Stopping the Brain Drain

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With programmes to boost the level of employment among nationals a mainstay of government policy throughout the Gulf, the Emirates have been no exception when it comes to developing the education programmes necessary to back this up.

This coming October, Sorbonne Abu Dhabi will take in its first round of students, numbering about 200. This will be the premier branch campus of the prestigious French university outside of France, which, founded in 1253, boasts a 753-year history in academia.

On Sunday, February 19, the UAE Minister of Higher Education Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan signed an accord with French Education Minister Gilles de Robien to begin the project.

Abu Dhabi will invest about $20m-30m in the project and enrolment is expected to grow to 1500 within three years. Annual tuition fees will cost around $20,000 and students will be awarded a Paris-Sorbonne degree upon graduation. The branch will offer a secular curriculum in French, focused on liberal arts such as French language, history, geography, literature and philosophy.

Yet while having a branch of one of the world's most prestigious universities will certainly be a boon to Abu Dhabi's growing higher education sector, it may not be quite enough to produce the numbers of graduates necessary to take on the technical and business positions in the private sector currently occupied mostly by expatriates.

At the UAE University in al-Ain, founded in 1977, up to two-thirds of the student body graduate with degrees in the humanities, rather than in degrees which many analysts see as crucial for the Emiratisation of key sectors in the country's economy, such as tourism and banking. The vast majority enter the public sector, where oil revenues provide high salaries and comfortable working hours.

The Emiratisation drives aims to address the fact that many business executives in Abu Dhabi are foreign nationals, a scenario which may be unsustainable for the emirate after its oil reserves run down. If the country is to stand on its own two feet, advocates of the policy argue, it is imperative that native Emiraties, who currently make up only 2% of the private-sector workforce, are able to run Abu Dhabi's non-oil businesses.

Yet while the initiative forces companies in the UAE to employ a certain percentage of Emiratis, companies often complain that locals do not have the skills required to make them attractive to recruiters.

Education has long been valued in Abu Dhabi. From the time oil revenues began to drive development in the 1960s, the rulers of Abu Dhabi have emphasised its importance, dedicating 20% of the federal budget to the sector. The UAE Constitution even guarantees free and compulsory education to all UAE citizens.

To develop this, Sheikh Nahyan, who was recently appointed to his post at the newly combined Ministry of Education, has been actively seeking partnerships and private-sector involvement in the UAE's universities. He is also working to implement English language-medium courses.

The UAE government has also announced that it will begin modernising schools in the more remote areas of the country, such as the emirate of Fujairah. The Ministry of Education will be directing a project to replace old school buildings and facilities.

The smaller emirate will also host the UAE's first Marine Academy. The academy will offer high quality education and training in marine sciences to meet the needs of the UAE's growing off- and onshore servicing needs at its increasingly busy ports.

Meanwhile, Johns Hopkins, a world-renowned US hospital and university in Baltimore, Maryland, announced on February 20 that it would take over management of Abu Dhabi's Tawam Hospital for 10 years. While Johns Hopkins has been advising hospitals and clinics around the world for decades, this will be the first overseas hospital directly run by them.

"Johns Hopkins has been waiting for just the right partner and the right opportunity before entering into the hospital management sector," said Steven J. Thompson, senior vice president of Johns Hopkins Medicine and CEO of Johns Hopkins Medicine International.

The UAE General Authority of Health Services signed three strategic accords with Johns Hopkins Medicine last Sunday, and it is hoped eventually the collaboration will lead to the establishment of the largest cancer treatment centre in the Middle East, though education and research possibilities were not mentioned in the announcements.

Such a partnership will certainly result in more educational opportunities in medicine, as well as locating a centre of prestige that will not only attract more expatriates qualified in medicine to the emirate, but prevent Emiratis interested in medicine from leaving to study in Western institutions. That will be yet one more growth industry to keep the UAE economy going strong long after its oil wells run dry.

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