There was no scepticism in 2015
It seems that the promise of sea-view classrooms built on pristine land was not enough to entice wealthy foreign nationals to enrol as students at the American University of Malta.
Reports in Times of Malta last week, which have not been denied by the government or the university itself, say that the university set up by the Sadeen group has only attracted 15 students in its first year. Furthermore, the university is reportedly already sacking staff due to its abysmal intake rate and has also fallen behind on works at Cospicua’s Dock 1.
Two years back, there was outrage when the government announced that a large portion of ODZ land in Marsascala’s Zonqor area would be given to foreign investors who had practically no background in education. Many questioned why the university needed to be developed on agricultural land near the coast, but the government defended its plans by telling us that this was the only suitable site on which to build a university complete with sports facilities and dormitories.
When pressure kept mounting, and protest were held against the destruction of virgin land for a university that did not even exist at the time, the government said it had found a compromise but a sizeable portion of land in Zonqor would still be taken up. AUM would also be given the former Knights and British buildings along Dock 1, where a government
renovation project had just been completed.
In its attempts to justify this use of precious land, the government had told us that the university would create some 400 jobs.
And in a glitzy promotional video AUM said it expected to have a thousand students in the first year, with the number eventually rising to 4,000.
For many of those who believe that this government can do nothing wrong, these were good enough reasons for the Zonqor land to be given away. But the project is seemingly turning out into another Smart City, where the promised goods do not materialise or take years to do so. Remember the 6,000-job promise by the Gonzi administration?
Now that the situation is turning sour, the government did not hold any big press conferences. Instead, education minister Evarist Bartolo was left alone to fend off the wolves. In Parliament on Monday he was asked to confirm the recent newspaper reports and why student enrolment was so low.
Rather than admit that the project had been hyped up to ridiculous levels, Bartolo said he would rather see a slow, steady start. “I would have been more sceptical had they come here and promised to start with a bang,” he told inquiring PN MPs. Well, Mr Minister, that is exactly what was promised two years ago, when there was talk of thousands of students and hundreds of new jobs. There was no talk of scepticism then.
The minister also skirted questions related to the contract the government had signed with AUM, and whether the taxpayer was funding the restoration project at Cospicua, which is practically turning a historic building into an ugly, metal structure.
Bartolo did not answer those questions, saying they should be directed at the ‘relevant’ minister. Yet it was he who always accompanied the Prime Minister in past press conferences. And as a major stakeholder, the Education Ministry was involved in the contract talks.
Bartolo also insisted that the government will not allow AUM to divert from its contractual obligations and that the sites in Zonqor and Cospicua can be used for no other activity than education. Yet that promise should be taken with a pinch of salt seeing that AUM has already reneged on a number of pledges.
It has fallen behind on the Cospicua campus which, according to its own website, should have been completed in time for the start of operations. The student levels are far below those mentioned previously. And there is no hint of activity on the Zonqor site.
After being made to give away part of our country for this project, we demand to see all the benefits that were promised. If this does not happen, then both Zonqor and Cospicua have to be returned to the people.