American University of Malta: an abject failure

Nothing explains the abject failure of the AUM project as this incredible U-turn in Bonnici’s point of view

The AUM Bormla campus
The AUM Bormla campus

In 2015, Minister Owen Bonnici had described the American University of Malta (AUM) project as the best piece of news the people of Marsaskala and Cospicua had heard for years.

At the time, then Labour MP Marlene Farrugia had described the way that government was transferring land to a Jordanian investor to build and run what was being touted as the American University of Malta (AUM), as equivalent to a sovereign deciding to pass on some of his real estate assets to some feudal lord.

The much-vaunted AUM was announced by Joseph Muscat’s government in May 2015, with the intention of rehabilitating the dock area in Cospicua.  It was officially established in September 2016 and welcomed its first batch of students in September 2017. The agreement saw the Dock 1 campus transferred to AUM, where the university carried out extensive rehabilitation works. A large plot of land at Żonqor point was also part of the controversial agreement, subject to the project there being given the go ahead only after the Cospicua campus is full.

When it was first announced in 2015, the AUM investors – the Sadeen Group – said they intended to attract hundreds of students to the private university within a few years of operation.

Then doubts began to creep in. In 2019 Glenn Bedingfield criticised the AUM proposal “to build a large adjoining dormitory in the only open space remaining between the sister cities of Cospicua and Senglea” – as he put it. He even said that he was beginning to doubt whether the AUM will ever be able to attract the 4,000 students in the promised timeframe.

In fact, in 2019 three years after it first opened its doors, the AUM had managed to enrol just 143 students. This was less than a fifth of the number it had promised to attract by then. At the time Evarist Bartolo, who was minister responsible for education, had publicly criticised the AUM over its promises to attract thousands of students within a few years. He said the AUM should not be granted any more public land until it showed it had enough students.

Today the doubts are certainties. The AUM failed miserably to attract the promised levels of students. It is nowhere near that figure of 4,000.

As it continued to struggle to attract students, employees and staff were fired and losses piled up.

According to The Malta Independent, the company that runs the university has registered accumulated losses of €14.7 million in the three years between 2018 and 2020, with tuition fees bringing in less than €250,000 every year.

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Robert Abela, speaking on the TVM news show Xtra, said that the government was revising the land concession as part of a ‘new vision’ for the university project and that land in Senglea and Marsaskala earmarked for the American University of Malta is to return to the government.

The new ‘deal’ will see AUM keep its Cospicua campus while dropping its plans to build a campus outside development zones at Żonqor in Marsaskala, as well as the plans to build a dormitory instead of a car park in Senglea. AUM will be returning the land in exchange for a campus expansion at Smart City.

Seven years after his optimistic outburst on how the AUM will transform the local economy in Cottonera, Owen Bonnici is now pleased to tell all and sundry that land in Żonqor (Marsaskala) and in Cottonera that was given to AUM is being returned to the people.

Nothing explains the abject failure of the AUM project as this incredible U-turn in Bonnici’s point of view.

Obviously he does not have the decency or courage to admit that what had been touted as a large foreign investment in the south of Malta has never really materialised.

Today we are realising that the many projects launched by Joseph Muscat’s government have failed and it is Robert Abela’s fate to pick up the pieces and sweep away the debris.

Historical U-turn

Last Sunday, The Sunday Times of Malta published a story recalling what had happened 80 years before – on the 13th February 1942 – when some 42 Maltese who were interned without a trial were sent to a concentration camp in Uganda, after having been detained in Malta for two years.

They were locked in the hold of a ship during a very dangerous sea crossing to Cairo from where they were eventually taken to Uganda.

My mother was from a Valletta PN-supporting family and as a young boy – born some three years after the infamous sea trip – she related this story to me more than once. It had certainly made an imprint on her mind, but I realised the significance of the story much later.

What strikes me is the oddity of The Sunday Times recalling the incident and calling the internees ‘Maltese patriots’ – quite a change of heart at Strickland House.

Most probably, the reporter who wrote the story did not realise the irony of The Sunday Times reporting the story in the manner she did.

According to some, Britain did not originally intend to send the internees abroad and it was the avid pro-British supporters who insisted with the British authorities to send the internees to a foreign land – rather than to remain at Corradino where they were detained as civilians believed to be a potential threat and sympathisers of the enemy’s war objectives. The surname Strickland pops up in this scenario.

One theory is that these pro-British supporters were afraid of an Italian invasion – something that was quite possible – and wanted the British to hold the pro-Italians away from Malta as ransom, to guarantee the safety of the pro-British in the event of an Italian occupation of Malta.

Stories abound on how some of the internees were chosen from among dockyard workers, because of accusations that some had ‘flogged’ to the British so as to create the possibility of a promotion for themselves.

Eighty years down the line, with circumstances having changed so much, the injustice carried out by the British masters still rankles.

However, it is good to know that now everybody agrees that the British had ruthlessly abused their powers as the colonisers of our country.