Interview with Dr. Michel I. Najjar, President of American University of Malta

Interview with Dr. Michel I. Najjar, President of American University of Malta


BF: Malta’s education sector is climbing the ranks to become a key service export. Its generous rates combined with its location and English-speaking citizens have made it a hub for students in Europe. What is your assessment of the local sector’s greatest strengths? Why should students come to study in Malta?

Dr. Michel I. Najjar: I’ll start from the end of the question: why would students want to come to study in Malta? For many reasons. First, the location. It’s a beautiful island. A very well-kept secret, but it’s one of the most beautiful places on earth. It has everything that one aspires to have in terms of weather, which is mild all year long, it has hospitality, tourism, restaurants, everything you can hope for. It would be a dream for a student to be in such a quiet, safe, peaceful, and nice place, and to be combining the benefit of education plus tourism and, above all, culture. This is a place very deeply steeped in history. They have magnificent history on this island, and they are very proud people because of their history. For a student it would be an incredible experience, combining education with culture, which is an integral part of education.

We do believe that the university education is not only about acquiring technical knowledge. It’s also an overall experience where one learns to become a better human being, a better citizen whatever he is coming from, and of course, to be well prepared for his future in his profession of choice. Many students first would want to come here because of all these intrinsic benefits that Malta offers.

Secondly, there is a real attraction to being in the European Union. Many of our students are not from Malta. We have 35 nationalities. People come from India, Pakistan, China, Africa, especially North Africa, which is only 30-40 minutes away from here. Being in Europe is an attraction because of the cosmopolitan atmosphere in Europe. Some of the most ancient culture and history on Earth is from this part of the world.

The education system follows the same quality assurance principles and criteria that are followed in all the European Union countries and their universities. They’re very keen on quality assurance. We are regulated here by the MFHEA (Malta Further & Higher Education Authority). We are ranked number two among the major universities operating in Malta. This is the higher education strategy in Malta, set by the National Commission for Further & Higher Education. And, most importantly, it’s the regulating agencies plan. They are the ones who give any university the license to operate in Malta. This is their National Strategic Action Plan for Further & Higher Education. It all follows the European model and the Bologna Process.

As far as our university is concerned, the American University of Malta (AUM) is fairly young. We were licensed and started in 2016. Then life on the planet was interrupted by COVID-19 for a couple of years, so basically you can say we are four or five years old. For a budding university, for a starting university, we’ve gone a long way and we have achieved a lot. We have undergraduate programs in business administration, business & finance, accounting, game development (which is very important here on the island), civil engineering, electronics & communication engineering, industrial, mechanical, graphic design, and Chinese language and culture. We have graduate programs: Master’s in business administration, Master of science and engineering management, cybersecurity, and Executive Master of business administration in tourism and hospitality management. This program is a new program which we applied for after I became president of this university.

I came here a year ago. In general, I tried to see what programs were needed in Malta. Malta is the home place for one of the most ancient universities in Europe, the University of Malta. It’s more than a thousand years old, and after the University of Bologna, it’s the second oldest. It’s a government-owned university and it has many programs. We are relatively young and we are a private university, but still, we are number two here on the island. We try to identify the programs that are not offered by the University of Malta. We don’t want to compete; we want to complement one another.

Now we have a new program, this Master of business administration in tourism. We also have a program now in aviation and aircraft maintenance which is going to start soon; it was just accredited. We are working on new programs in healthcare industry, a sector in which there is demand. We’re working on a program in marine engineering and the marine industry because this is an island and it is very important. Basically, in addition to the classical fields that we already have, we are starting in areas that we think are a little bit lacking or not very well underscored here. We imagine that we won’t fail first to cater of course to the local market in Malta, the Maltese students, but at the same time we want to grow in concentric circles to Europe, North Africa and to the world as we go along. This is our strategic vision.

We don’t want only to graduate technical people. We want to graduate citizens of the world and people who are proud of this. We have courses in ethics, morals, and general education. We want them to be cultured as well, not only to have, for example, an engineering degree. We want them to have very well-rounded culture as well.

BF: Before we talk about the school’s journey to where it is today, can you give our readers an overview of why should students consider AUM for their degree? Would you perhaps be able to point different innovative areas that the university is working on?

Dr. Michel I. Najjar: We mentioned the basic advantage added value of being in Malta. This is obviously important. At the same time, as the name implies, we are the American University of Malta, we are the only university in Malta that adopts an American style education. We try to collaborate with American universities. We have Clemson University that helped us write our strategic goals, and for several years it was also helping us with the programs’ evaluation and with the institutional evaluation. We are unique in this, here in Malta, and one of the few universities in Europe that follow this American path. We still combine the credit system, which is in the United States, with the ECTS system, which is the European equivalent system to the American system. This is one main advantage of studying here.

