'Education law changed to end university monopoly’ – Muscat

Prime Minister insists 'compromises' over Zonqor University can be made if the government and the project's critics act 'flexibly'. 

The requirements of educational institutions to get recognized as universities have been lowered to “end the University of Malta’s monopoly”, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said.

A legal notice published on 8 May modified the Further and Higher Education Licensing, Accreditation and Quality Assurance regulations, to allow any “accredited higher educational institute” to become a fully-fledged university if the National Commission for Further and Higher Education deems it to be “in the national interest”.

The new amendments also reduce the number of minimum fields from six to four, in which programmes leading to higher diplomas, Bachelors’ and Masters’ degrees are offered. They also remove the requirement to have at least four fields in which doctorate programmes are offered.

The law was tweaked three days after the government signed a Head of Agreement with the Jordanian construction firm Sadeen for the latter to construct the private ‘American University of Malta’. The law update will make it unproblematic for the NCFHE to green-light the AUM’s aspirations.

However, Muscat insisted that the law wasn’t changed to suit Sadeen but rather to “break down barriers that permit a monopoly in tertiary education”.  

“The Education Act was too protectionist,” Muscat said on Reporter. “Lufthansa started its operations in Malta by servicing small aeroplanes before moving on to larger ones. If the Education Act had applied to the airline industry, Lufthansa would not have been allowed to start off by serving smaller planes.”

The proposed site for the American University is at Zonqor Point, Marsascala outside development zones, which has provoked outrage from environmental NGOs and the Opposition.

Muscat reiterated that he remains open to alternatives and that MEPA is studying alternative proposals.

“If both the government and its critics are flexible then there can be certain compromises, but I will not let this investment escape the country,” Muscat said.  

Referring to a proposal from environmental NGOs to site the AUM across several historic forts in the Kalkara-Zonqor region, Muscat said that the institution “can be split into two areas, but definitely not into ten”.

He added that expropriating private land for the sake of the university would also be problematic.

“No solution will please everyone,” Muscat said. “As soon as the fort idea was proposed, people instantly rejected it on the grounds that it will create a precedent for historic forts. I am personally in favour of using forts to site hotels and universities, but I can guarantee that newspapers would have criticised that too.”

When asked by host Saviour Balzan whether it was fair that he has shifted the onus of seeking alternatives sites onto the public, Muscat responded that he is “simply open to ideas”.

“If I consult with people I’m called unfair, and if I don’t I’m called hard-headed,” he said.

When asked whether he had anticipated the public outrage to the university project, Muscat said that he was expecting three types of responses.

“I was expecting people who didn’t want the tertiary education market to open up to complain, I was expecting truly environmentally conscious people to reject it on a point of principle, and I was expecting people from the south to welcome it, which indeed they did.”  

The Prime Minister said that the south of Malta has been rejected for far too long.

“The south has long been used as a location for sewage facilities, Freeports and polluting industries,” Muscat said. “Just as the south needed the Ta’Bakrat plant to treat sewage, so too does it need a university to improve its economy.” 

He said that the government plans to create new economic clusters, rather than centre the majority of economic activity in the ‘north’ of the island.

“The north is an investment magnet and we will announce a new touristic project for it this week,” Muscat said. “However, we want all parts of Malta and Gozo to progress."

Balzan reminded Muscat of a 2014 interview in which the Prime Minister had told him that he would choose a pristine valley over a development that would rake in €100 million. 

“This is not a project to build flats but one that could enhance our economy by 1%," Muscat said. "Whereas the previous administration took €90 million out of the public purse to construct a new Parliament building that nobody wanted, this project will inject €70 million a year into the economy.”

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