PN’s Zonqor motion has no legal basis - government

The Opposition is asking for the land at Zonqor Point in Marsaskala to be returned to the public after the American University of Malta's failure to attract enough students, however the government has argued that AUM has not yet breached the terms of its contract

An artist's impression of how the Zonqor Point campus of AUM will look
An artist's impression of how the Zonqor Point campus of AUM will look
MPs debating PN motion to retake Zonqor from the American University of Malta

A motion tabled by the Opposition for the government to take Zonqor Point back from the operators of the American University of Malta (AUM), has no legal basis, since the university has not yet breached any of the terms of its contract, according to the government.

The point was driven home by a several government MPs who emphasized that the government could not simply take the land back on the basis of the university not reaching targets that it was not yet expected to have met.

In January, the Opposition tabled a private member’s motion asking Parliament to retake the land at Zonqor Point.

The PN’s action was prompted by revelations that the American University of Malta only managed to start its first academic year with 23 students last September.

The AUM is currently operating from its campus in Bormla, which is being developed, and government has said the project will only move on to the next phase once the campus is full.

AUM does not need ODZ land

Opposition leader Adrian Delia was first to speak, explaining that the motion before parliament was requesting that virgin land that was not needed by AUM be given back to the people.

Government, he said, had tried to convince the nation that the land was necessary to build a university, but insisted that AUM lacked both educators and students befitting of a university.

“I am convinced that going beyond partisan politics, none of us wish to ruin the little land we have,” said Delia, who added that comparisons between AUM and University of Malta were disrespectful.

The leader of the Opposition said the government had given the land to some Jordanian developer with no track record in education.

“To quote Mr Fearne, this is not the real deal,” said Delia.

He said the project was similar to the Vitals hospital concession, in that it was designed to fail so that it could be used for more land speculation.

Had the government wanted to set up another university in Malta, it could have issued a call for expressions of interest, or travelled the world to find a respectable institution as it had done with selling passports, continued Delia.  

He said that if the government was “willing to play around with health and education”, one needed to question what future it wanted to build for the country.  

He said it was as best naïve to believe that a contractor who showed up on the island and promised to bring thousands of students could follow-through with his promise, simply because he was given a piece of prime land.

Delia said the university had not succeeded in bringing the number of students it had promised.

“Should we be wasting this land for 15 students,” asked Delia. “We are not investing in our youth and we are not using land properly.”

Before you present a motion, read the contract

Responding to Delia’s remarks, Muscat insisted that there were very big flaws in the PN’s motion, which he said was based on a mistaken premise.

Muscat insisted that Delia was wrong in claiming the land was not needed, as the project would only proceed to the next step once the Bormla campus was operating at “critical mass”.

The Prime Minister also took a jab at former Opposition leader Simon Busuttil, when rejecting claims of government interference in AUM, insisting that government had not even objected to him taking up a lecturing role at the University of Malta.

Furthermore, he pushed back against claims that the land was to be used for speculation, noting that the contract prevented this possibility.

Muscat also hit out at the “racist undertones” in Delia referring to the investors behind AUM as “some Jordanian”.

“The leader of the Opposition referred to 90,000m2. I would like to remind him that the footprint was reduced, and the area is actually 31,000m2,” said Muscat. “This motion was clearly written in a hurry and you haven’t bothered reading the contract.”

On the number of students at the AUM, Muscat said the number of students had already doubled since the motion was presented.

The Prime Minister stressed that the Opposition could not be taken seriously when it had presented a motion that was factually incorrect, and that rather than kill a project that had already seen €20 million invested in Malta, the government was determined to see it work.

A motion presented seven years too early

Like Muscat, Education minister Evarist Bartolo said that much of what had been stated by the leader of the Opposition was factually incorrect.

“This motion should have been presented around 2025 or 2027,” said Bartolo, adding that the contract required the university to have attracted 4,000 students four years after the project’s completion.

He said that while the government was facing some difficulty in agreeing terms with some sections of educators, it was also true that it was “playing a catch up exercise” because the sector had been abandoned by past Nationalist administrations.

Above all the minister insisted that AUM had undergone the most rigorous of processes to achieve its accreditation, and pushed back against claims that the government was trying to accommodate the university.

In the same way that it was a Labour government that had insisted on English language schools requiring accreditation, he said similarly insist on AUM operating under the highest standards.

“We don’t need lessons, especially from the PN, that had allowed fictitious university to operate in Malta and steal thousands from Maltese students,” said Bartolo.

Contract does not exclude non-educational use

Despite the government’s claims that the contract with Sadeen group did not permit the use of Zonqor for non-educational purposes, PN environment spokesperson Jason Azzopardi said this was not the case.

“[One particular] clause says there will be ancillary facilities like restaurants, cafeterias and social clubs for the proper functioning of the project,” he said.

Azzopardi added that Sadeen “the foreigner” had also been granted exclusive berthing rights, a privilege, he said, was hardly essential to the functioning of a university.

He insisted that no European Prime Minister should secretly be meeting with an investor and agreeing to give away a prime piece of land in five minutes.

Moreover, Azzopardi said that while it was originally implied that the university would be collaborating with American institutions, it later transpired that they would only be providing the curricula.

Finally, Azzopardi said that the government was aware that the project would proceed at a slower rate than expected and that the Sadeen Group was likely to breach the terms of its contract.

The south’s lung worth more than money

PD MP Marlene Farrugia said that while her party believed in investing in both the south and the education sector, the project would see the south losing a part of its lung, while gaining very little in return.

“Why do we have to use fertile ODZ land to invest in education?” asked Farrugia, adding that she wanted to project to succeed given that investment had already been made

She said however that it first needed to be guaranteed that the university would be able to attract the students needed for it to occupy more space.

Background

  • The AUM project caused controversy in 2015 when the government initially allocated a site measuring 90,000 square metres in an outside development zone at Zonqor for the development of a university campus hosting 4,000 students.
  • The ODZ area was scaled back after public pressure, with the project proponents agreeing to split the campus between Bormla and Marsaskala.
  • Controversy on a different level ensued because Sadeen, the Jordanian company behind the project, had no previous experience in the educational field.
  • In December 2015, Parliament approved the land transfer to Sadeen in a marathon sitting that lasted all night. The Opposition voted against.
  • The land transfer contract and 99-year lease agreement was signed in March 2016.
  • AUM was given a university licence by the National Commission for Further and Higher Education in September 2016.
  • The AUM started its first academic year in September 2017 with 23 students.

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