Zonqor campus must be stopped

As such, the Zonqor point controversy marked a clean reversal of one of Joseph Muscat’s earliest policies. That, in itself, merits an explanation. If Muscat was so keen to defend the unbuilt environment in 2006, what occasioned the change of heart by 2015?

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

The American University of Malta’s failure to attract sufficient students for its first academic year raises a number of questions about a project that was mired in controversy from the start.

The university has since its inception been plagued by a low student take-up, with its provost confirming late last year that it had to lower its own expectations for the autumn semester. The AUM started its first academic year last October with only 23 students: a far cry from the 300 that had been projected. It has meanwhile lowered its forecast for the new academic year that starts in 2018 to 150. There have also been (unconfirmed) reports that the university has axed a number of lecturing positions.

Under ordinary circumstances, these might be considered teething problems any academic institution may expect to face at start-up phase. However, the circumstances in this case are very far from ordinary. The idea to attract foreign paying universities to set up shop in Malta may not itself be problematic... though it does, at a glance, seem to directly contradict the Labour Party’s historic stand on issues such as ‘free education for all’. Nonetheless, the same general principle underpins other (equally contentious) projects and initiatives under the present government, such as Vitals hospital project and also the Individual Investor Programme.

AUM hoped to use the ‘brand’ of ‘American University’ to attract well-heeled students to an educational institution of high quality: common to all these projects is an ambition to target high net worth individuals hoping to use Malta as their base for education, medical needs, and free movement across the eurozone.

One can argue about the pros and cons of such an economic strategy: the issue here, however, is that the Maltese State has paid a very high price to attract the investment, and now expects a return. From the outset a tract of virgin ODZ land in Zonqor point was earmarked to accommodate it – against all planning principles, and directly contradicting the government’s own planning policies. These were later amended to retroactively justify the land transfer (a fact which also sets a precedent for future developments).

In its time, the announcement provoked one the largest national environmental protests since the ODZ extension in 2005/6: ironically, in which the Labour party participated under the slogan ‘ODZ is ODZ’. As such, the Zonqor point controversy marked a clean reversal of one of Joseph Muscat’s earliest policies. That, in itself, merits an explanation. If Muscat was so keen to defend the unbuilt environment in 2006, what occasioned the change of heart by 2015?

To date, the answer – to both criticism of this project, and also to the Structure Plan amendments in general – was that ODZ development can be justified if it is in the national interest. This was problematic from the outset – there is no standard definition of ‘national interest’ we can all agree on – but now that the AUM project is itself foundering, the logic of the pretext itself comes apart at the seams.

Clearly, it is not in the national interest to sell off prime, protected land to create a failed university. Indeed, losing such a large tract of virgin land would be unacceptable under any circumstances... even if the end product was an instant success. The country therefore deserves a proper answer as to why land ODZ at Zonqor Point was earmarked instantly, for the development of a mega-campus run by a company that has no prior experience in education.

Nor is this the only Muscat policy to be bent according to the agenda of the moment: Labour had won the 2013 election on the promise of transparency and accountability, and had pledged to hold public consultation with all stakeholders on every national project. Yet it was only after the decision was already taken that a public consultation exercise was hurriedly sought – post-facto – and it was in response to public concern that the new Bormla campus was created instead. All the same, but the much-maligned Zonqor campus was retained, with the commencement of development postponed to after the Bormla’ campus’ first semester.

Again, one must ask, why?  Why was such prime property committed to investors from abroad, with no experience in education, before any form of public consultation, and without any guarantee that such an educational project would even be successful?

It is an important question for another reason. If there is a silver lining to this cloud, it is that works on the Zonqor campus have not yet begun. There is still the opportunity to halt the project in its tracks, and return the land to the public.

Now that the Opposition has tabled a motion to this effect, the ball is firmly in the government’s court. This casts matters in a party-political perspective, that is also worth questioning. The 2006 protests had marked the first rumblings of the earthquake that toppled Lawrence Gonzi in 2013. It is ironic that the ‘ODZ’ would now trouble Muscat, and offer the Nationalist Opposition a much-needed lifeline. 

Either way, the AUM project appears to be unravelling, and the Labour government must reckon with this. It still in time to do the right thing.