Higher Education in the United Arab Emirates

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Professor Waqar Ahmad • Chancellor, Abu Dhabi University
Dr Heather Friesen • Executive Director of Planning & Strategy, Abu Dhabi University

The fast pace of development and growing quality of higher education in the UAE is setting a global benchmark of what can be achieved – in less than half a century.

The ambitious and dynamic United Arab Emirates (UAE) is driven by a bold vision: to be one of the best countries in the world by the time the young nation, now 47 years old, celebrates its Golden Jubilee in 2021. A key pillar in realising this vision is the development of a first-rate education system driven by a complete transformation of the current education system and teaching methods.

Comprising seven emirates of different size, wealth and character, the UAE gained independence from Britain in 1971. Left with little infrastructure and no significant higher education institutions, the UAE has developed at an unprecedented pace through the vision of its founding father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan. It now enjoys significant global influence as a leading producer of oil and is increasingly diversifying as an international commercial, tourist, cultural and educational hub. This expansion has drawn millions of expatriate residents from some 200 nationalities who, along with approximately two million Emiratis, call the UAE ‘home’.

“A country’s greatest investment lies in building generations of educated and knowledgeable youth,” His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan, Founder of the UAE.

Just as the country is young and diverse, so too are its educational institutions. Mid to large sized federal institutions have been established to serve the seven emirates, with the majority of institutions located in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Abu Dhabi, the largest emirate, has invested significant capital in major international higher education brands, such as New York University, INSEAD and the Sorbonne. Khalifa University, Zayed University, and Abu Dhabi University are the other major universities in its capital city, with the United Arab Emirates University, the oldest in the country, based in the garden city of Al Ain. Dubai has a more ‘laissez faire’ approach to higher education, with foreign institutions welcome to establish campuses in the city’s Free Zones, and especially encouraged to locate themselves within the International Academic City. Foreign institutions based in Dubai include the University of Wollongong, Heriot-Watt, Middlesex, Birmingham, Amity and Manipal universities, with Abu Dhabi University having recently opened a campus in the Knowledge Park. Further international entrants are likely to join this list. The emirate of Sharjah has invested in high quality higher education with both the American University of Sharjah and the University of Sharjah enjoying strong reputations. Emirates Ajman, Umm al Quwain, Ras al Khaimah and Fujairah have smaller populations and less well established higher education institutions, although Ajman is well served in terms of medical and allied health education.

A key component of the UAE’s strategy for development of a top-tier educational system is the establishment of a robust system for quality assurance. The UAE prides itself on rigorous internationally-derived academic quality standards: accrediting bodies, the Ministry of Education, and emirate-level bodies are diligent in maintaining standards through institutional licensure, program accreditation, reviews and inspections. The Commission for Academic Accreditation (CAA) is responsible for conducting the licensure of institutions of higher education and accreditation of each of their academic programs in the UAE. Through licensure of colleges and universities and accreditation of individual programs, the Commission strives to assure high-quality education, consistent with international standards.

The Commission is a member of the International Network for Accreditation and serves these institutes, and students, citizens and residents of regional countries. These significant efforts are paying off: in a 2017 British Council analysis of international higher education policies across 38 countries, the UAE was named as the second best country, behind Australia, in the Quality Assurance and Degree Recognition category for creating a regulatory environment that facilitates the international mobility of students, education providers and academic programs. In the same report, the UAE was ranked among the top five countries under the Openness of Higher Education Systems category, which analyses infrastructures which facilitate mobility of students and researchers.

Development and enhancement of educational systems cannot be achieved without dynamic and responsive curricula that address national, regional and international priorities and which are developed in alignment with industry. Nor can we achieve this without collaboration between higher education institutions in and beyond the UAE. Recognising the importance of this, at Abu Dhabi University, we are reexamining our program portfolio and developing clusters in new areas of provision while strengthening collaboration with outstanding international institutions in the US, Europe and elsewhere.

To create and sustain a knowledge economy, we need extensive cooperation between industry, public bodies and higher education institutions (HEIs) – one of the hallmarks of great universities. In 2018, we visited universities in the UK, Ireland and the US, including Trinity College Dublin, Arizona State University, University of Louisville and Carnegie Mellon University and found that significant proportions of some of those universities’ research and competitive research income comes from industry. A number of the science and technology labs are either fully or partially funded by industrial partners, and much research is applied and conducted in close collaboration with industry. We found a leading home appliance maker had established its innovation centre on a University campus, enabling it to benefit from the ingenuity of students and the public and achieving synergies. We concluded that in the UAE, both HEIs and industry should do more to collaborate to their mutual benefit. Recognising the importance of doing this, here at Abu Dhabi University, we are looking at ways of strengthening links with industry and public services.

To support the shifting focus towards a knowledge economy, the UAE might grow further a number of world class universities. Currently eight institutions are in the QS World University Rankings® Top 1,000, with improvements in performance witnessed each year. Performance in research is currently a key stumbling block in terms of the international competitiveness of UAE HEIs. We need to become creative in finding ways of enhancing research so that it is internationally competitive. Both state and private institutions need to contribute to this endeavor and probably to fund research at increasingly generous levels.

Another hallmark of a top-tier education system is the existence of a framework to support student satisfaction, engagement and retention. During their first months at university, students are a population that needs extra support, and universities in the UAE are implementing strategies to assist young people at this crucial time of their lives. Recognising this as a moral imperative, we at Abu Dhabi University have invested heavily creating of a comprehensive Students First program. Designed in partnership with our student leaders, it includes initiatives such as peer mentoring, internships, creation of new student spaces, and redeployment of resources to better support student engagement, governance, and employability.

In summary, the UAE has established an excellent and diversified system of higher education in a very short period. United Arab Emirates University, founded in 1976, has led higher education endeavours, since when the UAE has witnessed an increase in establishing public and private higher educational institutions and a continuous improvement in qualitative performance of those already operational. The UAE now has the opportunity to build on the successes achieved and develop a number of institutions which are among the best in the world for range and quality, not only in education but also in research and knowledge exchange. Such institutions will act as key engines for national prosperity and international competitiveness.

Professor Waqar Ahmad FAcSS PhD BA is chancellor of Abu Dhabi University. He was previously deputy vice chancellor academic at Middlesex University, with responsibility for faculty, academic development, teaching and learning, research, knowledge transfer, academic quality and the university’s campus in Dubai. He has been a professor at the University of Leeds, and has held academic posts at the UK universities of York and Bradford, and the Open University, and visiting at University College London and Oxford University. He was the chief social scientist at the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, UK, and vice chair of the North Bradford Primary Care Trust, reflecting his keen interest in policy. As a senior social scientist, he is an elected Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences. Until recently, Professor Ahmad was a Trustee of the Woolf Institute Cambridge and was involved in the relaunch of the Muslim Institute London.

Dr. Heather Friesen joined Abu Dhabi University in 2013 and is executive director of the Organizational Planning and Strategy office. She received her Doctorate of Education in higher education leadership from Simon Fraser University (Canada) in 2009. She has worked in higher education for 25 years in Canada and the Middle East, holding positions in institutional research, enrolment management, quality assurance, accreditation and planning. Her research and career interests include the study of student success factors, and her doctoral work examined factors that impact higher education participation and persistence using GIS (geographic information systems) and national census data.

Bibliography: British Council. (2017). The Shape of Global Higher Education: International Mobility of Students, Research and Education Provision: Volume 2. Retrieved from www.britishcouncil.org/education/ihe UAE Prime Minister’s Office. (2017). UAE Vision 2021. Retrieved from https://www. vision2021.ae/en/uae-vision