I write out of a sense of indignation at the latest developments regarding the American University of Malta (AUM), where Maltese taxpayers’ money and Maltese resources continue to be pumped into a failing institution. This, when the University of Malta is facing looming budget cuts due to the mushrooming national deficit, which will certainly affect its running and, very importantly, its research.

Indignation has to be justified by facts and figures. I shall not go into the facts we all know: disgraced Joseph Muscat’s announcement that the new AUM would attract myriads of foreign students and change the economy of the south; the awarding of Dock 1 in Cospicua plus 18,000 square metres of ODZ land; Robert Abela’s recent exchange of this land for property in SmartCity on perpetual emphyteusis at the price of 47 cents a square metre (even the cheapest bar of chocolate costs more).

This, when the University of Malta is crying out for more space to grow and expand. The deals were signed with a company set up and registered in Malta, the Sadeen Education Investment Ltd, part of a group that specialises not in education but in construction and hotels.

An external quality assurance audit carried out by an international panel between October 13 - 15, 2020 raised various issues concerning AUM, including the fact that, during the year 2019, the group suffered a loss of €5.7 million and its liabilities exceeded its assets by €19.5 million. In other words, the university owed much more than what it owned. In normal circumstances, the university should be on the brink of going out of business.

One of the reasons for AUM’s catastrophic financial situation is certainly the lack of students. In 2016, Martin Scicluna, former chairperson of the National Commission for Further and Higher Education (NCFHE), had forecast 1,200 students by the university’s fourth year of opening.

In its first year of existence (2017), this university totalled 15 students out of the 330 students it had targeted. Most of its teaching staff were fired. Three years later, the audit counted 164 students and 25 lecturers. The AUM projected an intake of 4,600 students in its 10th year and 250 members of staff. In 2022, its fifth year, the number of teaching staff appearing on its website amounts to 17 and the number of students remains vague but certainly well under 200.

Initially, an AUM undergraduate course was priced at €15,500. The lack of students made the university lower its fees to €1,000 for Maltese students, €1,500 for European students and €3,750 for non-EU international students. The situation is now so desperate that this university, which was supposed to bring the Midas touch to the south of Malta, is now offering free tuition to Maltese students in a frantic bid to get bums on seats.

So, what happened to all these forecasts and promises? The south of Malta has certainly reaped little benefit from AUM’s presence and the university now needs to poach students from our educational institutions to raise its pathetic numbers. This forcibly raises the frequently-voiced suspicion: was this really intended as a university, after all?

Close down the agreement with the AUM and hand over the site and resources to the University of Malta- Vicki Ann Cremona

The University of Malta provides free tuition and a stipend to Maltese students. It counted 11,282 students as of March 2022, with 1,485 international students forming roughly 10 per cent of the student population. Whereas in 2021, only 22 students graduated from AUM, 2,214 students graduated from the University of Malta at bachelor’s level and 1,225 at postgraduate level. These figures included 247 foreign graduates and postgraduates. Obviously, the AUM is irrelevant as an institute for tertiary education.

The AUM website lists a series of 10 graduate and four postgraduate degrees the university offers, with a minimal description of what one can achieve. However, there is no programme of study showing a clear breakdown of study units for a particular degree, year by year, so it is not clear what is being taught. There is no indication of the research the university is engaged in, if any.

Of AUM’s 17 teaching staff members, only five are full professors, the rest are still on a trial period (tenure track) or employed on a contractual part-time basis. Despite the paltry number of teaching staff, this university claims to deliver graduate degrees in 10 different streams, ranging from accountancy to Chinese (for which no members of faculty are listed on the website) and four postgraduate programmes at master’s level.

I have no means to judge the quality of the courses but numbers are important to help form an opinion. For example, the AUM offers a B.Sc in mechanical engineering. Out of the eight members of staff teaching in data science and engineering, only one professor specialises in mechanical engineering.

The same degree at the University of Malta is taught by four professors, five fully tenured associate professors, three lecturers and one visiting professor. Their research interests, publications and teaching portfolios are clearly visible on the university website. They are assisted in their teaching and research by laboratory officers, research support officers and administrators. Like other University of Malta lecturing staff, they are engaged in national and international projects. They are also subject to periodic academic evaluation.

What is one to conclude from all this? Why is the government continuing to waste time and money on a non-functioning private university when a home-grown successful university produces results and contributes to national prestige?

There is a clear solution to this: rather than diminish the budget of the University of Malta, which works hard to produce research and deliver high-standard teaching, close down the agreement with the AUM and hand over the site and resources of AUM to the University of Malta and other Maltese educational institutions. This is a sure way of putting Maltese money and resources at the service of the Maltese people.

Vicki Ann Cremona is a professor of theatre studies at the University of Malta.

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