The agreement by the government of Malta and Jordanian investor Hani Saleh for the setting up of the American University of Malta has resulted in a myriad of statements, counterstatements, proposals and concern on a variety of matters.

As soon as Prime Minister Joseph Muscat announced the proposal, environmentalists raised concern on the selected site, at Żonqor in Marsacala. The inclusion of nature park as part of the project was deemed as being unsatisfactory by greens, given that the proposed university site is in an ODZ area. Hence, an immediate unintended effect of Muscat’s statements was to give further momentum to the environmental movement in a post-hunting referendum context.

I hope that environmentalists, opposition parties and Environment Minister Leo Brincat make sufficient pressure to persuade the government to look into alternative sites to host this university.

On the other hand, such lobbying should not rush into naming quick-fix alternative sites. I think it was a rash mistake to name alternatives such as Ricasoli when environmentalists are usually the first to ask for proper studies and impact assessments on development proposals. The main goal, at this stage, should be to sensitise Muscat’s Cabinet to give serious consideration to another venue.

If this possibility is considered, necessary studies to identify proper alternatives should be conducted. This cannot take place in a few days or through rushed press conferences. Studies should look into a variety of aspects, including the environmental, social, economic and operational. Consideration should also be given to the alternative with respect to activities being carried out in earmarked possible sites.

Should such a process take place, a proper parliamentary debate and full consultation with civil society is of utmost importance.

Should such a process not take place, suspicions may arise on the actual intentions behind the project or whether everything was a ‘done deal’ from day one, thus discrediting the government’s talk of public consultation.

I hope there are no speculative intentions behind the construction process, in case it turns out to be a white elephant. One needn’t go far to see the mess of the horrible Smart City, which is still vacant, and which, incidentally, will host the new university until the new premises are built. It almost seems like a scene from the British TV comedy series Yes Minister when a new hospital building that was being kept empty was eventually used for other purposes.

Competition and complementary educational facilities do not necessarily exclude each other

In reaction to the proposed development, the University of Malta announced it will not object to the presence of a new university as long as a level playing field is allowed and an analysis of its impact on existing operations is carried out. This is a fair assessment, which points towards a number of possible ramifications. For example, from a financial aspect, the University of Malta, though being very much dependent on State funding, generates a substantial revenue from tuition fees, including from non-EU nationals. The University of Malta also spends a lot of money on stipends for students as a social obligation given that it is a State entity.

Will a new private university result in financial competition in this regard, given that it aims to attract many foreign students? Will this have an impact on the University of Malta’s’ revenue stream? Or will Malta move towards becoming an educational hub, attracting an ever-increasing number of students in different educational facilities?

One may also look into having universities complementing each other where possible. Competition and complementary educational facilities do not necessarily exclude each other. Foreign universities already have a small presence in Malta. There are also a number of facilities that ‘compete’ in attracting students for their courses. At the same time, student participation keeps increasing.

The Prime Minister’s insistence that the new university should be situated in the south of Malta raised various arguments. Some said this will be a developer’s dream in terms of possible sites for construction. Others said that, given the small size of Malta, this ‘north-south’ binary is utter nonsense.

However, one can also argue that universities can regenerate the areas in which they are situated through economic multiplier effects and increased social interaction. Britain has some good examples of industrial cities, such as Sunderland and Coventry, which were regenerated also through university investment, something which my friend and academic colleague John Baldacchino – who is based in Britain – argued some days ago on the social media.

Hence, I believe that if the government will identify industrial, vacant or run-down sites that can be regenerated through the university proposal, this would be a win-win situation. And the south of Malta has an abundance of such sites.

Another aspect of the new university debate deals with the academic value of universities. These should not only be seen in utilitarian terms, such as economic investment and catering for industry’s current needs. The provision of quality academic education is a core aspect univeristy identity.

Scholarly knowledge helps empower students with skills, reflexivity and a sense of critique to encounter the risks and opportunities of our times. Different areas of knowledge, from the humanities to the sciences, contribute to this in a different way. Science makes discoveries, proves and disproves, the humanities provide open-mindedness, pluralistic dialogue and the need to avoid monolithic fundamentalisms.

Michael Briguglio is a sociologist.

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