Part 2 Hello John! Got a New Visa?
An Interview with the AUM’s John Ryder
This is the second part of Lizzie Eldrige’s series based on a 2 hour recorded interview with Professor John Ryder, recently retired Provost of the American University of Malta. Part 1 is here.
Funny how things happen by chance, isn’t it? Shortly after I interviewed John Ryder and following a lull in news about the AUM, there it is back in the media spotlight again. Even stranger – if you can call anything strange in a country which makes Orwell’s 1984 look like a picnic – is witnessing Glenn Bedingfield tweeting his obnoxious horn about how the AUM’s proposed dormitory is ‘too big…for a dozen students’.
Like Hillman, Bedingfield is personally named in the Council of Europe report. The day after his job co-ordinating parliamentary questions for the OPM came to an end, he was awarded a government contract worth €43,000 per year to act as executive chairman of the Cottonera Rehabilitation Project, reporting directly to Owen Bonnici. Saying nothing about Zonqor (because that’s not in his constituency and distraction techniques work a treat), Bedingfield casts himself as champion of the people in a surreptitious way that can enable the AUM to ‘give our land back’ and, due to the symbiotic relationship between the government and the AUM, leave everyone smelling of roses.
In a prime example of doublethink, Bedingfield’s loud support for the AUM remains undiminished and, let’s face it, everything this specimen of depravity does is loud. We could refer again to empty vessels, but Bedingfield has an over-sized and unrefined bludgeon in place of a brain. He is uncouth incarnate and doesn’t care who knows it, including the Guardian, whose readership tends to be educated.
Educated is what we’d expect of Professor John Ryder who, in charge of an institution renowned for failing to attract students, was often vague when asked about student numbers. The only exact figure he gave was that of 30 when asked how many students attended the first academic year 2017-18.
In an interview for TVM – ‘an extension of the Party in government’ – the numbers for the first semester are placed at 23 although, with the unfounded optimism often displayed in my interview with him, ‘Prof Ryder is confident that in January, more students will have enrolled.’
In December 2017, however, Times of Malta reported that only 15 students were attending the university and questions sent to Ryder had gone unanswered. Prior to that, the NCFHE had refused to give precise numbers on the grounds that these were “secret and confidential between the licensee and the Commission”.
Ryder didn’t refer to confidentiality at any point during my interview, but when asked about student numbers for 2018-19, he was as sketchy as the ‘sources close to the AUM’ used by Times of Malta shortly before this academic year began. The AUM’s stated aim then was ‘to attract 150 students’. With the benefit of hindsight, Ryder’s calculations – barely even an educated guess given the variations and lack of statistical evidence – resulted in ’70 or 80…60…Something like that. I forget.’
The dearth of students has been a constant source of criticism so you’d expect Ryder to have done his homework but, as with his pleas of innocence regarding the political situation in Malta, research isn’t prioritised for this professor.
Instead, he went on the attack:
‘No, I don’t know the exact number because this is always…You know so little about universities, that astonishes me!… You don’t know that the number of students at a particular place is a snapshot at a given time and if you ask how many students, well, even at the beginning of a semester from day to day, it changes…because people are coming and going.’
Coming and going into Europe, vanishing with their newly-acquired visas. While acknowledging this as a problem, Ryder insisted that ‘we’re doing a number of things – we have done a number of things – to try and fix that.’
As an example, he cited ‘a handful of agents’ that ‘we have identified’ and ‘that most, the bulk of those people who have used entry, admissions to the university as a way to escape into Europe were coming from 2 or 3 or 4, I don’t know exactly, but like that. A small number of agents, we don’t use them anymore.’
Precision isn’t his strong point, is it, but in terms of countries where absconding students hailed from, he specifically named India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and this has been corroborated by an ex-AUM staff member who was part of the mass firings.
