The university that never was - Mark Anthony Falzon

A better alternative to the AUM disaster was staring at us all along

In 1209, a group of refugees migrated to Cambridge, which at the time was a county town known for the vitality of its trade. They were scholars who had clashed with townsmen in Oxford, and they spent their first years in Cambridge drifting from lodging to hostel. By 1226, however, they had set up a teaching and scholarly organisation headed by a chancellor. In 2009, the University of Cambridge celebrated its 800th anniversary.

The point is not to compare the incomparable. Rather, it is that scholarly institutions, and especially universities, are set up by scholars. Which is not to say that they do so in isolation – the Cambridge scholars, for example, were taken under the protection of Henry III in 1231. Still, however many kings, presidents, and captains of industry they may flirt with, universities take as their point of departure teaching and scholarship.

Which explains the circus act known as the American University of Malta. As reported, all but one of the lecturers hired to teach at the AUM were fired a few days before their probationary period was over, and for no apparent reason. The survivor, who also happens to be the provost, has told the Times of Malta that six new academics will be employed as a replacement, to serve the 15 or so students.

WATCH: AUM holds campus orientation... but where are the students?

I wish I could say I’m surprised the AUM mistreats its academic staff so. The clue is in the company profile of Sadeen Group, the enterprise behind the so-called university. Sadeen are involved in hotels, real estate, construction and car rental. The AUM, in other words, is a contradiction in terms: a scholarly institution set up by people with no interest in scholarship whatsoever.

How anyone could fall for it must remain a mystery. And yet those who did included the Prime Minister, who I remember looking rather pleased with himself at the Castille signing in 2015. He had also said that there was no place for monopolies in Malta, and certainly not for those that had to do with university education. In his words, the resistance to the AUM was the doing of “a circle of vested interests that have much to gain from the current closed-shop university system, lorded over as it is by the few, for the few”.

Not only was the AUM given two prime sites, it also appears to be free of the standards and conventions that regulate the University of Malta

Let’s leave aside the prophetic ‘few, for the few’. The ‘monopoly’ and ‘circle of vested interests’ that Muscat had in mind was the University of Malta. According to him, if a university is to avoid becoming a cartel, it must compete.

Given this coarse market model, it’s probably worth looking at some of the workings of that competition. It turns out the University of Malta – the monopoly institution, that is – is administered by a Council which is directly accountable to taxpayers. Buildings have to be accessible and of a certain standard. Course descriptions are in the form of a contract between the University and students. And so on.

There’s nothing the matter with any of that. I don’t think lecturers should be free to teach and examine as they please. Nor should sub-standard lecture rooms be acceptable, or teaching contracts murky or unfair.

Except the competition, if we must use that language, seems to operate by a very different set of rules. Assuming the reports are true, the AUM is a standards-free zone. It can hire and fire at leisure. Exactly what the 15 students are up to with no teaching staff at hand is anybody’s guess. Mine is that they’re busy wading through inches of mud at the building site in Cospicua.

At which point the Prime Minister’s argument for fair competition begins to look flimsy. Not only was the AUM given two prime sites, it also appears to be free of the standards and conventions that regulate the University of Malta. Both universities are certified by the National Commission for Higher Education, but only one is held to account. If this is what the end of a monopoly looks like, give me a thousand monopolies every single day.

That the AUM is the disastrous result of wrong thinking is clear enough. What may not be so obvious is that the sensible alternative was there all along. Except the government, in its fondness for business babble and its weakness for foreigners with fat wallets (sorry, ‘high net worth individuals of talent’), missed it entirely.

It was, I think, a good idea to give over the dockyard buildings in Cospicua to education. That avoids the nausea of yet another shopping mall or food court, and it also brings some real diversity to the place. All that was needed was some homeless scholars (as opposed to greedy constructors). Oxford townsmen being an accommodating lot these days, the source was elsewhere.

I’m just saying, but the University of Malta is running out of space.

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