Pharmacy Students proceed to Master’s Degree
Thirty-seven students enrolled in the 2006-2011 Bachelor of Pharmacy Honours (B.Pharm. Hons) Course lodged a complaint against the University of Malta claiming unfair treatment. They claimed that the Institution denied their request to be included in the restructured Pharmacy course. The new structure would have allowed them to graduate with a Bachelor of Science (Honours) Pharmaceutical Science (BSc (Hons) Pharm. Sc.); with an additional 30 ECTS they could obtain a Master of Pharmacy (M.Pharm.) degree.
The Fifth Year students also alleged that the University discriminated against them when it allowed the other four student groups registered in the B.Pharm. (Hons) course to benefit from the restructured programme, but denied complainants the same opportunity. They wished to join the new scheme, take the extra semester containing 30 ECTS and, like their fellow students, graduate with a M.Pharm.
The complainants were registered in the five-year programme leading to B.Pharm. (Hons) in 2006. In the course of their studies, the Department of Pharmacy conducted a course restructuring exercise whereby, following four years of study, students could graduate with a B.Sc. (Honours) in Pharmaceutical Science. Under the new structure, holders of this degree could proceed to a fifth year (composed of three semesters with 90 ECTS) and graduate with a M.Pharm. The Department of Pharmacy agreed to the scheme in February 2011; Senate approved it on 22 June 2011.
The new scheme was initially planned to commence with the October 2011 student intake. However, the University considered the scheme as beneficial to the incumbent B.Pharm. (Hons) students, and offered the First, Second and Third year students (namely the 2010, 2009 and 2008 intakes respectively) the option to join the restructured programmes, which they all did. Fourth and Fifth Year students (namely the 2007 and 2006 intakes) were excluded.
Both student year-groups appealed the University’s decision and eventually, partly through the intervention of the University Ombudsman, the Fourth Year students were awarded the BSc (Hons) Pharmaceutical Science degree at an unscheduled graduation ceremony in December 2011. They were also allowed to proceed to the M.Pharm. programme. Fifth Year (2006 intake) students were denied to join the scheme and graduated with a B.Pharm. (Hons) on 24 November 2011. The Fifth Year students lodged a complaint with the University Ombudsman against the University claiming unfair and discriminatory treatment.
The University insisted that it did not act unfairly or discriminate against the Fifth Year Pharmacy students (hereinafter referred to as the complainants). It argued that they had registered for a course leading to a Bachelor’s in Pharmacy and on the successful completion of their studies were awarded this degree. The University also pointed out that the complainants could if they wished, register for the M.Pharm. On the successful completion of another three semesters containing 90 ECTS, they would graduate with the higher degree. The University also insisted that the complainants did not really need to follow this course of action since it was negotiating with the Malta Qualifications Council (MQC) to recognise the five-year B.Pharm. (Hons) as a Level 7 qualification similar to the M.Pharm.
The students disputed this line of argument and contended that:
a) in the international Pharmacy realm, a BSc (Hons) in Pharmaceutical Studies degree has greater kudos than a B.Pharm. (Hons); and
b) in the hierarchy of degree holders, a M.Pharm. graduate is acknowledged as having a higher qualification than one with a B.Pharm. (Hons).
The complainants argued that both factors become highly significant on one’s Curriculum Vitae when seeking employment or further studies in Pharmacy.
The University Ombudsman did not consider it his task to judge the values of the various degrees in Pharmacy since this responsibility pertained to the Malta Qualifications Council. Consequently, he was not in a position to pass judgement on the academic claims and counter-claims by the University and its students. However, he argued that it was reasonable to observe that to the layman, the potential employer and the academic evaluator, a Master’s degree was a higher qualification than a Bachelor’s. In this context, he asked what spurred the Department of Pharmacy to restructure the course and introduce the higher qualification, if it expected the MQC to recognise the B.Pharm. (Hons) and the M.Pharm. degrees as being equivalent. Here the University Ombudsman felt it pertinent to point out that the Chief Executive of the MQC stated:
“Kindly note that the position of MQRIC [Malta Qualifications Regulation Information Centre] has been to level rate the B.Pharm. (Hons) at Level 6 of the MQF [Malta Qualification Framework]. This was the position under the previous Chief Executive, … and the position hasn’t changed.” 
The University’s second reason for declining the complainants’ request stressed the administrative necessity to ‘draw a line somewhere’. As explained earlier, Senate initially set the cut-off point at the new student intake of October 2011, but eventually all student-groups except the complainants were admitted into the scheme. The University excluded the 2006 – 2011 student group on the grounds that they had already covered most of the B.Pharm. (Hons) programme and would graduate at the November 2011 convocation.
The complainants acknowledged that a cut-off point was an administrative necessity, but held that a fairer distinguishing criterion would have been between those who already held a B.Pharm. (Hons) and those students who were still reading for the degree. They contended that when the Pharmacy Board of Studies (in February 2011) and Senate (on 22 June 2011) approved the course restructuring, they were still students, and they should have been treated like all the other student-groups. The complainants stressed that all the student-groups who joined the new scheme had, like themselves, originally registered for a B.Pharm. (Hons) degree.
