x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

It’s time we realised that an academic life is a noble pursuit

There are various possible reasons why the percentage of Emiratis on the academic staff is dwindling.

At the beginning of a class on legal and administrative structures in the Mena region, Ibrahim Souss, a Zayed University political science professor, asked his students, including me, about our plans: “How many of you are thinking about filling my place in the future?”

Prof Souss has many years of experience in diplomacy, public policy and education. He has published 10 books, taught in several universities and undertaken research at several European institutions. He arrived in the UAE a year ago to teach political science in Abu Dhabi.

He told us that one thing he had noticed since he arrived was the lack of Emirati professors. He said it was “time to highlight this noble mission in higher education for the younger generation.”

Prof Souss isn’t the only one to point at this issue. The UAE academic landscape has long needed more Emirati faculty members, who are outnumbered by expatriate faculty in all of the country’s universities.

UAE University, which is believed to have the highest percentage of Emirati academic staff, has recently experienced a sharp drop in the number of Emirati professors it retains. A large number of faculty members have resigned or retired, bringing the percentage of Emiratis on the academic staff down from a high of 30 per cent to the current 20 per cent.

The university’s scholarship programme for its teaching assistants, which provides full funding for Emirati students working towards their master’s degrees and doctorates in the US, has historically contributed greatly to the Emiratisation process and attracted new talent, but applications for these scholarships have slowed in recent years.

“Keeping and maintaining a high percentage of nationals is a challenge for us,” Dr Mohamed Albaili, the new provost at UAEU told The National last September. “We are working at increasing the number of teaching assistants but we are losing many who are reaching retirement age.”

I talked to a few former Emirati professors from UAEU about why numbers have declined.

One reason may be that academics’ salaries are lower than those offered to Emirati doctorate holders in the public service, or even in the private sector. Ministry salaries can be more than three times what an academic earns. It is tough to compete when the playing field isn’t level.

According to one former professor I spoke to, hundreds of people used to apply to the UAEU scholarship programme each year, and a dozen were selected. Today, years pass without any applicants in certain disciplines.

Other universities, ones that don’t have equivalent scholarship programmes, have smaller percentages of Emirati faculty.

Academics can also be burdened by a relatively heavy class load, which can be more than double what a new faculty member could expect to take on at a good US university.

A lack of financial support for research could also be hindering efforts to attract more young people into academic research.

An Insead survey recently estimated R&D spending in the UAE as falling somewhere between 0.72 and 2.45 per cent of GDP. By comparison the same data estimated Singapore’s R&D spend as 2.61 per cent of GDP.

The heads of several public and private universities (including UAEU) last year proposed a joint plan to obtain more funding for research, although we have yet to see the results.

The new Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, Sheikh Hamdan Bin Mubarak, is placing a greater emphasis on Emiratisation.

But this issue cannot be fully solved by government intervention alone. Students need to be convinced that an academic life is a noble one. A combination of more attractive salaries, lighter teaching loads and more research funding would obviously help in that regard.

Masdar Institute and the Petroleum Institute are two examples of educational organisations that have been able to attract faculty members in recent years because they offer competitive packages.

As Prof Souss told me, “the UAE has created its unique success story among the Arab countries, and the educational system will be a major element in developing a sustainable system of governance for the next generations.

“It is of the utmost importance to infuse the idea of professorship into young Emiratis,” he said.

AAlmazrouei@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @AyeshaAlMazroui