However, India is the recruitment ground in an AUM promotional video released on 23rd June 2018, only months after news first broke of students using the AUM as a European gateway. It features Holly Bouma, introduced as Director of Admissions. When I met her at AUM’s Open Day, she was Director of Student Success, providing the wrong Wifi code before launching into an online audience-interaction quiz.
With ‘Miss Holly’ is her colleague, Mark S Kopenski, introduced as ‘also from American University of Malta’. Kopenski’s Linkedin profile shows him as ‘President and CEO, Global Student Recruitment Advisors’. There’s no mention of the AUM although a link to another promotional video appears on his Facebook page. A search on the AUM’s website revealed no information about him.
Given that India was cited as a high-risk country for absconders, Indo Global Studies (the third party involved) is, presumably, an agent marked as safe, but the video makes for interesting viewing:
‘Miss Holly’ emphasises that the AUM’s ‘American style of education’ is delivered in the EU: ‘Malta is a hidden gem of the European Union…so our students are going to be studying in paradise.’
Detailed reference is made to the support of both the government and Identity Malta alongside the benefits of a Maltese visa:
‘We work, the AUM, works very closely with the Central Immigration Office. It’s called Identity Malta in Malta. And the government of Malta really is supporting us in our effort to recruit international students because they see the need for bringing in talent from abroad to work in Malta after they graduate. So that’s one of the focus, focuses, of the current government is to bring in international students, to support education. So they work very closely with us…The exciting part about getting a visa is that it also gives you a visa to the Schengen zone so students can travel all around the European Union, the Schengen area, with their Maltese visa.’
Tempting, isn’t it, especially when others have successfully abused this route before?
However, Ryder assured me that the AUM report disappearing students to the ‘Central Visa Unit…Well, yes. It’s Identity Malta.’
As chance would have it, scarcely a week later, Identity Malta’s already tenuous reputation came to the fore with the indictment in the US of Maltese passport holder and Chinese aluminium billionaire, Liu Zhongtain. Charged with money laundering and tax evasion, his criminal activities were widely known when he secured Maltese citizenship in 2016.
Another Maltese passport holder, Mustafa Abdel-Wadood, was arrested in the US just 4 months after being granted citizenship. Having misappropriated millions of dollars at Abraaj Group, he faces the same 125 years in prison as Ali Sadr, owner of Pilatus Bank, the scandal which, Ryder claims, he doesn’t ‘pay attention to’.
Identity Malta, in whom both Ryder and the AUM publicly place trust, refused to say if Abdel-Wahood’s citizenship would be revoked and it was only after his guilty plea that they conceded it would. It remains to be seen what they’ll do with the Chinese mega-fraudster.
Daphne Caruana Galizia exposed Liu Zhongtain in 2016, observing that ‘He is a Chinese citizen and China does not permit its citizens to hold two passports or dual nationality.’ In another report, she describes the Executive Chairman of Identity Malta, Joseph Vella Bonnici, as being part of ‘one of the most corrupt families in Malta’.
Nevertheless, Identity Malta has Ryder’s trust or, when pushed, his only port of call: ‘Well, who am I going to report it to?’
Reminded of potential terrorist risks, Ryder replied, ‘We don’t want to be a mechanism for that.’
He got angry at the assertion that it was:
‘What did I just say to you? What did I just say? We are trying to stop it. We’re not here to do that. We’re here to run a university and to attract students, people to be students. We don’t want people coming here and disappearing somewhere so we are very quick about reporting them.’
But only to Identity Malta because ‘We’re not in Brussels. We’re here.’
Here is where more than 30 students out of nearly 100 students (over 70 of these being English Language students) have simply disappeared into the EU to which Malta has obligations in terms of anti-terrorism measures.
Ryder accepted this figure (the most recent and not cumulative) as both ‘accurate…and exceptionally high’. He then outlined ‘what is or isn’t being done, what could be done, and so on.’