We are a university which is relatively young, but this is, to us, an asset; it’s added value. It’s an added value that you are flexible. When you are in a university a few hundred years old, you become rigid in the sense that you have heavy inertia, you have resistance to change, to renovation, to innovation. We are a university that will remain current with the time, will follow the trends of technology, trends of marketing, sustainability, what’s good for the community and what’s good for humanity. We can easily change course. We can easily adjust. We can easily combine the new trends in education and teaching, new trends and technology. We can adapt them in our courses. We can easily maneuver to position ourselves where we should be, to be always the state of the art of our profession. We feel that this should be taken as a plus.

We have the best professors. Most of them are from American schools, American universities, from MIT, we have a few from England also, from Birmingham, and from other very good universities. We emphasize more than only disseminating knowledge and teaching. Research is a major part of our philosophy; we encourage our professors to do research. Research is not only about laboratories, it is a culture, and our students who are involved also emphasize this aspect. This would be an exciting journey for them as well, and it will instill in them the qualities that will make them successful in life.

All these factors should be attractive to any student who wants to come to Europe. To be in a nice place, to be in an American style institution. At the same time, and most importantly, our philosophy here is to create a family atmosphere, not only in terms of learning but of belonging. Every student to us is a special case. I have an open-door policy, for example: they don’t make an appointment, they come and go. If I’m not in a meeting, I welcome them. It’s not only about me. It’s the same with the provost, the vice presidents, the deans. We have an open-door policy which is very common in the States. This is part of being an American-style institution. It’s not very rigid. Our students will become part of our family, we get to know them in person, we get to help them in their everyday life, not only with their studies. We try to convey this message to students when we go and do some recruiting and orientation programs and talk about the university; we try to make them feel that they’re coming to their second home. This should be a good attraction.

BF: AUM was established in 2016 right before the pandemic. Although it’s been faced with a lot of challenges, the school promises to reinvigorate the region. What major milestones has the university passed since it was established, and what future developments are planned for this year and beyond?

Dr. Michel I. Najjar: The system here in Malta really emphasizes quality assurance. The MFHEA, which is the authority that regulates the universities, conducts program audits and institutional audits periodically, sometimes yearly. When we first were licensed in 2016, we were licensed for a period of 5 years. Last year we had to go through a program audit and an institutional audit. Usually, it’s done by a panel of experts who are not from Malta. They are chosen by the MFHEA from different regions of the world. They come here for several days, they audit our programs, they audit our operation, they meet with students, with graduates, with professors, with administrators, with everybody. At the end they write a report about the program and the institution.

One of the major cornerstones for us is that the institutional audit and the program audit we had to go through last year was very positive, very successful, so at the end we got the license of the university renewed indefinitely. But of course, indefinite in Malta means that every 5 years you must undergo the same process again, which we are ready for. These were the milestones that you had to go through from the existential point of view. This is something that every university in Malta has to go through. It’s a testament that we are really abiding with the good practices of teaching, of research, of dealing with students, of student life, administration acting, and functioning properly. To me, this is an important milestone that tells us that we are abiding by the general standards of higher education in terms of quality assurance.

But as I told you, we are relatively young, so we don’t have too many milestones. My main concern now is to diversify the university, and other areas and other fields, that will produce an alternative for students here in Malta, local or otherwise, that are not found in other universities. We also want to have partnerships with the industry. It’s important to us not only to teach theory; we want our students to have also experience with real life industry, with companies. For example, if the students are in civil engineering, we have affiliation with construction companies where they can have some hands-on experience. In all our areas we try to affiliate the university with relevant industries where our students can have some practical experience.

We are also making affiliations with different universities in Europe and abroad, trying to have some mobility program, some exchange program for our students to have experience elsewhere, and to bring students from abroad to have this cultural mix here. We have many agreements so far signed with many such universities. To me it was important to establish this kind of recognition and affiliation. We also try to emphasize interdisciplinarity in our programs. We try to have something related to environmental sustainability, to community development, to give it a practical flavor, not to just have rigid courses in terms of the technical stuff.

Another major milestone was to be able to have the right platforms in place for online teaching. Because of COVID-19 for two years, to be able to communicate with our students, wherever they are all over the world, and to still be functional so that their education will not be interrupted was paramount. We established that. Many of our courses are still given online. This is certified and accredited by the MFHEA. For example, we have a license to give the MBA degree completely online. This needed special care and technical platforms to be able to do that. Now at this time, after COVID-19, even with classes that are taught face to face, we give the opportunity for people abroad to be able to log in and participate online.

