Abu Dhabi: Higher education revamp

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Higher education in Abu Dhabi, which is seen as integral to the success of the emirate’s future economy, was given a boost recently when the Abu Dhabi Education Council (ADEC) unveiled plans to overhaul the sector.

In essence the education council hopes to enhance the current environment for local universities and reduce the number of students dropping out. By the same token, it wants to improve the current number of school-leavers, quality and structure of courses, hiring and retention levels of teachers, and funding for research. Under the new strategy these issues will be top priorities.

Other ideas include developing US-style community colleges, restructuring and improving special education, and producing a programme to enhance the quality of university staff.

ADEC also plans to set up a framework for inspecting universities, which should be in action by next year. Moreover, regulations for higher educational institutions are set to get tougher. These are expected to include fresh criteria for the licensing of new universities.

Another aspect is improving community access to knowledge. With this in mind, there will be a number of public libraries established by 2014. The figures and details behind the library initiative have yet to be decided, but committees tasked with developing an implementation plan will be set up over the summer.

Perhaps the most important reform, however, comes in the shape of large-scale investment in research and development. Under the new plan, $1.3bn will be invested into research and development by 2018. This means government expenditure on research will exceed 0.75% of the GDP in eight years. Both federal and private universities will be invited to submit proposals to win grants for research funding.

Four key sectors, which are integral to the emirate’s economic strategy, have been prioritised: health, aerospace, semiconductors and renewable energy.

Given Abu Dhabi’s foray into knowledge-based diversification in recent years – which includes its Masdar Initiative, a multibillion-dollar investment in alternative energy established in 2006 – the education strategy unveiled fits with its economic ambitions. The capital has set itself the goal of becoming a paragon for renewable energy and clean technologies, among other high-value industries.

Of course, in order to do so it must have the graduates to meet these requirements. The same, naturally, goes for the government’s investments in other technology-related areas.

For instance, Advanced Technology Investment Company (ATIC), which was set up in 2008 and is wholly owned by the government, is focused on making significant investments in the advanced technology sector. Partnering with US-based Advanced Micro Devices, the world’s second-largest chipmaker, ATIC established Globalfoundries, which is a full-service semiconductor foundry. With an international presence already emerging, the organisation is set to be a key part of long-term plans for the creation of an advanced technology cluster in Abu Dhabi.

At the moment, however, there is a great need to increase the number of Emirati graduates in high-tech fields to fill future positions. Home-grown institutions such as UAE University, Khalifa University of Science, Technology and
Research, the Institute of Applied Technology (IAT) and the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology are already stepping up to the task.

ATIC’s semiconductor project alone is likely to require a much higher number of local graduates. It is for this reason that many universities are focusing their courses on engineering and technology.

“We are developing a Master’s programme in microelectronics and there will now be a large focus on low-power electronic systems. We believe that what ATIC is doing is very important and we, as a graduate-level-focused university, will be able to contribute to the growth of that sector,” Marwan Khraisheh, the dean of engineering at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, told local press.

While the new higher education plan lays out specific policy reforms, the general direction of Abu Dhabi’s economic drive toward knowledge-based industries is clear. Increased investment, international best practices and a strong focus on research and development within higher education will go a long way in ensuring long-term economic objectives are achieved.

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