With too few students signing up and too many lecturers getting the sack, it’s been quite a baptism of fire for the American University of Malta. Yet a recent visit to the Cospicua campus shows that it has well and truly turned the corner and that is now starting to attract students from all over the world.
A small group of young teens, satchels strapped lazily over their shoulders, are conversing in a foreign language as I approach the entrance but they stop in their tracks as I approach. A curt nod of the head, a suspicious glance my way and they walk away to continue their conversation in peace.
A security guard with a deep Eastern European accent is suddenly standing in front of me.
“I’m here to see Andres Galizia,” I say, referring to the assistant director of admissions I was in contact with.
The AUM's reception
He leads me into the building and I am initially taken aback by the amount of progress that had been carried out since I last visited the place, just over a year ago. What was back then a construction site is now a fully-fledged spacious reception area, somewhat bare, save for a picture constructing the building in its past life as a dock for the British forces and its current state. Kind of a 200-year challenge, if you will.
“Good morning, great to see you!” Andres Galizia says as he climbs down the stairs. A female student wearing a hijab climbs up the stairs, a book clutched to her chest, and Galizia greets her by name.
“Looks like you’re on a first-name basis with the students,” I remark as he starts leading me around the university. “How many students have enrolled here?”
“Oh, around 80 so far and another 14 are joining this week,” he says. “There are around 27 nationalities here; India is the most represented, but we have students from countries as diverse as Cameroon, Jordan, Vietnam, Palestine, Spain, Macedonia and Bulgaria.”
I learn later on that there is also a single Maltese student at the AUM, reading a Masters degree.
In a neat touch, inspirational quotes by the world’s greatest thinkers line the walls, drilling motivation into students as soon as they walk in and out of the building. Meanwhile, signs are dotted around campus, promoting student billiard tournaments and upcoming trips to Identity Malta for third country nationals seeking student visas.
“We organise several extracurricular activities for the students here, including some following their recommendations,” Galizia said, recounting the recent organisation of an open bus tour of Valletta.
The university itself spans four floors and here’s a selection of what it looks like from within:
This is the computer lab
This is one of the classes
The common area has maintained hints at the building’s old dock days
This is the (mostly digital) library
Complete with an electronic system to ensnare book thieves
This is where students and staff can take a breather in between climbing staircases
And this is the beautiful view of the Three Cities from the top floor patio
The AUM so far offers ten undergraduate degrees and one MBA, in business administration. All students must be proficient in English and those who don’t make the grade are required to pass a course of English for Academic Purposes before they can proceed onto their desired field of study.
Although the university is a global melting pot, staff cannot see cultural clashes of the sort that the Education Commissioner had recently warned are taking place in the Pembroke secondary school. In fact, one student joined the AUM precisely because of perceived discrimination at her previous Maltese educational institution.
A couple of students I speak to express these sentiments.
“I was studying in an American high school in Malta so I wanted to study in a university with an American system,” a young Spanish woman says. “I’ve been here from the start and yes, it’s still new but it’s clearly improving. There’s a really international environment here and it gives you the chance to discover different cultures and learn how to deal with them.”
An Egyptian student says he was planning on studying abroad and enrolled at the AUM upon the recommendation of his friend.
“It’s been a great experience living alone, meeting new people and learning about new cultures,” he says. “The lectures are great, the teachers help us and give us second chances and the fact that there are few students means lecturers can talk to us on an individual level.”
“In fact, I recommended the AUM to another friend back in Egypt and he has now joined too!”
Student recruitment is vigorous and global. While I was there, the director of recruitment was off on a recruitment trip to Dubai and South Korea, while Galizia himself jetted off to Colombia shortly afterwards.
A few months ago, the AUM also set up its first overseas office in Shanghai and signed a cooperation agreement with East China Normal University. According to the agreement, a dual degree program of Chinese Language and Culture is to be offered at both universities; students of this program will have a chance to study in both China and Malta, and to obtain dual degrees from AUM and ECNU.
AUM president Lequs Walker inaugurates the university's Shanghai office
I am introduced to Brian Lowery, the registrar at AUM, a man who exudes a sense of nonchalant confidence as he discusses the university’s journey.
“It’s normal for a start-up to have problems recruiting at first, but once the word gets out about the quality of the education on offer here, the numbers will grow rapidly. We’re surpassing the past controversies and people are starting to see that we’re an institution which means business.”
Lowery is one of around 30-40 staff, most of whom are new faces and who have no recollection of the university’s dark days when it fired most of its staff by email over the Christmas holidays.
However, provost John Ryder has been there from the very start.
“Well, it looks like you’ve passed through the worst…” I tell him as I take a seat in his office on the fourth floor.
AUM provost John Ryder (Photo: Chamber of Commerce)
“What worst? That’s what you said. There never was a worst,” Ryder responds, with a pained grin on his face as he is forced to recollect those memories. “We were simply in first gear back then and in second gear now. You cannot build a university overnight after all, it takes time. The student numbers have increased though and will continue multiplying as we had expected.”
Ryder confirms the AUM is working on new curricula and programmes and plans to launch more dual degree programmes, similar to the one it has with the East China Normal University. Talks are also ongoing for researchers to set up satellite labs at the AUM in fields such as cloud computing, big data, cybersecurity, AI and robotics.
And what about AUM’s planned campus at Żonqor Point, that patch of untouched countryside which mired the university in controversy from the get-go?
The planned AUM campus at Żonqor Point
Ryder brushes off such questions.
“No, our next stage is developing and moving into the [adjacent] Knights’ Building, we’re not even thinking about Marsaskala,” he says. “More and more people are coming here and observing the progress being made. What’s in the past is in the past, now let’s do something to help Malta and the region.”
It's still way too early to sing the AUM's praises and declare it a success, but significant progress has undoubtedly been made, which leaves us with one question: Is the only way up for the American University of Malta?