The Malta Independent 22 July 2024, Monday
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‘American’ university in Zonqor to comprise 5 colleges, three-storey buildings

Neil Camilleri Sunday, 24 May 2015, 11:30 Last update: about 10 years ago

• Sadeen group says environment will be respected and views will not be obstructed • Degrees will be recognised in all EU states • Investor contradicts Prime Minister, insists on single campus

The proposed American University of Malta, which is set to be developed on virgin land at Zonqor Point in Marsascala - unless the government manages to relocate the project to an alternative, less environmentally sensitive site - will comprise five colleges and "all the amenities expected in a modern-day university, but the environment and residents will be respected, a lawyer representing the developers has told The Malta Independent on Sunday.

Questions sent by this paper were answered by Dr Kevin Deguara, a partner of DF Advocates, the legal advisers of the Sadeen Group in Malta.

Dr Deguara said the university, for which 91,000 square metres of ODZ land have been earmarked, will comprise "five colleges with buildings not exceeding three floors which will take into consideration the topography of the site and the surrounding environment. As to facilities one will find what is expected of a modern day university, including lecture halls, labs, workshops, research and development areas, library, dormitory and ample sport facilities. Not only will we give importance to the surrounding environment in AUM's plans but also to surrounding properties to make sure that their views remain unobstructed. Large tracts of the site in question will be landscaped creating an environment that is pleasing to both students and neighbours alike."

Asked what the specifications of the agreement signed with the government as regards the use of land, Dr Deguara said the land "can only be used for educational purposes and we are only able to proceed with the project following accreditation by the local authorities and approval of plans by Mepa." The lawyer would not say what the duration of the lease will be, but insisted that it is in line with other long-term leases "for projects of such magnitude".

The group is using local architects and also plans to include local construction companies in the building of the project.

University degrees to be recognised by all EU states

Degrees given by the American University of Malta (AUM) will be recognised by any country that recognises the Bologna accredited degrees. "In simple terms, the degrees issued by the AUM will be recognised in each and every member state of the EU."

Courses will be offered at Bachelors, Masters and Doctorate levels. "AUM has in fact already submitted courses for five Bachelor, one Masters and four Doctorates to the National Commission for Further & Higher Education for its accreditation process. Furthermore, it is AUM's plan to offer courses in more than 60 different subjects with additional courses being introduced later, in line with market demands."

Dr Deguara said it would be premature, at this stage, to announce what the course fees will be as it would be "alerting its competitors to its positioning strategy".

AUM's relationship with De Paul

This paper, for clarity's sake, asked the spokesperson to explain the exact relationship between AUM and De Paul University. The government had inadvertently given the impression that De Paul was coming to Malta to run the university, but it then transpired that the Chicago-based University was only involved in drafting the curriculum for AUM. "Sadeen and DePaul are collaborating on several areas including accreditation, developing curriculums, policies, academic structures, quality assurance systems and other matters relating to the licensing and operation of the American University of Malta."

Asked how long the agreement would last, Dr Deguara said collaboration between the two entities would continue until the university is completely developed and fully functional.

The people behind the project

The AUM is being developed by Sadeen Education Investment, in which Hani Salah and his son Rakan Salah are both shareholders, according to Dr Deguara. Thaer Mukbel - the man filmed making frantic hand gestures above the Prime Minister's head during the signing of the agreement at the Auberge de Castille - is a "team member" of Sadeen Education Investment Ltd.

Mr Hani Salah is chairman of the Jordanian Sadeen Group, which encompasses a number of companies, including Sadeen Contracting, Sadeen Hotel, Sadeen Car, Sabeen Holidays and Mayar International Schools - a range of primary schools. It has been reported, however, that he owns Sadeen Education Investments personally, and is not a company of the group. Sadeen Education Investments Ltd was registered in Malta in June 2014 - almost a full year before the agreement with the government was signed. This has, quite obviously, raised eyebrows. Sadeen Education Investments is not yet listed among the subsidiaries of the Sadeen Group on its official website. It does not even have its own website, at least up to now.

This paper sent follow-up questions to the lawyer on Friday morning, but was told that they could not be answered by the time of going to print, especially since Dr Deguara had to liaise with a number of people before getting back to us. One of the questions we asked was whether the Sadeen Education Investment Group, or the Sadeen Group for that matter, actually runs any universities it has built. The website of one of the Sadeen Group's subsidiaries - Sadeen Contracting - mentions small schools and university faculties (not entire universities), along with hotels, villas and mosques among the projects it has developed. It is not clear if the group is involved in the running of these facilities. Interestingly, only a couple of these projects' exceed the 10,000 square metre mark. The project footprint for the AUM in Zonqor is 91,000 square metres.

Jordanian developer insists on single campus

Dr Deguara was also featured on Xarabank on Friday evening, where he contradicted Prime Minister Joseph Muscat's statement on the possibility that the university would be split into more than one campus, thus taking up a smaller chunk of land in Zonqor. Quizzed by journalists this week, Dr Muscat confirmed that the government was looking into the possibility of identifying another piece of land, away from Zonqor, on which part of the university could be built. But speaking on the TV talk show, Dr Deguara insisted that Sadeen Education Investments was adamant that it wanted a single campus. The lawyer said, however, that the company was open to alternative sites.

Dr Deguara was asked a similar question last week on Andrew Azzopardi's radio talk show, where he said he could not exclude the possibility that the investor would seek some other country where to develop the university if the government backed down and told him that he could not use the Zonqor site. "The agreement we have is for that particular site. We would consider everything should we be offered an alternative site, but as far it would be very difficult for the investor to accept having a fractioned campus." Dr Deguara said the idea was always for a single campus. "This will be an American-style university and we believe that the concept that would most likely guarantee success and attract a large number of students is a single campus - a sort of student village."

He also referred to the "unjust" criticism by some sectors, including those who had tried to attack the investor's integrity. "Others criticised this project as being nothing more than land speculation. This cannot be farther from the truth as the agreement clearly stipulates that the land will be leased specifically and only for an educational project."

'We are only dealing with the government on land lease'

The Malta Independent on Sunday also asked Dr Deguara whether the developer was negotiating the purchase of land in Zonqor with private landowners, which include farmers, how many such landowners were involved and what percentage of land needed by the AUM is private (part of the land is public). We also asked whether all these landowners were willing to sell their land, whether they would be given compensation and, if yes, how much, and if the land would be bought at prices commensurate to agricultural land or developable land. Dr Deguara said AUM is "only dealing with the government of Malta with regard to the leasing of the land and is not involved in any government negotiations whatsoever with any other third party".

This newspaper has spoken to several Zonqor farmers who have insisted that they have received no communication whatsoever, neither from the government nor from the Jordanian developer. A few of the landowners are full-time farmers who have inherited the lands from one generation to the next, but other names are more conspicuous and include people renowned during the era of former controversial public works Labour minister Lorry Sant such as Michael Axisa (il-Lay Lay), Piju Camilleri, Joe Chetcuti, Norman Clews, Joe Formosa, Joe Camilleri, Paul Abela and Manuel Farrugia.


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