x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

A Dh3.7bn change for the better for Zayed University

The first end-of-term report is in after Zayed University's move from Abu Dhabi city centre to a purpose-built campus in Khalifa City.

Students at the new Zayed University campus in Khalifa City are responding to an environment that encourages serious study. Antonie Robertson / The National
Students at the new Zayed University campus in Khalifa City are responding to an environment that encourages serious study. Antonie Robertson / The National

As Zayed University reaches the end of its first academic year at its new Dh3.7billion campus in Khalifa City, staff and students agree the change has been a huge improvement, although gripes about facilities and security remain.

Early glitches - including a lack of road signs, and limited air conditioning and internet coverage - have largely been ironed out.

The move, funded by Mubadala, was headed by Dr Tom Cochran, a veteran of the opening of the university's new campus in Dubai International Academic City in 2008.

"Dubai was more of a challenge as it was a construction site for 12 months after we moved in," he said. The library was unfinished and the central atrium just covered walkways between finished classrooms and construction work.

By comparison, Abu Dhabi was all but finished. "The gates didn't work initially, lights didn't come on the way they were supposed to, the roads weren't quite finished but it's all gone very well. They've done remarkably well," Dr Cochran said.

Not everything has been quite fixed, though; most academics still have no landline phones and mobile reception remains erratic.

And the campus's stunning feature courtyard remains off limits, for fear that in spite of the 2.5-metre wall meant to keep men and women from seeing each other, there might be vantage points at higher levels from which a view is possible. Dr Cochran hopes a way will be found to open the courtyard next year.

Overall, though, the campus is a huge improvement. Dr Justin Thomas, who teaches health science, recalls the bad old days.

"The old campus was dilapidated," he said. "The new classrooms are less likely to have broken projectors, and noisy AC, which wasted or distracted teaching time at the old campus." Nor does he miss the daily battle for a parking spot.

New retail space means more and better options for the students and staff to find food. "The food is so cheap and much healthier, so the students have a better diet, which contributes to a better educational experience."

Dr Thomas admits internet access has been an issue. "It's been a slow roll-out, but we have access to the internet in all our offices. In most of the classes it's there but it has been a challenge for some people who rely on it in the classes."

The new location has benefits in terms of keeping students focused on their studies. In Abu Dhabi city centre, students often roamed off campus during the day. Being in Khalifa City has encouraged a "new seriousness about their studies".

"In my old classes, very few students used to take notes, but now the number of note-takers has gone up," Dr Thomas says. "There's been a general shift of attitudes, taking it more seriously, and I think environments do that to people.

"People's behaviour corresponds with the environment. Having them on site helps to keep them focused and I think it keeps them in a bit longer."

But that has been a bone of contention for some students. Dhabya Al Mehairi, a 21-year-old journalism student, complains that the new campus can be restrictive, with a huge number of security guards constantly patrolling, inside and out.

"As much as I feel privileged to be in this campus and with all the advanced technology it comes with, it has come with more restrictions than the old campus," she said.

"JBI, the company that owns the campus, limits almost everything, making it hard to feel like we're in a university.

"We are obliged to consult JBI for every little thing from inviting people to leaving campus. Before it was only the people in administration we needed to consult. Now we don't even know who to go to because even those in administration don't know what to do at times because of JBI.

"Everything we need and want has to go through JBI, and I wonder if a property service company is qualified to make decisions for the university."

Najla Al Mehairbi, 26, a final-year student of converged media, said the new rules affected student clubs and staff more than students.

"I've never personally had any problems when it comes to getting in and out of campus," she said. "The 'green card', which is a permission granted through the student's guardians to the administration, allows me to come and leave as I please.

"However, there are rules that prohibit the students from leaving the campus during a class, because the attendance system dictates that you have to be in your classroom to be marked present. This is mainly when most students feel a little bit constrained.

"I think Zayed University needs to sort out their issues with JBI because so far they haven't been working as one front."

mswan@thenational.ae