As well as terminating business with agents identified as problematic, Ryder spoke of another measure to deter prospective students from abusing ‘the one-stop-shop’ advertised by ‘’Miss Holly’:
‘We’re starting to talk to them about the dangers of doing that…I don’t even know what they’re thinking. The students who do that are not coming here to be students at all, ever. It’s not like they came, got disillusioned and leave. They’re not coming here. They’re not taking this seriously at all…When we can get to them, talk to them, we explain to them they are probably destroying their lives by doing this because they will become illegal immediately. They’ll be illegal wherever they are…and they’ll never get proper visas anywhere again is what we tell them. Once their visas are closed, wherever they are within Schengen, they are illegally.’
And their visas are closed by none other than: ‘Identity Malta. That’s what they tell us. That’s where we send them.’
Disappearing students disappear, but not, it seems, for Ryder. He sits them down, has a paternal heart to heart with these mischievous scallies who wilfully breach international travel restrictions. What’s more, he packs them off to Identity Malta who, no doubt, give them a slap on the hand as they close the offending visas of these scholarly charlatans who were hoping to trip off merrily into the European sunset never to be seen again.
Which is what they did! They disappeared, vanished, poof, without a trace! And given Identity Malta’s scrupulous inattention to glaring details when bestowing citizenship on major criminals, it’s hard to imagine they’d spring into action when, as in Ryder’s scenario, the cheeky little blighters turn up in their office of their own accord and assume position on the naughty chair.
Ryder did refer to himself as ‘a fool’ after all [see Part 1].
In addition to handing over invisible students to an invisibly stringent Identity Malta, Ryder talked of how the AUM has introduced varying tuition fees, with massive discounts offered to ‘low-risk’ countries where no visa’s required:
‘For a high-risk country, we are requiring that the student pay the entire 4 years of tuition upfront. And if we get no students from these places – fine!.. People who would otherwise think about using us as a way into Europe would be put off because of the cost.’
In light of recent arrests of exceptionally wealthy fraudsters who paid at least €650,000 for their Maltese passports, not to mention Ali Sadr because why would Ryder be interested anyway, it seems the more money you have, the higher risk you pose:
‘Yeah, but the more money you’ve got, we’re thinking that there’s a point – I can tell you what the thinking is – if it’s wrong then we’ll find out, but the thinking is that we reach a point where it’s just cheaper to go find a smuggler by a lot than it is to use AUM to sneak into Schengen.’
Smugglers? Is he confusing Henley and Partners’ clients with people trying to escape from torture, war and imminent death onboard unseaworthy boats who, if they do make it across the Mediterranean alive, are refused entry into Malta, home to the AUM?
As for the hefty financial cost to high-risk university applicants, there’s no sign of this either in the literature available at the recent Open Day or on the AUM’s website. The former merely displays the discounts while the latter indicates a one-off fee of €1,000 for ‘International Students’.
High-risk students, defined as those requiring a visa, come from countries such as India and China, both heavily targeted by the AUM. Far from being ‘put off’, such countries are prime recruitment ground and yet there’s no mention of the steep costs supposedly in place to act as a deterrent.
So many misnomers, inaccuracies and discrepancies. For a prediction of student numbers in the chronological order they were delivered, first ask ‘Miss Holly’:
‘We hope to have 150 students in the class this September ’.
Her buddy, Kopenski, says they’re hoping to double this number each year until they reach 12,000.
At the Inauguration last March, Muscat’s conviction was categorical:
‘The contract with government, which is public for all to review, clearly stipulates that the stringent condition of this institution is to complete all phases of the project by 2025 and to attract 4,000 students in the following 4 years. Nothing more, nothing less.’
During my interview on 23rd July, Ryder said:
‘Are we aspiring to 4,000 students? Yes, we are…One would have hoped it would’ve been sooner but at least 10 years. Probably longer at this rate.’
And then there’s Bedingfield, voice of the Cottonera people, who rounds it off to one below a big fat baker’s dozen.
The interview concludes tomorrow.