AUM: A white elephant  in the making?

The American University of Malta has only managed to attract 15 students and has already dismissed almost a third of its academic and administrative staff, according to a report published by the Sunday Times.

It may be premature to rush to conclusions, however these developments are far from positive given that this acclaimed investment was reported to be aiming for an ultimate intake of 4,000 students.

The government’s urgency to transfer land at Zonqor and Cospicua at a discounted price to Sadeen was betrayed by the way it was rushed through Parliament in a marathon session just before the Christmas recess in 2015.

This sense of urgency did not let up, with the Planning Authority approving the first phase of the Cospicua campus located in the British barracks before transport studies were concluded and before an application on the alterations required to the historical structures had been submitted. It was only following this approval that this application, as well as that for the development of eight dormitories on ODZ land in Zonqor, were submitted.

Yet the government’s rush to pass the land to Sadeen has not been reflected in the intake of students.

The AUM was once hailed by Prime Minister Joseph Muscat as one which would have contributed to making Malta an “education hub in the Mediterranean,” just as under the previous government Smart City was hailed as being the key to transforming Malta into an IT hub.

The parallels between the two projects are staggering: both involved the cheap transfer of government-owned land, both were acclaimed by the government of the day as game changers and both were assigned a public purpose which obscured the speculative element.

In the case of Smart City, the government had transferred 358,000 sq metres of land in the former industrial estate in Ricasoli to Tecom for an annual ground rent of €150,000.

By the tenth year of operation, the ground rent paid by the UAM will rise to €204,206 for the two sites – comprising Zonqor (18,000 sq metres of ODZ land and 13,000 sq metres of non-ODZ land) and Dock One (10,800 sq metres of heritage monuments built by the Knights and the British).

These assets have therefore been handed over for an average of €4.88 per sq metre; a bargain basement price given the priceless national heritage and environmental assets being handed over.

The way the promised 6,000 IT jobs at Smart City failed to materialise, and the way the government is now changing planning rules to allow more speculation on the site of what was supposed to be an IT village stands as a warning to not repeat the same mistake with the AUM.

Although the AUM is in its initial phases, the writing has been on the wall since the beginning of this saga. How can a ‘university’ with no history and tradition compete with established universities to attract affluent foreign students to Malta who have so many other choices?  And can one trust a construction group from Jordan with no experience in running universities with this task?

The contract signed with Sadeen does specify that land was handed to him solely for educational use. This should exclude the use of the land for any other purpose.

The government is now obliged to brief Parliament on the progress made on this project. If the developers are not in a position to honour their obligations, the government must make it clear that the contract is null and void, and the land transferred back to the public. The worst thing that can happen is that planning permits in Cospicua and Zonqor are issued in the absence of a clear confirmation that Sadeen will be in a position to honour its contractual obligations.

If the development is approved and the proposed university fails to take off, we would be faced with a fait accompli that may well tempt the government to change the parameters of the project to accommodate more speculation to render the project viable.

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