x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Sciences cannot compete in free market of education

There is little doubt that the UAE's development goals depend on a new class of graduates educated in the sciences.

While I was working at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, I saw how a cutting-edge industry can be developed. The Singaporean government led an initiative in the fields of biotechnology and genetic engineering. Before they even built faculty housing, they hired 25 academics from around the world and established 50 PhD scholarships for students from all nationalities.

There were only 100 students, but the faculty was established to bring Singapore into the top tier of genetic engineering. It is this type of financing and planning that is needed to establish a new field, especially a value-added field. Private institutions simply do not have the financial means to do this.

There is little doubt that the UAE's development goals depend on a new class of graduates educated in the sciences. Equally certain, those students aren't studying in the UAE at present.

Several news articles in The National recently have highlighted the shortage of maths and sciences students in the nation's universities, including an article last month that found that more students were needed in the field of alternative energy - a key element of the UAE's economic and strategic diversification.

A survey of student enrolment for 2009-2010 in accredited bachelors programmes indicated that only 2 per cent of students were studying in the combined areas of mathematical and pure sciences. The findings, presented at the recent Education Centre for Social Science Conference, compare with 14 per cent of British students in the same fields, a statistic that the UK government considers too low.

The 2 per cent figure includes students studying in the federal universities and the so-called private ("independent" might be a better word) universities that have sought accreditation from the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research. If the figures are examined further, we find that 8 per cent of students in federal institutions were enrolled in maths and sciences, while in private universities less than 1 per cent of students were.

So are the private universities serving their purpose? The UAE's policy of welcoming incoming educational establishments from around the world with minimal red tape is radical. Dubai is certainly outstanding for having such a high number of private universities. The policy illustrates the adoption of free market economics and industrial free zones. Its acceptance within education to such a degree is extremely innovative.

In the UK, the recent Lord Browne report on future university funding has been applauded in some quarters for its movement towards privatising universities. But this report should be seen in the context of Britain, where the state provides almost all higher education in the country. There may be an increase in private universities (there are currently only two in the UK), but it is likely that the majority of higher education will still be provided by the state.

For a developing nation, higher education is so important that the UAE's reliance on private universities has to be analysed. Is the system providing the quality of higher education that is needed in the UAE in terms of the breadth of courses offered?

Supporters of the free market would argue that market-driven choices are the most efficient way of assuring that courses are relevant to the needs of society. Courses which are not popular will fail to recruit and cease to exist.

However, this assumes that the education consumers (students and parents) are able to make rational decisions about what is best for them - and that this will be the best for society in the long term. Prospective students and their parents are not necessarily aware of what is the most suitable degree for long-term employment and many may take a short-term view of the situation.

Universities compete for students so there are few places for consumers to receive unbiased advice. And, as regards to the wider social priority of a balanced national education system and its synergy with economic development, there is no reason to presume that consumers are in any position to make the right decision.

This has resulted in a market saturated with business administration courses. This is largely due to the programmes provided by private universities.

Aside from the federal universities, there is a great deal of diversity in higher education, including a plethora of different institutional and financial frameworks. Broadly, these universities can be divided into "state" schools, supported by an individual emirate, and purely private schools.

Both types have less than 1 per cent of students in maths and sciences, but the business administration "disease" is much more established in the purely private universities, where 47 per cent of all students study business and management.

It would seem that private universities are unlikely to fill the gap in science graduates. By their nature, even if they are not for profit institutions, recruitment and the bottom line are bound to determine their degree programmes.

In the recent article on alternative energy, universities all focused on the problems of recruiting students for such niche programmes. Nabil Ibrahim, the chancellor of Abu Dhabi University, argued that government and industry support was necessary.

A local illustration of public involvement in education is Masdar Institute, which has initiated graduate education programmes to research carbon-neutral technologies. As a subsidiary of Mubadala Development Company, an investment company wholly owned by the Abu Dhabi Government, the Institute offers programmes in fields such as environmental science which are important for economic development.

It is highly unlikely, if not impossible, that such programmes can be supported by private universities without extensive government support.


Mick Randall is an educational consultant and former dean of education at the British University in Dubai