A drive to strengthen the link between higher education and the private sector in Abu Dhabi has set the scene for research and development (R&D) to play a greater role in the emirate’s economic development.
Abu Dhabi has seen a surge in higher education enrolments in recent years with the number of students undertaking post-graduate courses rising 58.6% between 2008 and 2013 to reach 51,333 students, according to official data. Enrolments on PhD courses, which were non-existent before 2010, reached 252 in 2013, representing almost half the UAE total of 532.
At the same time, initiatives such as the Advanced National Research and Education Network (Ankabut) are improving technology links between universities in a bid to boost research and innovation. The network, which was launched by Khalifa University (KU), in partnership with the emirate’s three federal universities, allows for rapid data transfer between educational institutions, with the network expected to be extended to 100 universities and 420 K-12 schools within the next two years.
The decision to invest heavily in a specific number of knowledge-based, technology-driven industries is in line with the emirate’s long-term objective of supporting economic development in key sectors of the economy earmarked for expansion, such as the aerospace and defence-focused manufacturing sector.
A move by KU to enter into a partnership with the state-owned investment firm Mubadala Development Company will see the creation of a Dh55m ($15m) aerospace research centre specialising in areas such as robotics and automation dealing with composite materials. Mubadala’s dedicated aerospace unit was formed in 2006 with a long-term mandate to develop a fully integrated aviation industry in Abu Dhabi, including research and development, manufacturing, assembly, and maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) activities.
The emphasis will be on improving production speed and quality in the sector, according to Tod Laursen, president of KU – which is in the midst of a major expansion – while UAE students will be given the opportunity to complete their PhD and Masters studies in design and related fields.
“It’s a win-win,” Laursen told OBG. “KU gets a research project for their Masters and PHD students, Mubadala gets trained engineers who are familiar with the process and they also get a solution that will help them grow their business”.
New developments are providing reassurance to leaders about the long-term gains of investments in technical research. “There has been a positive shift from the government in regards to R&D,” he said. “The country has grown aware of the positive impact of such initiatives. We are hoping to see increasing levels of investment in these activities so that we can begin to compete with developed countries.”
The emirate’s broader economic goals, mapped out in Economic Vision 2030 – a comprehensive outline for the diversification of Abu Dhabi’s economy with seven priority development areas – include the goal of developing a highly skilled and productive workforce.
Investment in higher education, particularly advanced post-graduate programmes, will ensure the emirate can respond quickly to technological change in industries.
However, with the Federal National Council reporting in January 2014 that research funding comprises just 0.15% of the Ministry of Higher Education & Scientific Research’s (MHESR) education spending, partnerships with the private sector have become critical channels for new innovation and growth.
The Petroleum Institute University and Research Center (PI), which has partnerships with 16 private players, is in the process of setting up a research centre to develop new technologies for the hydrocarbons industry. To be launched in 2015, the centre’s R&D work will focus on extending the production life of existing fields by boosting recovery rates, supporting the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) in identifying and accessing new reserves.
The PI has adopted a two-pronged approach of seeking out partnerships with international oil companies for technical support and encouraging local graduate students to be a part of the R&D process. The R&D facility will place a strong emphasis on technology and processes related to enhanced oil recovery, sour gas and polymers.
Overall, the industry in Abu Dhabi is expected to invest as much as $60bn in field development by 2017, some of this being allocated to the latest enhanced oil recovery (EOR) techniques.