A major achievement and milestone was establishing contact with the community. We wanted the community here to feel that we are their university, especially in the three cities where we are located, because this was a relatively underdeveloped area of Malta. We established collaboration and partnership with all the local authorities (church, mayor, local clubs, football, rowing clubs, rugby, every club), we participate, we contribute, we try to help. We’ve become an integral part of the community. We participate in every social event. The university has done a lot for the community. People who knew this area before the university and who know the area now always tell me stories and they testify to how much this university has done to reshape the area in terms of the economy, in terms of social interaction, in terms of culture, as is expected of any university and its community. It has to become a beacon of knowledge and the point of attraction for nice events, for expositions, for lectures, for all kinds of cultural activities. This has brought the community together and it has galvanized the community. Now, almost every event that is taking place in the community is happening here on our premises.

BF: In 2022 AUM waived fees for both Maltese citizens and EU residents. What is the school doing to raise its current headcount, and what kind of marketing strategy is the school employing both within Malta and out?

Dr. Michel I. Najjar: The basic reason why we took the decision to exempt Maltese and European students is because we feel that we owe the community here, we owe Malta the opportunity to be here in the first place. We want to serve the society here, this community here, first and foremost.

At the same time, we want to have a healthy mix of Maltese students among our 35 nationalities. Universities like the University of Malta, which is a very well established and old university that also waives tuition 100% for Maltese students, so we have to keep up. We wanted to attract Maltese students. We want them to be part of this learning experience, we want to give them the same advantage that they will have at the local university. And all students of the European Union are treated alike, so at the same time, when we decided to exempt Maltese students, we also took the decision to exempt all EU students who want to come and study in Malta.

Our basic concept here, our basic concern, is not to be for profit, it’s not the issue of the university being a commercial entity. This is a cultural entity, an educational entity. As you can even see from our brochure, we’re talking about extremely low tuition fees, we’re talking about €2,500 per semester for undergraduate and €3,500 for graduate. These are relatively low fees. On top of that we have financial aid, scholarships, work opportunities. Every student can work on the premises, at the university, with a professor, at the library, wherever he or she wishes for 20 hours per week as the Maltese law stipulates. We’re not profit-oriented.

Every university, every institution, has to sustain itself of course. It has overhead and operating costs and so on. But our concern really is to have the right cultural mix, and we are keen on also being part of Maltese society, and we want to give the Maltese students and the European Union students the opportunity to get a cheap education in terms of price or cost, but at the same time a rich experience and a rich education whereby they can be employable and marketable. Then they can take their degree and go wherever they want and feel that they did something which is worthwhile. Our degree is not only recognized by the MFHEA, by Malta. It’s also recognized all over Europe. This is part of the Bologna Process. We offer a good degree.

BF: What are you top three priorities as president of the American University of Malta for this year and beyond, and what would you like to accomplish during these coming years?

Dr. Michel I. Najjar: Number one, I would like to have many new programs be credited and approved by the MFHEA, to be able to market these programs and be pioneers in a few areas. We have five or six programs that are in the pipeline with the MFHEA for accreditation. To us, this is a milestone. It’s a differentiating factor.

I would like to have more highly reputable faculty members who will establish a track record in research. Being a young university, the first emphasis will be on teaching, but we want this to develop into a major educational and research area in Europe. Research to me is the second milestone. When I talk about research, it means we must have the right people and, at the same time, develop more and more laboratories. I’m emphasizing having new laboratories and equipping them at the university to create the climate of research. I want this corridor to be full of students, this university to be buzzing with life. We need to work on the number of students from different nationalities to see the university operating at full capacity.

Finally, we want to start building our new campus. We have a deal with the government whereby we have been given a piece of land in Smart City. We are currently working on an academic and physical masterplan for the new campus, which should take into account all our aspirations and ambitions for the future in terms of new majors, new facilities, new faculties. We hope that, within a year, we will be starting our new fully-fledged campus. We’ll have both campuses here and in Smart City. We will be a fully-fledged university in terms of space, equipment, laboratories, and installation.

BF: Would you like to launch a final message to the readers of USA Today, particularly to the U.S. community?

Dr. Michel I. Najjar: We are the American University of Malta. We’re very proud to be part of the American traditional education. We do believe that most of what is being established in terms of technology, innovation, and knowledge, takes place in the U.S. and in the U.S. educational system. Most of the Nobel Prize winners every year come from the U.S. Most of our staff and faculty here have studied at the U.S. We believe in this system. I personally lived for eight years in the U.S. To me, it’s very important to have this interview today because it’s a way to communicate and to reach the US population, to tell them that we are very much interested in having students also coming from the U.S., who are interested in Europe, who are interested in coming to such a vibrant, nice location, talking about Malta, of course. At the same time, if educators in the U.S. read this interview, we are very much open to all kinds of collaborations, cooperation, joint research, and exchange programs, in terms of faculty and students, with universities in the U.S. We will be more than happy and proud to establish such links.