Aim high: Tertiary education is set to receive greater attention

The importance of education to today’s knowledge- and skills-based economies cannot be overstated, and as a result, tertiary schools shoulder much of the burden in effectively preparing tomorrow’s job seekers. “Companies need recent graduates who do not require additional training before they can add value on the job,” explained Raj Nambiar, director of administration at the University of Bolton’s Ras Al Khaimah campus. “It is the role of proactive universities in the region to mitigate this problem by upgrading and fine-tuning programmes to meet the needs of businesses,” he told OBG.

PLAN OF ACTION: RAK’s government is working to address the inefficiencies in its own higher education system to support the growing demands of industry and employers in the emirate. Three key issues negatively impact the RAK higher education system. The first is low English-language proficiency among some students, causing them to delay entry into university. Second, the government has noticed a trend among students to choose careers in the public sector rather than pursue the rigorous qualifications required by many private sector employers. Finally, the education system suffers from the fact that the emirate does not impose quality standards on tertiary schools, which can result in poorer teaching and management.

Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi, the ruler of RAK, has targeted the improvement of tertiary education as a top government priority. There are plans for the establishment of a council with a mandate to monitor and regulate RAK’s universities. To carry out these responsibilities, the council will be given powerful tools, such as the authority to close substandard institutions. RAK’s education sector has welcomed the establishment of the regulatory authority as a step towards improving management and efficiency, all of which should boost university enrolment in the long run.

UAE ACCREDITATION: The Commission for Academic Accreditation (CAA) carries out the accreditation process for universities in the UAE. Set up in 2000, the CAA operates under the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research (MOHESR), which oversees tertiary education. The regulatory body visits a university every year for the first five years after licensure and accreditation are granted. After this period visits decrease to once every five years. Three individuals are present at each monitoring visit: one from the CAA and two from outside the country, usually from the US.

Though all universities that wish to be accredited in the UAE are required to comply with this process, the regulation has been a necessary inconvenience. “The Commission for Academic Accreditation plays a key role in the development of higher education in RAK,” said S Gurumadhva Rao, the vice-chancellor of RAK Medical and Health Sciences University (RAK MHSU). “The body does much more than simply regulate, it provides valuable direction, which in turn facilitates improvement and growth,” he told OBG.

BETTER COMMUNICATION: There is a range of initiatives focused on tertiary education being instituted across the emirate. One approach is a university staff association set up at RAK’s Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT) men’s and women’s campuses. Launched in 2010, the association is managed by an elected committee of 11 members and provides staff with an avenue for anonymously providing suggestions or expressing grievances. The aim is to address the communication gaps that arise between the college and staff.

HCT’s staff association has tackled several important issues, such as helping the men’s and women’s campuses improve collaboration, and at the moment the committee and the university are working together to increase the usefulness of teachers’ yearly assessments. The committee is also in the process of developing a new standardised assessment system for RAK’s HCT, including basing the new approach on mechanisms that are already in use in other schools. The HCT’s staff association has included the teachers in the decision-making process, which should add valuable insight to the reorganisation, given that some of the teachers at the university have been educating for 20-30 years.

Groups such as the HCT’s staff association are uncommon in the GCC. However, Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, the minister of higher education and scientific research, has recognised the association’s value and in October 2011 asked that similar groups be set up at the other 17 HCT campuses across the UAE.

PARTNERING WITH INDUSTRY: Education and private sector collaboration is usually seen as an excellent way to enhance students’ practical experience and industry skills, and tertiary schools in RAK are starting to seize such opportunities. The American University of RAK (AURAK) recently signed an agreement with Julphar Pharmaceuticals, a large, publicly owned company based in the emirate, to provide funds for a biotech lab as well as a number of scholarships for AURAK students. Julphar will eventually sponsor four students a year with full scholarships and provide select students with internships after graduation. AURAK is also speaking with another local company about similar scholarship funding and grants for a civil engineering lab.

According to AURAK’s new vice-chancellor, Hassan Hamdan Al Alkim, engaging with industry is key. “Greater cooperation between the private sector and the education sector is of fundamental importance to the future economic development of RAK. Far greater investment in research and development is needed to drive the emirate forward.” he told OBG in early 2012.

Another institution investing heavily in partnerships with industry is the Swiss university École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne’s (EPFL) RAK campus. EPFL Middle East is working on several key research projects. Among these, three directly involve local industries. The first involves large-scale mathematical models for bulk port operations, with an emphasis on integrated planning. EPFL Middle East has teamed up with Saqr Port Authority, which manages all five of RAK’s seaports. The researchers aim to develop algorithms related to robust operations and mitigating disruptions.

The EPFL Middle East has also partnered with Minergie, a Swiss sustainability firm, which has developed a widely accepted methodology for assessing building energy performance. This rating standard can only be applied to buildings within certain climates, and the EPFL Middle East has joined forces with Minergie and local companies to create a building energy label applicable to the local climate. The EPFL Middle East is also working on a third project that focuses on minimising the damage caused by power outages. The institute is in the process of developing smart grid technology that is capable of detecting blackouts in advance to diminish the effects. Researchers will move beyond the classroom and test their work on real-life settings.

The effects of such partnerships between academia and industry players are far reaching, both for the development of the emirate’s education system and for the advancement of the overall economy. “In the long term, we believe that the current and future projects at the PhD level will successfully contribute to the innovation base RAK needs to enhance and transform its economy,” noted Franco Vigliotti, the dean of the EPFL Middle East. “Some projects are shorter term (such as the ones at the master’s level), others are longer term, but all will contribute, as they are all focusing on themes that are pertinent to RAK.”

WOMEN’S EDUCATION: The emirate’s student body contains a significant number of female students, and in some schools there are more than twice as many women as men, according to the latest figures from the RAK Department of Economic Development in 2010. This demographic reality has been a factor in RAK education reform initiatives. For example, extra funds were recently allocated to upgrading the women’s campus at RAK’s HCT, which has reached its capacity. A new campus block costing some Dh100m ($27.2m) is scheduled for completion in 2012, and it will add laboratories and 53 classrooms to the university. The original campus is 18 years old and houses a total of 75 classrooms and laboratories.

Financed by the Emirates Real Estate Corporation, the addition will provide students with more than just classrooms: a larger library, a 600-seat lecture hall (to be shared with the men’s campus) and a sports centre will all be part of the new 1500-capacity campus block. Another Dh30m-40m ($8.2m-10.9m) will need to be raised in order to provide audio-visual projectors and smartboards for each classroom.

From setting up a new higher education oversight body to increasing and upgrading learning facilities for female students, a range of processes are in place to raise the quality of tertiary education in RAK. Though these measures will have far-reaching educational, economic and social benefits for the emirate, the rewards will not be immediate.

“We believe that the challenge for RAK – and for the region as a whole – will reside in being patient and consistent as we work towards enhancing and supporting the research effort at both the graduate and postgraduate levels,” said Vigliotti. “This is certainly needed in order to create the type of environment that is conducive to the innovation and technological advances that will serve to shape industry 20 years from now.”

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