There was no scep­ti­cism in 2015

Malta Independent - - NEWS -

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

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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.

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