[WATCH] Opposition wants Zonqor land returned to public after American University fails to attract students

The Nationalist Party has filed a parliamentary motion to have the land at Zonqor Point in Marsaskala returned to the public after the American University of Malta attracted less than 30 students in its first academic year

PN deputy leader David Agius flanked by MPs Karol Aquilina and Frederick Azzopardi
PN deputy leader David Agius flanked by MPs Karol Aquilina and Frederick Azzopardi
Opposition environment spokesperson Karol Aquilina on why Zonqor should be returned back to the public

The Opposition is asking Parliament to retake the land granted to Sadeen Education Investment Limited for the construction of a university campus at Zonqor Point in Marsaskala.

Nationalist Party deputy leader David Agius and MPs Karol Aqulina and Frederick Azzopardi presented the motion to Speaker Anglu Farrugia on Tuesday morning.

Aquilina, who is the PN's environment spokesperson, said the fact that only 15 students had enrolled with the American University of Malta showed the project was not viable. He said the project was clearly a non-starter.

Moreover, he added, the fact that the university had already laid off staff showed that it was struggling to meet its own projections.

"It appears that the land at Zonqor is not needed and is being used only for speculative purposes," Aquilina said.

An artist's impression of the planned AUM campus at Zonqor
An artist's impression of the planned AUM campus at Zonqor

Sadeen was granted land at Zonqor to build a university campus along with historic buildings along Cospicua's Dock One to operate a university. Works at the Cospicua site are well underway with lectures being conducted there. However, AUM provost John Ryder was forced to admit late last year that the university had to cut down its own projections. The university only managed to attract 23 students when it had been projecting around 300 in its first year of operation.

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and Education Minister Evarist Bartolo had both said that they expected AUM to use the Cospicua site to its full capacity before going ahead with the Zonqor development.

However, the Opposition has now moved ahead and is asking Parliament to withdraw the concession granted to AUM for the Zonqor site.

Agius said the motion was being presented because it wanted to be a positive Opposition that engaged in "a politics for the people".

He hoped the motion would  also be discussed in next Saturday's House Business Committee so that it can be debated in Parliament as soon as possible.

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In its motion, the PN said it was supporting calls by a number of NGOs for the stretch of land to be added to the Inwadar National Park slated to stretch from Zonqor all the way to Xaghjra.

The AUM project caused controversy after the government initially allocated a site measuring 90,000 square metres in an outside development zone at Zonqor. The ODZ area was scaled back subsequently after agreement was reached with the project proponents to split the campus between Cospicua and Marsaskala.

However, the project was also controversial because Sadeen had no previous experience in the educational field. AUM was given a university licence after a thorough vetting process by the National Commission for Further and Higher Education, however, the lack of an educational track record has made it very difficult to attract fee-paying international students.

Labour Party reaction

In response the Labour Party said that in the last months government had indicated on a number of occasions that “work on the Zonqor campus by the American University of Malta, should start when the Bormla campus starts serving its purpose and there is the need for expansion”.

It added that the government had declared it through Education Minister Evarist Bartolo.

“This means the government has already given instructions for Zonqor be used only once the project is growing as promised and for educational purposes, as outlined in the agreement approved by parliament,” said the PL.

Moreover, it said that the AUM had been through a meticulous and challenging processes for it to be granted a license to operate as a university, and that all “studies” have indicated the project will be a success.

As such, the Labour Party insisted the opposition’s motion was a “useless and premature” one, adding that it was clear that the Nationalist opposition had been “hijacked  by negative elements” intent on carrying on former leader Simon Busuttil’s “negative agenda”.