malta universities
Labour party supporters wave flags during its last rally at the MFCC in Ta'Qali, Malta, on March 24, 2022, a short while before current prime minister Robert Abela takes to the stage. Source: Matthew Mirabelli/AFP

With tuition fees increasing from Arizona to Peterborough, why not study at Malta universities? The Mediterranean island nation that Pope Francis is visiting this weekend is more than just a tourist destination with a more than 85% population of baptised Catholics — it’s a true “hidden gem” for international students.

The standards of education here are slowly living up to the standards of their Western European neighbours. In the latest Times Higher Education Emerging Economies Ranking — in countries or regions classified by the London Stock Exchange’s FTSE Group as “advanced emerging,” “secondary emerging” or “frontier” — the University of Malta (UoM) was ranked 177th out of 606 universities around the world.  oM lecturer Dr. Alexander Micallef was ranked in the top 2% of scientists from across the world in a new study conducted by Stanford University as well.

Great academic quality aside, Malta is affordable too. While it’s not the cheapest country in Europe, prices here are markedly lower than in the US and Canada. Think US$1,600 monthly rent for a modern, one-bedroom apartment in the capital Valetta. Utilities, groceries, healthcare and transportation cost around US$700 per month. Add the finest of the region’s beaches, the punchy cuisines of North Africa, and English spoken by roughly nine out of 10 people, and it’s easy to see why a whopping 15% of residents here are expats.

Before you pack your bags to study in Malta, however, it always pays to know more about the country you want to invest a significant amount of time, money and effort in. Below are five things you should know about Malta:

1. Migrant pit stop

The archipelago of three islands — Gozo, Comino and Malta — is home to around 516,000 inhabitants living on 316 square kilometres (122 square miles), making it the EU’s smallest and most densely populated country. South of Sicily and northeast of Tunisia, Malta is a point of entry into Europe for migrants crossing the Mediterranean.

NGOs accuse Malta of ignoring distress calls from boats, and the Council of Europe’s anti-torture committee found during a 2020 visit that treatment of migrants held there was “bordering on inhuman” due to “institutional neglect”.

Migrants, part of group of 65 rescued by the German-flagged NGO rescue ship Alan Kurdi, sit in a patrol boat as they are brought into Haywharf, in Valletta, by the Armed Forces of Malta after being transferred onto the Maltese patrol boat on July 7, 2019. Source: Matthew Mirabelli/AFP

Malta argues that it has made significant investment since the report, saying it also has to cope with “the largest share of irregular migrants per capita in the EU.”

2. Abortion is banned

Catholicism is the state religion, and Malta is the only EU country that completely bans abortion, punishable by up to three years in jail. The Times of Malta reported in 2021 that only three women in the last two decades have been convicted, with none jailed.

Divorce was legalised after a 2011 referendum vote. In 2017, Malta legalised same-sex marriage and adoption by all couples. Malta in December became the first country in Europe to legalise cannabis and its cultivation for personal use.

3. A former British colony

A British colony since 1814, Malta became independent in 1964 and a republic in 1974 while remaining part of the Commonwealth. With Maltese and English as its official languages, it joined the European Union in 2004 and the eurozone in 2008.

For decades there have been only two parties in its single-chamber parliament, the Labour Party and the Nationalist Party. Prime Minister Robert Abela’s Labour government secured a third term in office in general elections on March 26. Abela had taken over in an internal party vote in January 2020 after predecessor Joseph Muscat quit.

Muscat was accused of hampering the investigation into the 2017 murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who had accused his entourage of corruption. A 2021 public inquiry found the Maltese state “should bear the responsibility” for her death by creating a “climate of impunity”.

4. The national economy is as dynamic as Malta universities

Malta’s economy outpaced that of eurozone neighbours before the pandemic, driven by tourism, financial services and online gaming. The coronavirus triggered a massive recession, but the islands bounced back with growth of over 9% last year. In January, Malta’s unemployment rate was 3.1%, the eurozone’s lowest.

malta universities

Malta’s prime minister Robert Abela, his wife Lydia Abela and daughter Giorgia Mae wave to Labour party supporters during the party’s last rally at the MFCC in Ta’Qali, Malta, on March 24, 2022, two days before the country’s general elections. Source: Matthew Mirabelli/AFP

Malta has controversially raised 1.1 billion euros (US$1.2 billion) since 2013 by offering European passports in exchange for investments, so-called golden passports. The scheme has been suspended for Russians and Belarusians since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

In 2017, more than a dozen European media organisations in an investigation dubbed the “Malta Files” accused the country of being a “pirate base for tax avoidance inside the EU”, allegations Malta denied. Malta was placed last year on a “grey list” of countries being monitored to counter money laundering and terrorist financing by the G7’s Financial Action Task Force.

5. Order of Malta

The Knights of Malta emerged out of the Knights Hospitaller that founded a hospital in Jerusalem in 1048, gaining in strength under the First Crusade. In 1530, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V granted Malta to the order which had continued to protect Christian pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land.

After driving off the Ottomans from Malta in 1565, the order became a key Mediterranean naval power, attacking Barbary pirates, plundering their ships and capturing slaves. Napoleon drove the order from the island after his occupation of Malta in 1798.

Today the order — still a sovereign entity with diplomatic relations with other states — is based in Rome and carries out humanitarian work around the world through its volunteers.

Additional reporting by AFP