Higher-level education reform remains a key priority in government policy and an important issue for economic diversification and private sector development in Abu Dhabi.
In many places around the world important initiatives hatched before the global recession have been shelved. Abu Dhabi, however, seems to be pressing on as planned to meet growing demand.
In its Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030, released in January this year, the Department of Planning and Economy (DPE) outlined the government's intention to develop a highly skilled and productive workforce.
"One of the most important resources in any economy is the people that drive it. Through education, training and skills development, Abu Dhabi will develop and continue to attract a highly skilled and productive workforce to increase its economic might," the DPE stated.
In January, First Gulf Bank (FGB) signed a $323m syndicated loan with Mubadala Development Company, a government-owned investor, to finance the new 93,000-sq-metre campus for Paris Sorbonne University on Abu Dhabi's Al Reem Island.
The project is part of the government's strategy of bringing top-class international institutions to the capital to set up teaching and research facilities.
Mahmood Ebraheem Al Mahmood, the CEO of Al Qudra Holding, a leading investment company in the UAE, told OBG, "If we look at it as a business, the education sector here is underserved in terms of both quality and quantity." Indeed, many companies in the UAE recruit expatriates – or perhaps UAE nationals who studied abroad – because there is a lack of local qualified staff.
To meet the demand for high-quality graduates, the Abu Dhabi Education Council (ADEC) selected institutions such as Paris Sorbonne University, Institut Européen d'Administration des Affaires (INSEAD), a French international business school, and New York University (NYU) among others, to establish operations in the capital.
While getting the financial green light for the Sorbonne campus is an important milestone for the project, it also illustrates the importance being placed on education in the emirate at a governmental level.
The education system in Abu Dhabi is expected to become a meaningful economic enabler, one which will help support the diversification agenda in addition to fulfilling its role as a sector that will contribute to GDP.
"The objectives will be to promote rigorous research that is relevant to the nation and the region," Mugheer Al Khaili, the director-general of ADEC, told OBG. "To facilitate multidisciplinary research excellence, to build sustainable research partnerships with government, industry and other universities" are the other main goals, he added.
Supporters of these projects believe they have the ability to transform Abu Dhabi into a centre of excellence for education but although sector experts agree with the strategy they also realise that execution will be of paramount importance to the end result. "Partnerships with international educational institutions are a good idea but it must be done properly to ensure a transfer of knowledge," Abdullah Al-Khanbashi, the vice-chancellor of UAE University, told OBG.
After all, developing talent for jobs within the local economy is the whole objective of education reform, according to Al Khaili. "These higher education and vocational education systems should produce the calibre of graduates that will allow Abu Dhabi to become a recruiting ground for the emirate's growing private sector," he said.
The idea is that the new institutions, while complementing existing universities and working alongside vocational programmes, will give the private sector qualified staff. It is hoped this combination will equip graduates with skills that can serve sectors such as tourism, education, and information and communications technology (ICT), while at the same time developing and enhancing skills in engineering, office management, business administration, law and governance, accounting and public relations.
Having qualified graduates will help Abu Dhabi achieve its long-term goal of becoming a more diversified economy by reducing its dependency on energy receipts and increasing the size of non-oil sector contribution to GDP.