USJ MIGHT LAUNCH PIONEERING DEGREES IN NEUROSCIENCES AND EDUCATION“ – To improve the education, you have to upgrade the quality of the teachers”

Marco Carvalho

 More than offering new courses, the University of Saint Joseph (USJ) wants to consolidate the academic programs it already offers. The position was expounded last weekend to O Clarim by Father Peter Stilwell, on the sidelines of the 2019 edition of USJ‘s Open Day. The rector of the University says, nevertheless, that the institution is experimenting with a new Masters degree in neuroscience, the first in Macau to be given by three different universities. If the initiative succeeds, Masters in education and business might follow on, Father Stilwell revealed.

What are the perspectives of the University of Saint Joseph for the next year? You mentioned last week that you have already sent a new letter to the authorities of Mainland China in order to convey the idea that the University is open to receive students from the other side of the border. The Holy See and Beijing have signed an important agreement last September. Do you believe that the Chinese authorities will finally allow students coming from the Mainland to enroll in the University?


I think we must let things take their time. I don’t like setting timetables. We submitted a request in November and now it will be going through the various levels of authority and they will be assessing whether it is opportune or not opportune. So, at this moment, I don’t think there is much more that I can say about it. We will have to wait and see …


The University received recently some of the representatives of a university of Mainland China. It was not the first time something of this kind happened. Is this a good sign? Does it mean that there are universities in the People’s Republic of China that see the University of Saint Joseph as a prospective partner?


Well, one of the reasons why we were asked to host the Rectors’ Forum was because the Macau authorities, the Higher Education Direction, as it is called nowadays, considers that USJ is providing a good service to the local community and that we have an international flavor which is in line with one of the things Mainland China is asking Macau to develop, which is the meeting of cultures, the meeting of languages, to be a platform between China and the Portuguese speaking countries. This University, as a Catholic University, has close links to the universities in Portugal. We are seen as useful for carrying out that objective for Macau. We were pleased to host it. I think it went well. We are also working with higher education institutions in Mainland China in our projects. Our Institute for Science and Environment has ongoing projects with laboratories in Mainland China. Our Faculty of Creative Industries works closely with higher education institutions in Mainland China, where they find facilities that we don’t have in Macau. Ou students travel there and some of their students come here. There is ongoing exchange with Mainland China. There is no problem, no obstacle. The local Liaison Office follows our work with great interest and support. They are constantly saying that they we can count with their support in what we do, so there is no problem there. There is a small issue which is an issue of eventually the university being registered as one of the Universities where people can enroll and get a visa in order to be able to come here. But that will come when it comes. China is a large country, its complex and far from me to say when is the appropriate time for them. They must measure things as they see them. We are the first Catholic University on the People’s Republic of China soil. There were Catholic Universities here from the 19th century but they then left Mainland China. Some of them are still in Taiwan, but obviously they have no contact now with Mainland China. We are the first Catholic University and we are, obviously, a case study. It is important that we get our things together, that we do the work that we have to do, that we improve the quality of what we are doing and that is all we need to worry about for the time being.


You were mentioning the cooperation in science. One of the novelties for next year is precisely a masters degree in neuroscience in cooperation with a Portuguese university. What can we expect in terms of the curricular program for next year? Anything worth mentioning?


