AUM fails quality assurance audit but gets licence extension anyway

The American University of Malta (AUM) has failed an external quality assurance audit conducted by foreign experts but still somehow managed to obtain a one-year extension of its licence granted by the Maltese regulator, the NCHFE (National Commission for Further and Higher Education), according to documents seen by The Shift.

The audit concluded that the AUM did not meet the required standards in eight out of the 11 quality assurance standards evaluated, apart from other issues including its financing.

The government’s regulator still extended the ‘university’s’ licence by another year, instead of the usual five. The AUM is now expected to undergo a further review.

Asked to explain why the AUM’s licence has been extended in view of the negative audit results obtained, a spokesperson for the NCHFE only said, “The AUM has its licence extended up to September 2022 and renewal procedures are according to law”.

“In accordance with the licence conditions, a programme audit of courses during the fourth year of operation shall be carried out,” without giving any details of when or the consequences for the AUM if it fails.

The audit also confirmed earlier investigations by The Shift showing that the AUM has failed to attract any significant amount of students to its courses and that it is operating at a loss, running into millions.

Failed promises

In 2016, the chairman of the NCHFE at the time, Martin Scicluna, gave a press conference announcing the issue of a licence to the Jordanian-based construction company Sadeen to open a new university in Malta.

Scicluna had listed several conditions tied to the five-year operating licence, including that by its fourth year the university had to have some 1,200 students.

Yet four years down the line, the NCHFE audit found that the university had only 164 students and just 25 members of faculty.

In 2015, when the government awarded a massive parcel of public land to Jordanian Hani Salah to establish the AUM, disgraced former prime minister Joseph Muscat had promised that this investment would change the face of the island’s economy, particularly in the south.

Yet. the university has managed to enrol only a tenth of students promised, most of them are being subsidised through scholarships.

The audit also revealed a very bleak financial situation at the AUM, which the report states would have already wound down if it were not for the direct multi-million subsidies from its shareholders.

According to the audit, in 2019, the AUM registered a loss of €5.7 million and its liabilities exceeded assets by €19.5 million.

“This meant that the group has a massive negative equity base, which, however, can be mitigated if the liabilities due to the parent company, which stood at €26.8 million at the year-end 2019, are considered by the company and a capital contribution of a long-term nature.”

According to announcements made by the Labour government in 2015 to justify the transfer of public land to the AUM, the university was projecting 4,600 students by its tenth year of operations and employing some 250 academic staff.

More findings

The external quality assurance audit, which was carried out online due to the pandemic, concluded that the educational institution did not meet the necessary standards in many areas including in the quality of its teaching programmes, institutional probity, design and approval of programmes, student participation and many other aspects.

Furthermore, the leadership of the university was found to be lacking. “The panel cannot state with certainty that the AUM leaders are fit for purpose. Upon comprehensive analysis of the CVs of AUM staff against their corresponding job descriptions, the panel found that roles such as the Provost and Human Resource Director are held by individuals that are not equipped with the suitable qualifications which would enable them to meet the responsibilities of their positions successfully,” the audit states.

The AUM has been in the news for all the wrong reasons since its inception.

During its first two years, it had fired and re-hired all its academic staff, including its original provost John Ryder, while it had on its board of trustees Adrian Hillman – the former managing director of Allied Newspapers now accused of corruption and money laundering. Hillman was representing the OPM on the AUM’s board and was directly appointed by Muscat.

The government granted Salah a long emphyteusis on large parcels of public land in Cospicua and on the coast of Marsascala where it is pledging to build a fully-fledged campus. No plans have yet been presented to the planning authority.

AUM fails quality assurance audit but gets licence extension anyway