The announcement of a spending freeze for UAE universities is not entirely surprising in a global context. Budget cuts at institutions of higher learning have recently been announced in many European countries in a bid to control national debt.
In some cases, these cuts have been met by fierce protests. Students have marched on parliamentary buildings in Ireland and Italy; in London, Prince Charles was recently subjected to a vitriolic barrage when his motorcade inadvertently passed through a student protest against British university budget cuts.
The response in the UAE has, of course, been much more muted. We live in a peaceful society where many students have ample resources to support their own education.
However, a muted response to the freeze at state universities announced last week should not distract attention from the very real consequences that constraints on education spending have on an economy and society. On the happy occasion of the 39th anniversary of the UAE's national day, the nation recognises the considerable development, both economic and social, that has occurred in recent decades. In addition to focusing on past accomplishments, goals for growth were also highlighted.
The global economic crisis of 2008 highlighted a very real need for the UAE to diversify its economy. It brought to light a greater need to focus on the development of human capital and the growth of a knowledge economy. Both of these factors are intrinsically dependent upon knowledge sharing and knowledge creation.
The role of universities in any society is to serve as the highest seat of learning, consequently contributing significantly to social and economic development. In addition to the sharing of information through teaching, the university also plays a vital role in new knowledge creation. This is done through scientific research,which requires resources: human, financial and infrastructure.
Most leading knowledge economies invest between 2 and 3 per cent of GDP on scientific research, with much of this money going directly to universities. Accurate figures for research spending in the UAE are difficult to acquire. A recent Gulf Research Centre report suggests it could be as low as 0.5 per cent. At present, the Emirates Foundation is the only competitive grant awarding body in the UAE, and its funds are self-generated through generous sponsors. The Government's National Research Foundation is still awaiting budgetary approval to support research grants that were awarded in 2008.
The current budget freeze and consequent scarcity of funding for universities runs contrary to the national goal to develop a knowledge economy. Without the necessary resources, UAE universities will be unable to attract and retain high quality educators and researchers. Without this essential human resource, new knowledge generation within the UAE will stagnate.
More critically, students will be unable to acquire the highest quality skills and knowledge necessary for them to contribute to the development of a knowledge economy. Without these skills we will continue to face significant challenges in youth unemployment and private sector Emiratisation.
It is important to note that the burden of investment on research in universities should not fall exclusively on the government. In most knowledge economies, between 30 and 60 per cent of investment in R&D comes from the private sector. Certainly, private sector firms need to do more to support R&D in the UAE. However, private sector investment only comes when there is capacity within the economy to develop new knowledge. That capacity, in turn, relies on having a highly skilled and educated workforce - which depends on significant investments in education.
One of the great challenges in allocating significant resources for research and development is the timetable. Significant investment will not lead to observable benefits for decades to come. This is a reality of history. South Korea is an excellent case in point. In the late 1960s, South Korea's percentage of GDP invested in R&D was comparable to current UAE investment (approximately 0.5 per cent). At that time a strategic decision was made to invest heavily in public research institutions including universities. The results were not seen on the global stage for at least two decades, but today they are obvious. Even within the context of the current global crisis, South Korea continues to be a leading knowledge economy and technology innovator.
The cost of this type of investment in the short term is considerable. It is cheaper and quicker to "buy-in" knowledge and expertise than to develop it domestically. However, the long-term benefits, as in the South Korean example, are obvious. Given the time difference between the planting of the seed of knowledge and the reaping of its reward, an investment of this kind requires visionary leadership in the truest sense.
Dr James C Ryan is an assistant professor of human resource management in the college of business at University of Sharjah