Updated 6.30pm with PN's reaction

With just one week to go before University of Malta students return to campus, Education Minister Justyne Caruana has acknowledged problems with a lack of large halls to host classes.

“As far as I'm aware there are some issues with the larger faculties, particularly the Faculty of Laws, and the University is working to resolve them at this time,” Caruana said on Wednesday.

The minister was commenting after three law student organisations wrote to herself, Prime Minister Robert Abela and Health Minister Chris Fearne to flag logistical concerns about the unavailability of large lecture halls.

Many of the university’s larger halls are in the Gateway building, which is being leased to Mater Dei Hospital due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This leaves a limited number of lecture halls which need to be shared with all faculties and institutes at the university, including the faculty of laws,” the Malta Law Students Society, European Law Students Association and the Junior Chamber of Advocates said in their letter.

 “With Gateway being unavailable until at least January, this will directly impact courses with large cohorts given that the few large lecture halls available are still not large enough to house all students whilst abiding to COVID-19 regulations, namely the one-metre distance which must be kept between students at all times,” they said.

Weighing into the matter on Wednesday, the minister made it clear that the university had to find a solution.

“The university operates on a very independent basis but they must also follow the protocols laid out by the health authorities. The direction is clear, all educational institutions, including University will open for physical tuition on campus,” she said. 

Guidelines on the safe reopening of schools were published on September 7 by the Education Ministry, which announced mandatory physical distancing and recommended mask wearing in classrooms.

In a statement shortly after, the University Student’s Council criticised the lack of clarity in guidelines for University students and argued that university lectures “cannot be compared to primary and secondary school lectures, especially lectures with large cohorts, such as Law, Medicine and Commerce, to name a few.”

“KSU understands the risk that courses with large cohorts might pose on public health, however, it believes that it is high time that a plan to transition back to in-person learning is finalised and established, whilst remaining mindful that the pandemic is still with us.

"University students should not be ignored and pushed to the bottom of the priority list, which until now, has seemed to be the case," the students' council said. 

In a post on Facebook, the Moviment Żgħażagħ Partit Nazzjonalista urged people to sign a petition arguing that students deserved clarity and respect.

"Students need a clear and concise plan for their return. Once again, this has been overlooked, leaving students and institutions in a precarious position playing a guessing game before the new academic year.

"With the proper safety precautions, there is no reason why students cannot attend classes in person. Students deserve better, they said.

Reacting to Caruana's comments, the PN said the "government's right hand did not know what the left was doing".

While the authorities might have needed lecture rooms for health reasons during the pandemic, it was unacceptable that the government realised there was a lecture room shortage just four days before the start of the scholastic year, the PN said.

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