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‘Let’s not put off university investor’

Chairman of south council Parnis backs controversial project to build on ODZ land

Labour MP Silvio Parnis says that if the American University project really materialises “it will be a game changer for the south.” Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi

Labour MP Silvio Parnis says that if the American University project really materialises “it will be a game changer for the south.” Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi

Silvio ParnisSilvio Parnis

Labour MP Silvio Parnis, chairman of Consultative Council for the South, is in favour of the controversial American University of Malta project and believes nothing should be done to discourage the Jordanian investor.

“Let’s make sure the project really materialises because it will be a game changer for the south,” he said.

“It’s not fair that we discourage him [the investor] by saying he has to restore this fort and the other. It’s already enough that he decided to come to Malta, so let’s make sure he’s not discouraged,” he said.

When the project was announced, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said the Jordanian investor had agreed to restore Fort San Leonardo as part of the investment. However, it later transpired that the fort will be restored through taxpayers’ money within the natural park project.

Asked for the council’s stand on the project, Mr Parnis said the issue was only discussed after the public announcement was made.

It’s already enough that he decided to come to Malta, so let’s make sure he is not discouraged

“We don’t have an official position,” Mr Parnis said. “However, my personal position it totally in favour of the Prime Minister’s plan because this will boost the economy of the south.”

Asked whether he would still be in favour of the project even if it was built on virgin land, Mr Parnis said he would prefer if the project was built on an alternative site and, consequently, not have such an impact on the environment. But he would still support the project even if it was built on agricultural land.

“At the end of the day, we built so many structures on ODZ, such as the hospital and the power station. Why are we making such a fuss on this educational project, which will change the south,” he said.

“This project will be a game changer for the south and so many jobs will be created. It will change the whole mentality of our people in that area and create so much wealth,” he said.

Asked whether he had been privy to any economic impact assessment on the project, Mr Parnis admitted he had not.

“I don’t know whether the government has commissioned any assessment. But the Prime Minister was very clear in his presentation of the economic benefits of such a project.”

Mr Parnis said the council would soon publish a report about the discussions held on the project. He said the majority of members had expressed themselves in favour, even though not everyone agreed with the site.

Mr Parnis would not comment on the stand taken by his Labour colleague, Marlene Farrugia, who came out against the project. She said she would not be supporting a parliamentary resolution to hand agricultural land to foreign investors for the university.

“Don’t ask me about this. She has a right to her opinion and I respect her a lot,” he said.

‘Respect the environment’

The Malta Employers Association has asked for a discussion on Outside Development Zones to be held within the Malta Council for Economic and Social Development.

In a statement, the MEA said that in principle it is against any development in ODZ sites, amid controversy over plans to build a university at Żonqor point. The association said that although it is in favour of developing Malta’s potential to attract investment in education, this should be done in a manner that respects the country’s natural environment.

“There should be a concerted effort to attract quality educational institutions in sites that are already developed or dilapidated, of which there are many in Malta,” the MEA said.

Student organisations deplore plans

The Kunsill Studenti Universitarji, together with 45 university students’ organisations, are objecting to the construction of a new university in the south of the island if this is to be developed on agricultural land.

In a statement, the KSU said that it strongly deplored the proposed plans and expressed its disappointment that the government had not conducted any proper public consultation.

Welcoming foreign investment, the KSU said it is high time that Malta’s environment is given the priority it deserves.

“While the KSU applauds the government’s initiatives to regenerate the southern region of the island, it believes that such regeneration can be achieved without the need to develop virgin, agricultural land, which is renowned for its ecological diversity.”

The KSU also noted its disappointment to see Mepa “rubber-stamp such a blatant disregard for the very principles and polices which it was set up to protect”.

‘Risk of brain drain’

Prof. Godfrey BaldacchinoProf. Godfrey Baldacchino

The proposed new university risks causing a brain drain at the University of Malta which could in turn oblige the government to support higher salaries, according to sociology professor Godfrey Baldacchino.

The American University of Malta, which will be developing its academic programmes and policies in collaboration with the Chicago-based De Paul University, will be hosting about 4,000 students, mainly targeting the Middle East, the Gulf region, North Africa and Europe.

Prof. Baldacchino, who has extensive experience lecturing in foreign universities, said the setting up of the American University in Malta will be the latest leg in a long journey that has been progressively exposing the University of Malta to greater competition.

The new, private university will be offering potential students, both local and foreign, another choice in higher education.

Only time will tell if the competing university will positively or negatively impact the University of Malta, Prof. Baldacchino said. But the salary scales and conditions of employment to be offered by the new institution might prove enticing to both established academics as well as those looking to start an academic career.

“If the new university offers a superior salary package to what is currently on offer at the University of Malta, and in return for similar work effort, then some of my colleagues may be tempted to switch.

“On the other hand, the risk of such a brain drain may oblige the government to be supportive of salary improvements at the University of Malta that would narrow or close the gap with what the American University of Malta may offer.”

Asked whether he believed that private universities such as De Paul tended to somewhat have lower standards, Prof. Baldacchino argued that many have different standards rather than “lower”.

Having taught at a North American university for 10 years, he explained that the academic rigour and theoretical knowledge expected from most students in the US and Canada – especially at first degree/undergraduate level – tended to be less demanding than what one had grown to expect at Tal-Qroqq.

With 50-60 per cent of the 18-24 age cohort going to university in US and Canada – even up to 80 per cent in places like California – this is to be expected.

Engineering Faculty dean Andrew Sammut said the proposed university may affect the number of foreign students attending the University of Malta.

“Then again, at our faculty, we only have around 10 foreign students. If we don’t have the funds to attract foreign students, you’re not bound to have much.”

Michael Cooperson, an American professor of Arabic at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), pointed out that in the fields of humanities and social sciences, there will be no direct competition with the University of Malta.

The De Paul curriculum will not be targeting fields such as language, literature, history or archaeology.

“No doubt the new university will hire Maltese PhDs to fill some positions. This would certainly be a good thing for University of Malta graduates.

“A big question is whether the project turns out to be financially viable. Some US overseas campuses have succeeded while others failed.”

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