The Malta Independent 11 December 2017, Monday

For the record

Alex Muscat Friday, 17 November 2017, 08:25 Last update: about 23 days ago

The American University of Malta is moving ahead, according to plan, and abiding to the contract signed with Government. In recent days there has been a systematic attack on this investment by conservative forces who seem to be wholeheartedly inclined to undermine the project. Scrutiny is welcome and needed, especially on initiatives of such magnitude. Yet, if informing people is what we have at heart, I believe that we should stick to facts and avoid resorting to inaccuracies.

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Unlike previous administrations, all the major contracts entered into by the Labour Government have been published. The AUM contract is no exception. It is there for everyone to see. The Opposition has strongly criticised this project and did everything in its power to ensure this investment did not materialise. It labelled the owner, the Sadeen Group, as mere building contractors, intended to sound demeaning; it said the project was nothing more than a real estate development, which would not gain University status, and the whole project was a white elephant. But that attitude came as no surprise since the same was said for the new power station, the Individual Investor Programme and all other major initiatives.

They said we did not need a new power station, or to convert to the use of natural gas instead of heavy fuel oil, for energy production. They said we did not want any Chinese involvement in our energy sector as we would lose control. Now that the power station is up and running; heavy fuel oil has been phased out; the Marsa power station is being dismantled; emissions have been cut down drastically; Enemalta is back on its feet and energy bills have been reduced; what does the Nationalist Party have to say? There has been no apology forthcoming, nor any admission that their arguments were baseless and completely wrong.

They had argued citizenship for investment was illegal, that we would be selling our soul and attracting all sorts of shady people. Once again, there were no regrets at all from the Opposition when the European Commission gave its blessing and confirmed that the programme was in accordance with EU legislation. The IIP is the only citizenship programme in the EU to be approved by the Commission and has managed to attract great attention. Interestingly, the same Nationalist Party figures who were criticising this programme were at the same time actively involved in its management, acting as official agents.

We now have an Opposition which is resuscitating the same arguments against the AUM it raised two years ago. The difference now is that they are arguing that Sadeen is falling behind on the construction of the University and the number of students attracted is not enough. This is a clear admission that the University is not a real estate project nor a white elephant. The reality is that Sadeen is abiding to the contract and, in just 18 months, it obtained University status after very rigorous independent scrutiny; removed the asbestos from the Knights building; restored the British building at Dock 1; and constructed its first classrooms and offices. It managed to attract its first students despite the fact that only a small part of the university building had been completed.

Sadeen is contractually bound to use the land assigned to it for educational purposes only and had a total of 73 months to complete the project once all the required building and operational permits were in hand. Given these timeframes, one may actually argue that Sadeen is not merely on track but progressing faster than anticipated.

One does not build an institution, such as a University, overnight. And the contract approved by Parliament anticipated that. Minister Evarist Bartolo was right to state that the University needed time before it could develop a reputation and corporate identity. It would build itself gradually, rather than opting for a big-bang approach.

The Government opted to give this concession after it carried out the necessary studies and was convinced that the economic and social impact of the investment would have a significant bearing on our economy. It is envisaged that, once fully operational, the University will inject €50 million into our economy per year, eventually going up to more than €80 million. This means a 1 percent growth in our GDP yearly from this investment alone.  Apart from the economic benefits, the project will increase pluralism in our country’s tertiary education; a measure which the Labour Party has an electoral mandate to do. The Government is duty bound to ensure that Sadeen does not steer away from its obligations and that both the Cospicua and Zonqor sites are used for no activity other than educational. To this effect, the contract is watertight and leaves no room for misinterpretation.

The Nationalist Party, together with conservative forces, have been fast to demonise most projects enacted by the Labour Party, only to be proved wrong, time and time again. One can understand and accept constructive criticism which helps to improve any initiative. That is how you build credibility. However, taking a negative stance and being critical for the sake of being critical, will only stunt further progress for our country. 

Alex Muscat is a Labour MP and deputy chief of staff at the OPM

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