SHARJAH // A pilot project to promote vocational education has been hailed a success two years after its launch, helping more students to find local jobs and garnering support from industry.
Skills For Employability, led by the British Council, has brought on board dozens of big companies, private and public, to ensure students are being taught the skills employers want.
The project has also put UAE institutions such as the National Institute for Vocational Education (Nive) and the Sharjah Institute of Technology (Sit) in touch with colleges in the UK.
One of the British institutions was Coleg Gwent in Wales, which sent staff to assess the teaching at Sit, and helped it to draw up curriculums that better match market needs.
That helped Sit obtain its accreditation last year from the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research.
Reham Mustafa, external relations manager at Sit, said a major success of the project had been hooking students up with local companies.
"Many of the students would rather sit at home without a job and wait for a job in Abu Dhabi," Ms Mustafa said.
"The pay is much better and before this, we just didn't have links with the other companies."
Now the college places students in municipality jobs in Dubai and Sharjah, with the local utility companies, the Roads and Traffic Authority in Dubai and private companies such as Al Futtaim Group.
Engaging students when they are young is vital in breeding local loyalty, said Ms Mustafa.
"Retention has been a big issue until now, with people just wanting to go to Abu Dhabi," she said.
"This way we at least get the students into the local companies who want to fill the quotas for locals but need technical staff, not just people with degrees. Then the retention is up to them to manage."
Abdulla Al Owais, the chairman of Sit, said the project would not have been possible without the support of the British Council.
"It has given us credibility," Mr Al Owais said.
Now, more than 70 companies are working with the college, compared with one before the project started.
Over the same time, student employment at Sit has increased from about 50 per cent to 90 per cent, and most of those not employed go on to further their education, taking their higher diplomas to get degrees.
The workplace programme began in Sharjah and the Northern Emirates, bringing in pupils to experience courses ranging from electrical engineering to fashion design.
It has been such a success that it will expand to Dubai in September.
So far, 1,400 12-year-olds have gone to the college. This will expand to public schools in Dubai, working with the Dubai Education Zone, with a target of 500 more pupils.
Walid Al Younis, a business teacher at the college, said classroom practice had changed dramatically.
"Previously, the business department and others at Sit were using the traditional way of teaching, where the teacher was the central learning method, taking control of almost everything inside the classroom," Mr Al Younis said.
"Today we have transferred from this way to the practical way of learning - learning by doing - where the students practise their learning and information through things like projects, using their skills."
Anita Marks, international manager at Coleg Gwent, said the British Council had been vital in bridging cultural gaps between the British and UAE universities.
"They helped provide the UK colleges and Sit with a dialogue to communicate … training our staff to understand international dialogue, bridging the two cultures and giving greater understanding of the education, political systems, and so on," Ms Marks said.
Ammar Shams, the regional head of corporate sustainability at HSBC, is the programme's advisory chair for the Higher Colleges of Technology's business higher diplomas and degrees.
Mr Shams also on Strathclyde Business School's advisory board for their master's of business administration.
He said it was vital that business and education providers talked to each other.
"We need to be able to contribute to the curriculum," Mr Shams said.
"We know what we want and we don't want colleges to produce kids with magnificent skills that are totally redundant for the workplace."