x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Federal universities have caught up to those from overseas, says official

Federal universities have closed the gap on foreign institutions with campuses in the UAE and are now competing with them on an equal footing, according to a leading education official.

ABU DHABI // Federal universities have closed the gap on foreign institutions with campuses in the UAE and are now competing with them on an equal footing, according to a leading education official. The idea that local universities were not as good as their counterparts from overseas was outdated, said Dr Tayeb Kamali, vice chancellor of the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT). Heavy investment and the hiring of well-qualified foreign academics had allowed the UAE to quickly improve its educational institutions, he said.

"We're 37 years old," said Dr Kamali. "As we're a young country, people sometimes think we may not be [as good as] a university that's 200 years old, but that's not true any more because of the commitment the Government has put into education. We have the resources." His comments follow a survey by YouGov, on behalf of The National, which found that many people thought foreign institutions were better than those from the UAE.

Nearly one quarter of respondents believed that federal universities were not as good as branch campuses of foreign institutions, while just one in 10 believed that they were better. "This perception is the perception of the past," said Dr Kamali. If an institution had "the best buildings and the best ambience", and recruited well-qualified faculty from overseas, it could develop much faster, he said.

"We don't need 200 years, we can do it in 40 years," said Dr Kamali. "It would be worthwhile to poll those who employ graduates from different parts of the world and locally - how often are our graduates selected compared with the others? That's an important gauge." Amid concerns about the quality of education in state schools, Dr Kamali said there were signs of improvement. With more Emiratis having their children educated privately because of dissatisfaction with public sector education, state schools have increased the amount of English teaching and introduced other initiatives to raise standards.

Emirati school-leavers joining the HCT over the past two years were better than their predecessors, said Dr Kamali. "I think the reform has begun," said Dr Kamali. "There's some dividend we're seeing. There's been some improvement." If improvements continued, Dr Kamali suggested it might be possible to eliminate the foundation year in which students take basic courses, particularly in English, before starting their main diploma, higher diploma or degree course.

"We still spend a year at least in providing the graduates of high school with the skills they did not pick up perhaps when they were at high school, but, in general, there's been progress," he said. "If we can reach the day where we can eliminate the foundation year, that would be great. That's what the reform is helping to do." The HCT, founded in 1988, teaches about 18,000 students in campuses across the country.

Female students outnumber men by three to two in federal institutions, but Dr Kamali said this was not a cause for concern. There were productive things that young men could do instead of studying for a degree or diploma, he argued. "It's not like they're not going to higher education," said Dr Kamali. "If you look at those who don't join higher education here, some are going on scholarships abroad.

"Some also have opportunities with the police and armed forces, where they're also receiving higher education." dbardsley@thenational.ae