The University Ombudsman too recognised the need for a cut-off point that was valid and unambiguous as well as fair and administratively feasible. He agreed that on Senate’s approval of the course restructuring, the University could not provide all B.Pharm. (Hons) holders since 1995 with the same opportunities as it offered the incumbent students. The evolving course content over eleven years would have rendered the decision academically questionable. At the same time, he considered a criterion that distinguished between past graduates and incumbent students as more coherent than the University’s differentiation between student groups.
He also considered it fairer. During the course of the investigation, it transpired that a number of students who joined the course in 2006, over the five year period, had failed a year, had to repeat it, and consequently had fallen back a year. As things stood, the repeated students were to benefit from the restructuring scheme, while their higher achieving colleagues would not.
The complainants claim yet another reason for their grievance. They allege that on comparing lecture-notes with M.Pharm. students, the contents of the study-units were identical to their own Fifth Year studies. They also assert that the added-on 30 ECTS were being absorbed in the same study-units they themselves had covered. They cited the dissertation requirement, which allegedly had been artificially upgraded from a ‘project’ to a ‘thesis’ and allocated an extra 10 ECTS. The students asserted that the remaining 20 ECTS were being covered by two 3-hour seminars and the practical experience they had also undertaken. The complainants concluded that if they were to enrol in the M.Pharm. programme as the University demanded, they would be repeating 60 ECTS needlessly.
The University Ombudsman was not in a position, nor was it his task to evaluate the academic content of the two Pharmacy programmes. Consequently, he could not confirm or deny the veracity of the students’ claims. However, it is significant that when he discussed the students’ assertions with the Head of the Pharmacy Department, she did not refute them categorically. Indeed, the University Ombudsman could state with the Head’s consent that she supported a recommendation to the Senate to reconsider favourably the complainants’ request.
Conclusions and recommendations
The main issues in this case centre around two questions:
a) whether the University unjustly discriminated against the complainants when it denied them the same opportunities it provided other student-groups who, like them, were registered in the B.Pharm. (Hons) course; and,
b) whether the University acted fairly and reasonably to demand that in order to obtain a M.Pharm., the complainants had to undertake an extra year of study containing 90 ECTS, sixty of which they had already covered in the out-going 2010 – 2011 academic year.
The University Ombudsman did not discuss the academic aspects of the case because, as already stated it is not in his remit to do so. He concentrated on the administrative decisions that relate to issues of equity and discrimination.
The evidence shows that there was a lack of equity in the University decision vis-à-vis the complainants. At the time (February 2011) the Department of Pharmacy decided on the restructured B.Pharm. (Hons) course, and on the date (22 June 2011) when the Senate approved the new courses, the complainants were still students and would continue to be so until they graduated in November 2011. In the University Ombudsman’s view, the distinction between B.Pharm. (Hons) holders and the students in the course was a more logical and coherent demarcation criterion (or so-called cut-off point) about who should have been allowed to join the new scheme, then the University’s differentiation between student groups.
Moreover, the University’s claim that a five-year B.Pharm. (Hons) degree equates a M.Pharm. was contentious, and was not supported by MQC statement quoted above. In the academic realm and in people’s perception of university degrees, a Master’s is a higher qualification than a Bachelor’s.
Furthermore, the University had no justification to demand the complainants to repeat 60 ECTS in subjects they covered only a few months earlier. It would have been unnecessarily onerous on the complainants and a waste of University resources to make them repeat work they had completed successfully. It would also have cost the complainants a year’s wages.
For the reasons stated above the University Ombudsman upheld the students’ complaints that the University did not treat them with equity when it denied them the opportunity to join the restructured Pharmacy programme as it had to their fellow students.
Consequently, he recommended that the University should reconsider the complainants’ request to proceed to a M.Pharm. by undertaking an additional semester containing 30 ECTS. Thus, the University would be treating them on the same basis as it treated their fellow students who, between 2007 and 2010, were also registered in the B.Pharm. (Hons) programme. Such a decision could mean withdrawing the complainants’ B.Pharm. (Hons) degree to replace it with the M.Sc. (Hons) in Pharmaceutical Science degree. If the University agreed to this proposal, it would apply solely to the 2006 – 2011 student group.
The University Ombudsman also suggested that when Senate discussed such or similar issues, it would assist the debate if the Head of the Department concerned was to be invited to attend the meeting. His or her presence would aid the Dean of the Faculty concerned in clarifying ambiguous points and providing a full perspective on the matters under discussion.
The University Senate approved the University Ombudsman’s recommendations. The complainants were allowed to proceed to a Master of Pharmacy degree following a semester’s work of revised and upgraded study-units.
 E-mail dated 20 March 2012 from the Chief Executive of MQC to the University Ombudsman.
 The University convincingly argued that it would be inadmissible to allow all past B.Pharm. (Hons) graduates, who had followed the five-year course since its inception in 1995, to become automatically eligible for a M.Pharm.