The higher education sector in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is rapidly growing and the Northern Emirates are taking the centre stage of this development.
The federal government has played a crucial role in developing higher education in the Northern Emirates. Between 1993 and 2004, the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT) network, which is directly overseen by the ministry of higher education and scientific research, set up six campuses in Ras al-Khaimah (RAK), Fujairah and Sharjah. These colleges had over 5050 students in 2005-2006 - 60% of them female. In total, HCT has approximately 15,500 students at 14 campuses throughout the UAE. The colleges admit only UAE nationals, free of charge, and offer curricula in business, communications technology, education, health sciences, information technology (IT) and engineering, and prioritise vocational training.
But the Northern Emirates have also taken their own initiative and have, in some cases, spearheaded the development of the entire UAE higher education sector.
Sheikh Humaid bin Rashid Al Nuaimi, ruler of Ajman and member of the supreme council, issued an Emiri decree in 1988, founding Ajman University of Sciences and Technologies (AUST). AUST quickly grew into a multi-campus university with campuses in Ajman and Fujairah and a sister university in Spain, offering 33 degrees in diversified disciplines, such as engineering, IT, mass communications, business, dentistry, law and architecture. There are 11,000 students from 45 nationalities (only one third are Emiratis) currently enrolled, most of them in Ajman.
The University of Sharjah, established in 1997, quickly grew from less than 670 students in the first year to over 3000 today with two-thirds of the students being female. Curricula include Sharia and Islamic studies, arts and sciences, business administration, engineering, law and communications.
There have also been several private initiatives. Ajman's Gulf Medical College, for instance, founded in 1998, offers bachelor's degree programmes in the health sector.
Licensed and accredited in the US, the American University of Sharjah opened its doors in 1997 and delivers an American curriculum adapted to the UAE. It offers 22 bachelor's degrees and eight master's degrees programmes within its colleges of arts and sciences, engineering, architecture and design, and business and management.
RAK, instead of creating every institution from the ground up, has also encouraged foreign universities to set up affiliates there. The RAK campus of Virginia's George Mason University (GMU) opened its doors in 2006. GMU, which currently offers curricula in biology and biotech, business administration, engineering and IT, hopes to have between 2000 and 2500 students within eight years. Massachusetts-based Tufts University's Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy is hoping to establish a campus in RAK by early 2008.
Improving the quality of education is a strategic challenge, the UAE authorities reckon. In April 2007, Sheikh Mohammed, prime minister of the UAE, said that "while hundreds of billions were spent on education, healthcare, social welfare, sports [...] in the past, there were problems with implementation, leading to below-expectation results". Last May, the UAE legislature criticised the education ministry, saying it lacked a clear strategy. A member said that every new education minister was "keen to pull down what was built by the previous one".
Authorities have reacted swiftly. Ian Hall, director of HCT, RAK, told OBG, "The authorities are addressing [the] problems very seriously, through a comprehensive reform of education, particularly the K-1 to K-12 programmes." This will come as a relief to universities, which complain that high schools do not prepare students adequately for higher education, forcing universities to implement year-long "transition courses" for first-year students.
Universities are also keen to raise their profile internationally. "We should create a sense of credibility and confidence in local academic institutions and be competitive with American and European institutions," Thamer Saeed Salman, vice-president of AUST, told OBG. "For that, we must become able to create, accumulate and retain expertise locally, develop our academic research and R&D [research and development] capacities, which are still very lacking in the region," he said.
After years of focusing on immediate employability and vocational training, many institutions are now increasingly focusing on quality. Some have raised their admission requirements and are trying to attract the best students from the UAE and beyond. "We require higher TOEFL [Test of English as a Foreign Language] scores than public universities," Sharon Siverts, vice-president of GMU RAK, told OBG. "In terms of quality of the courses and requirements, we make no difference between the students of the RAK campus and those on our US campus," she said. In fact, RAK-based students are delivered the exact same degrees as those in the US.
The higher education sector has tremendous potential. Booming economies in the Gulf Co-operation Council region have created a significant shortage of skilled workers in many fields while traditional regional education hubs such as Iraq, Iran and Egypt, have declined. Growing visa restrictions prevent many young Arabs from studying in the US or Europe. The UAE, especially the Northern Emirates, seem well poised to become a magnet for the region's most talented students and professors.