Interview: Hussain Ibrahim Al Hammadi

What is being done to increase the number of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) graduates in higher education?

HUSSAIN IBRAHIM AL HAMMADI: There are currently 38 institutions of higher education that provide 500 STEM programmes at all levels – bachelor’s, diploma, master’s and doctorate. These cover 12 different areas of specialisation, including biological and biomedical sciences, health professions, engineering, computer science and ICT, physical sciences, and mathematics. In 2019 nearly 500 Emirati students were accepted into the Ministry of Education (MoE) External Scholarship Programme. The vast majority of these students have been accepted into STEM-related programmes in prestigious institutions around the world. Specific indicators were developed and included in the MoE Strategic Plan 2017-21 in order to monitor and increase the number of Emirati STEM graduates. These include the number and share of national graduates in STEM subjects at all levels. Targets for these indicators are ambitious but attainable. In 2019 we exceeded the target for master’s graduates by 116% and the others are not far behind.

How is the UAE seeking to foster an entrepreneurial environment and boost the number of start-ups?

AL HAMMADI: Beginning in 2015 the prime minister’s office and the MoE formed a partnership with the Stanford Center for Professional Development to create a comprehensive education programme to teach innovation and entrepreneurship in our universities. The initiative established a strong foundation for talent development and has reached thousands of UAE students through a network of more than 100 trained faculty members from the three federal institutions and a wide variety of private universities. The MoE will also start working on an initiative to enable universities to provide support for start-up activities. This will be done by developing clear regulations and policies that remove barriers related to entrepreneurship. Some examples include creating shared spaces for higher education institutions and the private sector, establishing technology transfer offices, and laws facilitating start-up ownership and patent applications in universities.

In what ways is the UAE seeking to incentivise research and development (R&D) activities?

AL HAMMADI: The MoE introduced a UAE Higher Education Excellence Framework which classifies all 67 institutions of higher education accredited by the Commission for Academic Accreditation on a set of key performance indicators divided among four pillars. Academic research and innovation constitutes one of these pillars and includes nine indicators related to patents, publications in top-cited journals and external research income for academic staff. Such indicators incentivise universities to focus on research and R&D activities. Similarly, the MoE developed a performance-based funding mechanism to incentivise federal institutions to achieve quality and research objectives. We have also developed a scientific research strategy and have launched the Collaborative Research Programme Grant in 2019. The former identifies the scale of investment required to deliver the aims of the research fund. The level is benchmarked against other leading countries and the capacity of the research system in the UAE.

In addition to funding, the strategy identifies initiatives to be undertaken in partnership with other government bodies and the private sector to catalyse the innovation ecosystem. The goal is for outputs from research to be exploited to the benefit of the UAE economy and society. The new grant provides a broad range of specialised funds, the aim of which is to build research teams of scale, focusing on developing integrated programmes capable of applying scientific excellence for the advancement of knowledge to the benefit of the UAE. This scheme seeks to encourage researchers to pursue original and ambitious research questions through the provision of multi-year funding.