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Wassim El Hajj: We truly believe that AUB has a lot to offer to Cyprus and Europe

The American University of Beirut – Mediterraneo in Paphos has accepted its first students and is looking forward to a bright future ahead.

The university’s Rector, Wassim El Hajj, tells CBN the history behind its decision to open a twin campus in Cyprus and delves into the Liberal Arts Model of Higher Education the university offers, which is new to Cyprus and even Europe.

American University of Beirut – Mediterraneo has officially opened. Has everything gone smoothly? Did you face any challenges throughout the process?

We have faced a lot of challenges from the beginning. Every step has had its own challenges. Our biggest challenge was that we wanted to open in September 2023. So less than a year and a half after signing the agreement for the land with the Municipality of Paphos, we launched the university. We were doing market analysis and other research before April 2022 however. It was exactly two years ago that we started operations in Paphos. That’s when I came to Cyprus to lead this project.

We are setting up a university, so we needed to set up facilities and programmes, secure the proper accreditation, seek approval from the ministry, and so on. We needed to establish a legal entity. We also needed to set up the functions that a university needs – accounting, procurement, etc.

When we started with the construction phase, the challenges were mainly related to selecting contractors who could deliver a project in a very short period of time. After we selected the land, we needed to get the proper building permit and the planning permit which, because of bureaucracy, can take a lot of time. We were fortunate to receive the support we needed from the local authority, the municipality lead by its Mayor Phedonas Phedonos, and the central authorities in Nicosia.

Many of the challenges we faced were related to bureaucracy in some way, which can slow down the time it takes to get things accomplished anywhere. In this regard, I must say that the support that we received was very good and enabled us to minimise the delays for the project – as regards the permits we needed for the accreditation process, official approvals from the Ministry of Education and from the Council of Ministers, etc.

The biggest challenge we faced was related to some of the laws in Cyprus and how to align those laws with what we needed to do as an American institution, so we had to work a lot with the accreditation agency, with some of the ministries like the Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Interior, and Ministry of Education, in order to align – as much as possible – the bylaws of the university and the rules that govern the university with the laws that govern universities in Cyprus.

I'll give you one simple example. There is a law in Cyprus that says that the director or the dean or the chair (of the university) should be elected from among the faculty. In our American system, this selection is made through a search process. Members of the faculty can apply, but people outside the university and international talent can also apply. And there is a search committee composed of trustees, professors, staff, and students. It is the people on the committee who come up with a short list, conduct the interviews, and then make recommendations to the President of the university or to the Board of Trustees. It is then the President or the Board of Trustees that makes the decision. Our concern with the current law in Cyprus was that it would prevent us from considering talent from outside the faculty.

We believe that one of our missions is to propose some changes to existing laws in order to enhance them – not so that these laws fit our model, but to enhance them and introduce some flexibility in order to make them more effective.

Another very big challenge that we faced was finding housing for students – and staff as well. We did eventually find appropriate student housing, but it is not sufficient and we will need a lot more in the years to come.

I know housing is an issue in general in Cyprus, for students and for non-students. I think this is something that is the current government is thankfully planning to address.

Another major challenge is that students are not legally allowed to work in Cyprus, and if allowed the job options are very limited. We are planning to propose to the appropriate offices in Cyprus that students be allowed to work, at least in the university, and are hoping that this will be possible in the future.

How many students has the university welcomed?

We were not able to start recruitment until very late this year – in April 2023. In a normal year, we would start around now (September), which is what we have done. We have already started student recruitment for next year.

Even though we started so late last year, we received around 600 applications which shows that there is high interest in AUB Mediterraneo. Of those 600 applicants, 53 students were confirmed. 45 are undergraduates and eight are graduate students coming from 12 countries. We really like the diversity of this group: Cypriots; Lebanese, who already know the AUB name well; people from Jordan; from the Gulf region; from Pakistan; from Nigeria – and they are all highly qualified and met our admission criteria. We have high criteria and require universal exams like SAT, AS levels, Lysium B, in addition to school leaving certificates and English fluency. Out of the 600 applicants we received, we rejected around 350. Out of the remaining, 53 confirmed and we're very happy about that because these 53, all of them, had other choices but they chose us.

Are you aiming more for local or international students?

We really want Cypriots to come and join us. During the short period in which we have been operating, we have not been able to attract as many Cypriots as we would like. We are offering students scholarships that could reach 100%. Our message to students is that if you are a very good student but financially challenged, we will give you a scholarship that might reach 100%.

