A postgraduate student who had been awarded a scholarship to pursue Doctoral studies on a full-time basis under the Strategic Educational Pathways Scholarship (STEPS 1st Call) in 2009, felt aggrieved by the decision of the STEPS Board that the additional travel allowance provided for in the applicable regulations were not to be accorded to him in full, but were to be paid on a pro-rata basis during the second and third years of his studies, since he had only spent a few days abroad as part of his studies in the foreign university. He complained that although, both the regulations applicable to his scholarship and his contract specified clearly the allowances payable for travelling abroad, the STEPS Board was interpreting the relevant provision in such a way as to deny him part of the funds originally agreed upon.
Complainant insisted that prior to his being awarded the scholarship, he had informed the STEPS Board that the foreign university where he was reading for his Doctorate, required him to perform professional practice in Malta (placement) during the second and third year of his studies and maintained that once the Board had been aware of this, he should be accorded the full amount of the travel allowance and not a part of the same.
He further pleaded that during the two years he travelled frequently to follow the taught part of the programme, to make presentations and interact with his supervisor at the University and could prove that the expenses he incurred annually exceeded by far the amount specified in his contract and in the regulations.
Facts and findings
In terms of the Regulations, scholars were entitled to the reimbursement of tuition fees, a maintenance grant and the following supplementary allowances:
a) Additional costs related to studying abroad up to a maximum of €2,500;
b) A Child Allowance (for applicants with children);
c) Married applicants awarded Doctorate programmes abroad exceeding one academic year, were entitled to a Marriage Allowance of €2,330 annually, provided that the spouses were residing together at the same address in Malta prior to leaving and the scholar was accompanied by the spouse abroad; and
d) An additional maintenance supplement of €1,050 annually, for Gozo residents following a Masters or a Doctoral Course in Malta.
Complainant argued that the Regulations provided for the payment of an additional annual allowance of €2,500 for students studying abroad without limiting payment to scholars actually residing abroad and that the possibility of making pro-rata payments of the said allowance, was introduced in subsequent calls, the terms of which were not identical to the contract he signed in 2009.
He stated that the pertinent provision merely provides that –
“13.6.1: Scholars studying abroad:
For Scholars selected by the STEPS Board and who are following full-time studies outside Malta in a foreign University or Higher Education Institution, an additional allowance of Euro 2,500 per annum shall be given to cover additional costs related to studying abroad.”
Thus, once he was studying in a foreign university he was entitled to the full amount of the allowance, since he still incurred costs in connection with his studies abroad.
Complainant further contended that the interpretation given by the STEPS Board of this clause was discriminatory and unfair, particularly when one considers that Gozitan students following a Masters or Doctoral Course in Malta, were granted an additional maintenance supplement of €1,050 per annum in terms of the regulations because of extra travelling costs without being required to prove that they were residing in Malta, while the Board had accorded him an insignificant part of the total entitlement, when his costs were far superior.
The Ombudsman sought the reactions of the STEPS Board and the Director for Lifelong Learning in regard to this complaint and that of another scholarship beneficiary, who also felt aggrieved by this decision.
The Director explained that the STEPS Board wanted to ensure consistency in the payment of such allowances and that in its opinion, the keywords in the relevant provision are those indicated in bold –
“For scholars selected by the STEPS Board and who are following full-time studies outside Malta in a foreign University or Higher Education Institution, an additional allowance of Euro 2,500 per annum shall be given to cover additional costs to studying abroad.”
He elaborated that this additional amount was always meant to cover additional costs incurred while studying abroad during a period of one year and that its payment is not automatic. The Board noted that the complainant was not ‘following full-time studies outside Malta’ and had in fact requested permission as per Clause 14.5 of the Regulations, to work up to 19 hours per week at the Department of Student Services and when an awardee is in Malta and working up to 19 hours per week, that scholar does not incur such ‘additional costs for studying abroad’ as those incurred by one regularly resident outside Malta. It had therefore recommended that the allowances were to be disbursed to those who merit them on a pro-rata basis, depending on the number of days spent abroad and reflecting the needs and exigencies of the scholar. This decision was confirmed by the STEPS Appeals Board.
