The American University of Malta (AUM) has been at the centre of controversy ever since its inception, from the granting of ODZ land in Żonqor Point in Marsascala by Government, to the low number of students which have enrolled in its first year of operations. However, the University’s Provost, Professor John Ryder, is frustrated at certain elements of the press for the media storm which has erupted over the low student intake and current staff numbers, dismissing them as rumours.
“There’s nothing experimental about this. We know exactly what we’re doing. I’ve been doing this for close to 40 years myself. We know exactly what needs to be done, how they do it at every level, and every step, so this idea of just insulting the faculty and the students is a distressing one. It’s gratuitous hostility. In the long run, that stuff will go away because it will rot on the ground,” he said in an exclusive interview. “In the long run – and I don’t think that’s very long – it will become clear that all these rumours are foolish, and they will stop because the reality will indicate otherwise. There are still people out there who don’t think we’re building a university out here. I don’t know what they think we’re building.”
While initial projections had indicated that student numbers would start out at 100 for the first academic year, rising to 350 in the second, to 710 in the third and, finally, 1220 in the fourth, current estimates indicate substantially lower figures. “I think we were too optimistic in our initial targets and that was due to enthusiasm and excitement,” Prof. Ryder stated. The actual number of students enrolled at the University is between 14 and 16 – he isn’t quite sure – as a result of the difficulties the institution has had in attracting numbers. Most of the students are members of the expat community who already lived in Malta. “We have quite rigorous entry requirements. We’re not running around with a butterfly net and the level of English required as a matriculating student is a challenge. We also have a small number of degree programmes, so we cannot cast the net too broadly, and as that expands then we can attract a wider range of students. And, we’re brand new, so there’s not much in terms of track record,” he explained. The lack of a local market has also presented its problems since “in the short-run there is less motivation to enrol at AUM when Maltese students can take a similar degree programme at the University of Malta.”
AUM Provost, Professor John Ryder
Enrolment is mainly done through student recruitment fairs abroad, to which the AUM sends its admissions staff, as well as through agencies tasked with promoting the university in international markets. Prof. Ryder specifically mentioned Russia, China, India, North Africa and the Middle East as being markets of interest, gradually expanding to North America, though he admits that this “will take some time”. Recent reports have stated that the low number of students and lack of a strategic plan have resulted in a series of staff dismissals. “A number of people have left. Some of them were dismissed, some of them resigned,” Prof. Ryder admitted, stating there were various reasons for the departures, some of which were personal. “I don’t like to talk about personnel matters. Maybe five or six left, or were dismissed, and all of those are being replaced. We’re advertising to replace them all and a couple of additional positions.” He stated that the challenges which have been faced on the recruitment front – particularly for some of the administrative vacancies, such as those in admissions – has also impacted the potential to recruit more students. “We’ve had a number of very good applications for Director of Admissions and Admissions Counsellors, but those two positions are difficult to hire locally. Local professionals are experienced in processing students, but they don’t have the kind of experience we need in actively recruiting students.”
Sadeen Group, the Jordanian contracting company behind the University, granted a number of scholarships this year as “a kind of pump primer”, and most of the students who are currently enrolled on campus are there on full four-year scholarships, with “a couple of them” paying tuition. “You need to infuse energy into the pump for it to start working and then it will work on its own,” Prof. Ryder said. He insisted that while next year, the university “will be offering some awards”, based on academic merit, it is unlikely to grant the same amount of funding to students starting in 2018.
Prof. Ryder outlines the University’s strategy, which for now consists of continuing to build the educational foundations, marketing the institution to prospective students and developing new programmes. Two of these have already been drawn up and submitted for approval to the NCFHE, and seeking accreditation from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC). “This is the same body that accredited Harvard, Yale, Brown, Amherst; every university in New England. If, and when, we achieve that accreditation, we join that club. That’s good for marketing; it’s good for reputation; it’s good for all kinds of things.”
Continuing the work on the Bormla campus is also high on the University’s list of priorities. “It will probably take two or three years to finalise the Bormla campus, but finishing the British building should be in spring sometime. Then, of course, we have applications in for Marsascala,” he stated, which leads to another point of inquiry. Education Minister Evarist Bartolo recently commented that the University’s operators should first focus on building their reputation rather than developing a second campus. Are the original plans for a Marsascala campus still on track? “In one sense, that’s obviously true,” Prof. Ryder said, but adds that the University is “making projections all the time”.
“We’re projecting now for 150 students next year and we probably can project for at least another 150 the year after so this is going to grow exponentially. The Marsascala campus… I’m not an engineer or construction contractor, but if I had to guess, it could take several years to build that.” Does he know when works on the second campus will commence? “I hesitate to talk that way because it’s not my area of expertise. I take care more of the university as an academic institution than as a building,” he insisted. “The decisions of when to do this and when to do that are made more by the investors in consultation with the architects, the planning commission, etcetera. I don’t yet know when the Planning Authority will approve the application. I suppose that can happen tomorrow or it can happen a year from now. My guess is it will happen sometime earlier. And even then, there are preparatory things that need to happen, and I have no idea how long that will take.”
A version of this article originally appeared in the December issue of The Business Observer