Four Bangladeshis enrolled at the American University of Malta never showed up on campus and are suspected to have used their student visas to travel to another EU country.
The absence of the four will make a significant dent in the new institution’s already meagre student complement, which started off at 15 at the beginning of the academic year, though it was meant to be 300.
It will also mean that the Prime Minister has to revise the updated figure of “over 30” students he gave to Parliament during a debate on the AUM last Thursday.
Sources informed The Sunday Times of Malta that the four students were recruited by the university a few weeks ago but “disappeared” before they had even reached the Cospicua campus.
In what may be a case of irregular migration, they are suspected to have used the Schengen visas they were granted on the strength of their student status to make their way to another EU country. The Schengen visa allows its holder free movement in 22 EU Member States and four other European countries.
Sources close to Identity Malta, the government agency responsible for issuing Schengen visas, told The Sunday Times of Malta that an internal probe had been launched to try to find out what happened to the students.
The sources indicated that Identity Malta officials had originally been reluctant to issue visas to the students, since they suspected that the four simply wanted to gain a foothold in the EU on the strength of the AUM-issued letter confirming their enrolment.
However, according to one source, Identity Malta’s reluctance subsided following the direct intervention of top AUM officials and officials from the Office of the Prime Minister.
To obtain a Schengen visa the Bangladeshi students would have required a letter from the AUM confirming they meant to pursue a course in Malta. Also, they would have had to provide proof of accommodation and bank statements showing they had enough money – about €30 a day – to sustain themselves for at least a year.
Questions sent to the AUM about this matter had not been answered by the time of writing.
A spokesman for Identity Malta said the students never reached Malta, adding that Malta’s embassy in New Dehli, India, had handled their visas.
The visas have now been revoked.
The Bangladeshis were part of a larger group of about 15 new students who were supposed to join the university in January after the AUM managed to enroll them through an agent.
The others hail from Cameroon and have been attending lectures regularly.
The AUM has been dogged by controversy from the start, with serious objections raised to the government granting it a pristine patch of coastal land at Zonqor Point to build one of its campuses.
There has been no use for this land so far, with the AUM campus in Cospicua easily accommodating the roughly 15 students who occupied the lecture rooms at the start of the academic year in September.
All the students attended on scholarships from the Sadeen Group, the Jordanian construction magnates behind the project.
The image of the university continued to take a battering when it emerged that it had dismissed all its lecturers and most of the administrative staff just before the end of their six-month probationary period.
After replacing the sacked lecturers, the AUM had to sack the head of the humanities and social sciences department, Robert Cardullo, after it was informed a university in the US had fired him for plagiarism.
Another of the new lecturers was dismissed after he declined to provide proof of his Oxford doctorate.
The regulator, the National Commission for Further and Higher Education, had pointed out that the new recruits, including Prof. Cardullo, “had been assessed and it was deemed that they meet the criteria required of academic staff to conduct the accredited programmes at the AUM”.
One of the members of the AUM’s board of trustees is Adrian Hillman, the former managing director of Allied Newspapers who is currently subject to a magisterial inquiry over alleged money-laundering activities involving the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, Keith Schembri.
The Prime Minister said in Parliament on Thursday that although the AUM project was still in its infancy, €20 million had already been invested in the restoration and embellishment of its Cospicua campus.
Dr Muscat came under fire recently for comparing the AUM with the University of Malta, saying they were both “brilliant institutions” and he saw in both of them “traces of success”.