The Board’s decision remained unchanged even after the Ombudsman’s Office passed on documentation indicating the costs incurred by complainant in connection with his second and third year of studies. The Board insisted that its interpretation of the provision had always been coherent – payment of the allowance was conditional on the fact that the scholar was away from Malta on a full-time basis and the allowance covered expenses which the scholar incurred while he was abroad. In fact, those following a course by distance learning were not entitled to this allowance.
Considerations of the Ombudsman
The Ombudsman premised that the complaint arose as a result of complainant’s disagreement with the interpretation given by the authorities of Clause 13.6 of the Regulations of the Strategic Educational Pathways Scholarships (1st Call), which in terms of the contract signed by complainant, form an integral part of the scholarship he was awarded.
The Ombudsman pointed out that his role is that of ensuring that actions of government departments, entities and authorities are in accordance with the established rules of good administration, not unreasonable and unfair. He pointed out that it is not his function to definitely interpret contracts entered into between a third party and a government agency or entity, or any terms contained therein. The final decision regarding the interpretation of such agreements lies with the Courts, as clearly stipulated in the STEPS contract which complainant had signed when he was awarded the scholarship. On the other hand, the Ombudsman’s role is to determine whether the administrative process in the interpretation and application of the clause/contract was unjust or clearly mistaken.
The Ombudsman referred to complainant’s contention that the regulations applicable to his scholarship, unlike those published in subsequent calls which specifically provide that the additional allowance is payable to those “resident abroad throughout the programme of studies”, did not limit the payment of the allowance to scholars studying on campus but referred merely to the pursuance of studies in a foreign institution and to the decrease in the earning capacity of the scholarship awardee.
While acknowledging that the clause under examination was somewhat vague on whether the scholar must reside on campus throughout the academic year to be entitled to the payment of the total amount, and could have been better worded – as was in fact done in subsequent calls – the Ombudsman expressed the opinion that the interpretation given to the clause by the STEPS Board was plausible and not unjust.
He noted that the Board’s interpretation reflected the intention of the awarding body – that of providing further financial assistance so as to support scholars studying on campus abroad and thus incurring additional costs throughout the academic year while residing there. This was also reflected in the heading of the allowance, which specifically refers to ‘Scholars studying abroad’. Moreover, it had been ascertained that scholars following studies in a foreign university through distance learning were not entitled to this allowance.
The Ombudsman stated that those resident on campus in a foreign university for the entire academic year are entitled to receive the maximum yearly amount stipulated by the regulations independently of the amount of expenses they incur during that year but commented that these expenses are by far higher, than those incurred by someone who travels abroad for a short period of time. It is with these scholars that one should make comparisons and not with the allowance payable to Gozitan scholars who are following studies in Malta.
He declared that the allowance is paid to cover ‘additional costs related to studying abroad’ throughout a particular academic year and not merely to cover costs related to studying in a foreign university. Consequently, it was necessary that the scholar actually incurred the expenses while he was studying abroad on campus. In complainant’s case it had been established that throughout the academic year 2010/2011 he had only spent 20 days abroad, and thus the Board instructed the Project Leader to make a pro rata payment of the amount of expenses he incurred while he was on campus.
The Ombudsman also supported the Board’s argument that during the last two years complainant had not been following full-time studies abroad since it had been established that during this time he had been employed with the Department of Student Services. While, appreciating complainant’s argument that his posting at the Department of Student Services, was an essential and integral part of his doctorate, the Ombudsman observed that this implied that complainant was in Malta for the great majority of the academic year, and was in receipt of a salary from this posting.
In view of the above considerations, the Ombudsman declared that he could not conclude that the STEPS Board’s decision to disburse the allowance to those who merit them on a pro rata basis, depending on the number of days spent abroad, was unreasonable.Case Studies