x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

UAE and US can help each other learn, says Spellings

Margaret Spellings, the US secretary of education, speaks at the Men's college in Abu Dhabi.
Margaret Spellings, the US secretary of education, speaks at the Men's college in Abu Dhabi.

ABU DHABI // Margaret Spellings, the US secretary of education, said universities in the UAE should look to America for strategies to improve their academic standards. Visiting Abu Dhabi for the second time this year, Mrs Spellings said her own country could also learn much from the UAE's "entrepreneurial" approach, which has seen large numbers of institutions open here in recent years. Universities in the UAE, she said, were encouraged to "take risks and challenge assumptions".

Mrs Spellings was addressing dignitaries and students from New York Institute of Technology's Abu Dhabi campus and the Higher Colleges of Technology during a lecture at Abu Dhabi Men's College. "Lessons can be learnt both ways," she said. "Places like Abu Dhabi are freer from the strictures and bureaucracy that traditionally can be an impediment. "As we think about innovation and the progress that's been made in a short period of time, it's unlikely that would happen so fast in the US.

"The other side of this is that we have the awareness of high-quality programmes and high-quality faculty that have made the US education system the envy of the world. "We can show you something about diversity, quality of programmes and from you we can learn the spirit of entrepreneurship, creativity and paradigm shifts in higher education." Many UAE universities are already following the path Mrs Spellings advocates by modelling their structure on US universities and applying to American institutions for accreditation.

Thanks to the opening here of universities such as the NYIT, New York University and the Paris-Sorbonne, Mrs Spellings said students in the UAE had opportunities that were "truly unique in this world" in a society that "increasingly rewards effort and merit, and shuns discrimination and corruption". Abu Dhabi, she said, was attracting "historic levels of talent, knowledge and culture". "Centuries ago, this region was the birthplace of the first hospitals, the first calendars, the first form of writing and the first code of law. The wheel was invented here - so we don't have to do it again. So was the number zero." However, she said a third of the federal higher education budget was spent on courses needed to bring students up to the standard to begin their main course. The US faced a similar issue.

"Instead of duplicating efforts and wasting time and precious resources, we must harness the wisdom and insight of higher education to help improve primary and secondary schools," she said. "In doing so, we can not only prepare more students for college, but also help the colleges themselves to become more efficient and effective." Describing herself as "a cheerleader" for the US higher education system, Mrs Spellings said US universities could do more to promote themselves overseas by opening foreign branches.

She insisted that in the post September 11 world America was still keen to attract overseas students. "We've worked hard on visa processing so students are free to study. We want to take as many qualified students as we can get in the US,' she said. Mrs Spellings lamented that 800 million people worldwide were illiterate and that one in four children failed to complete five years at school. New technology that could reduce the cost of teaching should be utilised to make education more affordable, she said.

"Let us vow to make higher education the centrepiece of a new era of global change and co-operation." dbardsley@thenational.ae