Well, we are not very much into the question of novelties. A small university like us has to have settled programs which are the backbone of the university. They have to run a number of years to become solid, to become quality programs that attract new students. We have a number of those programs: at least two of ours Masters programs. We have four Masters programs which fill up every year and in two of them, we have to refuse students because we haven’t got enough room. We keep the numbers within manageable proportions so that their dissertations can be properly supervised. We can’t have huge numbers. Last year, for the first time, our Masters students were more. The intake for our masters programs was larger than our intake for the bachelors programs. The bachelors programs didn’t drop, so what we witnessed was an increase in the Masters programs. We are experimenting with this master in neurosciences, to see if something which is permitted by the new law, which is setting up a program which is jointly offered by a number of institutions and where the title, the diploma is given by – in this case – three institutions. I believe it is the first time it is being tested here in Macau. We are going to see how it works as far as the approval goes. This time the approval has to be by the Portuguese Accrediting Council. We are waiting to see how they react. They are looking at it. That may me an interesting experiment. Then, we would, perhaps in the areas of business, we might try that. Education would also perhaps be interesting. In education, as you know, we are perhaps the most successful education department or school in Macau. We have more than enough students for all our programs in the education department, so developing that, I believe that strategically is very important. Why? Because there are many Catholic Schools in Macau. We know, as I said in my speech, that education is a vital aspects of improving the quality of Macau, so that it can face the challenges of the Greater Bay Area with tranquility and with success. To improve the education, you have to upgrade the quality of the teachers. We are attempting to do that and, I believe, well, with our bachelors, our post-graduate, our Masters and our PhD Courses and now we are just about to launch a center for research in education which will bring together these lines of research on topics which we believe will help the local schools improve the services they are providing. These are all the things that we are doing locally.


The University of Saint Joseph is probably the most international and internationalized university of Macau, but it nevertheless managed to keep alive a strong connection with the local community. I am talking about a renewed interest in the “Macanese patuá,” for instance. Is this something that USJ is willing to keep or nurture in the future?


Yes. One of the experts in patuá is the head of our humanities faculty, professor Alan Baxter. I think that it is important, also, that we work on the local Macanese culture. It is difficult for an institution like us to work on it, because we are very dependent on student fees. The subsidies that we receive, I would say, they are very limited. They are very generous on a international scale but they are limited in comparison with what is given to other higher education institutions and we have difficulties, therefore, in freeing up professors or researchers to work on areas which then don’t recruit many students. History and heritage, for example: we opened it this year with an expense for us. We opened it below the minimum number of students but we thought that it was important that it should be open, but we advertise it every year and from Macau you get four, three candidates. There is not what I would call a palatability for this types of programs, which I believe are very important for the long term good of Macau. If Macau is to survive in the Greater Bay Area, the issue of its history and of its heritage, of its cultural uniqueness needs to be reflected upon, fed back into the community, weather through exhibition, through teaching, through lifelong learning, through an intervention into the actual network of schools, helping the local schools teaching the students what is the local culture. These are all things that are important, but at the moment we have our hands more or less tied. We have some difficulty in investing in areas that we see that are strategically important for Macau but for which we have not got funds.


Should the economic big players here in Macau, the gaming operators, be invited by the Government to finance the local higher education institutions?


I am not sure. I have never thought about it. We have had a good partnership with Sands China. They have worked very well with us. We have provided services to Sands China, namely the formation of their personnel in the areas of business. They came and supported us after the Hato storm, which touched us very much. It was very kind of them. We are still following up on the projects that they are funding.


My last question concerns the most unique characteristic of USJ, the Faculty of Religious Studies. We are witnessing an increase, slow but steady, on the number of students studying in the Faculty of Religious Studies. We are seeing also Macau working as a place to form new vocations, but we are seeing a different phenomenon, which is lay people studying theology and enrolling in the faculty. How good is this and how can it contribute to strengthen the Catholic Church?


Yes. A very good thing. In fact, it is something that we have noticed in Europe, especially in the Northern countries. There is more and more people studying theology, religious studies because people are aware that religion is an important aspect of culture and it can be a source of tension, but it can also be a bridge, can be part of the solution for the meeting of different communities because many times leaders of religious communities can be a bridge between apparently rival communities. We saw an example of this a few days ago. Pope Francis received in the Vatican for a retreat the leaders of South Sudan and he kissed the shoes of those leaders. He had with him the Archbishop of Canterbury, so there were two Christian communities getting together who are both of them in South Sudan and both go together to contribute to the peace in South Sudan. I know of people, I met people who are nowadays in business and I asked them, what did you study and they said: “I studied theology.” It is interesting because theology teaches you the roots, the cultural roots, the values that are present in the community. If you are working with people from a community it is important that you are able to link in to what their values are , what their perspectives in life are and theology does help you to do that.