We were not able to communicate as early and as effectively in Cyprus this year as we will in the future. Our assessment is that most Cypriots think of going to public universities in Cyprus or to Greece. If not in Cyprus or Greece, then they look to universities in the UK or the Netherlands.

We plan to offer qualified students generous scholarships to try and attract them because we believe they can get a similar or even a better education at AUB Mediterraneo while staying in their own country. It will be less expensive for them and for their parents if they are able to stay in Cyprus of course.

We will keep trying to attract more Cypriots but we expect the majority of students to be international students. Our goal is to have a mix between local and international students. The more diverse the student body, the better. We believe that diversity will add a lot to the student experience.

What degrees does the university offer?

For undergraduates, we offer a Bachelor of Science in Psychology, Computer Science, Industrial Engineering, Business Administration, and a Bachelor of Arts in PPE, which is Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. On the graduate level, we offer a Master’s in Business Analytics and a Master’s in Engineering Management.

Some of these majors are new to Cyprus or Europe. Some of them already exist, but those that are new are booming disciplines in the US and North America, and in other places. We feel that these programmes – such as the Master’s programmes in Business Analytics and Engineering Management and also the Bachelor in PPE – will add a lot of value to the current majors offered in the region.

Why did you decide to invest in Cyprus and how come you chose Paphos specifically?

The decision to create a twin campus outside of Lebanon was made 2020-2021, in response to a need for the American University of Beirut to expand its reach to other countries and more people. The establishment of AUB Mediterraneo is part of AUB’s global strategic vision, VITAL 2030, which was approved by the Board of Trustees in June 2020.

There was a lot of discussion about where we should establish a twin campus. We wanted to stay in the Mediterranean area because this is where we have been for 157 years. This is where we feel that our contribution should be. And this is where our contribution will have the greatest impact as well. So, we worked with a consultancy company and we did our own analysis to study 15 countries, including Greece, Cyprus, countries in the Gulf, Egypt, Morocco, etc. Cyprus was among the top two countries that we considered for many reasons including safety, stability, the presence of a growing market for students, and academic freedom, which we value especially highly.

Academic freedom is not something that we take for granted. It's also not something that exists at many universities. It is academic freedom that makes it possible for students to speak freely about anything, regardless of the topic – and for professors to do the same. So, we had these criteria in place. Cyprus came out on top. We then had to decide where we should go inside the country. We came into contact with Mayor Phedonos of Paphos who presented the vision of the municipality which matched our aspirations and vision. We visited Paphos and saw that it was ideal for a university. It's a small town. A beautiful town. It can very well be a university town and you know university towns are some of the most attractive towns you can visit.

Can you please explain the philosophy of the university and what it has to offer to its students? What added value do you believe AUB Mediterraneo will offer Cyprus’ education system?

The American University of Beirut is a university which is chartered in New York, US. This means that it is a US institution that received its licence from the US. It has been operating in Lebanon for 157 years. We now have permission to operate also in Cyprus. If AUB wants to propose any new programme, any new faculty, anything new, we need to get approval from the New York State Education Department. If they approve, we are able to offer the programme. If they don't approve, we cannot offer the programme. In Cyprus, we will also need the approval of The Cyprus Agency of Quality Assurance and Accreditation in Higher Education (CYQAA), which we hold high respect for.

The higher education model that AUB follows is called the Liberal Arts Model of Higher Education. It's different from what is normally offered in Europe. What it means for students is that there are courses that you must take outside your major. For example, if you were doing a degree in journalism, you might take a course in computer science; if you are majoring in engineering, you might take a course in history and/or psychology and/or anthropology.

We believe that this model – which has proven to be a good model – enables students to be better critical thinkers and more well-rounded. This means that students are both technically very good when they graduate – and have a good base or knowledge in other areas and know how to argue, and have high critical thinking skills.

The liberal arts model shapes students very well. It's new to Cyprus. There are a few universities in Europe that follow the same model, but not many. So, we truly believe that we have a lot to offer to Cyprus, Europe, and the region.

We hope and we intend that the American University of Beirut – Mediterraneo will help shape all of Cyprus – the same way that the American University of Beirut has shaped Lebanon. We plan to do this by offering excellent education and conducting impactful research.

What are the University’s targets for this year?

We didn't actually set targets for this year because it is not a “normal” year. We decided instead to do the best we could. What was important was to open the university in fall 2023 – and we did. We are very happy that we received 53 students and that they are divided among all seven degree programmes, so we were able to launch all of the programmes that we were planning for this year. We are happy with this result given the challenges we faced and the short period that we had for student recruitment.

Are you planning to open more universities in other cities?

It took the university 157 years to decide to open a twin campus abroad. However, we always keep our options open.

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