditions under which they would be applying.

The University Ombudsman recommended that the MCAST authorities should review the wording of their calls for applications to ensure that future documents will contain precise details of the academic qualifications and/or work experiences required of candidates for advertised posts.

Outcome

The complainant and MCAST accepted the University Ombudsman’s conclusions.  The latter agreed to follow his recommendations and ensure that the requirements in calls for applications issued by the College will in future be specific, detailed and precise.


 

[1] Call for applications.

[2]  Selection Board Report dated 3 August 2012, and data provided by MCAST’s Human Resources Manager.

[3] Letter dated 1 November 2012 from the Principal, MCAST to the University Ombudsman.

[4] University of Leeds, School of Education website, 2012.

[5] Letter dated 24 December 2012 from the NCFHE’s Chief Executive to the University Ombudsman.

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