HCT helps fill workforce gap
A lack of skilled Emirati workers was addressed by opening a chain of community colleges. Melanie Swan reports
As the UAE grew, it became clear it needed to provide more skilled staff to keep the wheels of industry and government rolling, and give the growing numbers of young Emiratis meaningful employment.
The Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT) were created in 1988 to produce a new generation of work-ready graduates and maintain the rapid growth of the economy.
It started with colleges for men and women in Abu Dhabi, Al Ain and Dubai, and now has 17 campuses around the country.
Its growth continued despite the many private universities opening across the Emirates.
Dr Sulaiman Al Jassim was with the HCT from 1990 to 2006 as the director of community relations and manpower development, and is now the vice chancellor of Zayed University, which opened in 1998.
"The main idea behind HCT was to fill the middle gap between high school and university; to prepare people for the workplace," Dr Al Jassim said. "With the population growth here you needed to diversify what was on offer."
In the early 1980s, he recalled: "Schools and UAE University were the only options, with no vocational options to help meet the needs of the local economy."
A visiting team from the World Bank and International Labour Organisation recommended the UAE should set up community colleges.
And so the HCT came into existence. It would issue higher diplomas, and provide a new type of vocational and technical education designed to appeal to the young.
"A vast number of the jobs available to the students in banks, the Government, industry and the private sector, demanded these skills," Dr Al Jassim said.
Over the following years, HCT expanded into Sharjah, Ras Al Khaimah, Fujairah and Al Gharbia. Its most recent addition, Ruwais Colleges in Al Gharbia, opened in 2007.
"In the regions it was very important, especially for females, whose families wanted them to stay close to home," Dr Al Jassim said.
For Dr Howard Reed, who has been at the helm of Dubai Women's College for 20 years and is HCT's longest-serving director, the colleges were crucial to areas such as RAK, where they opened in 1993.
"There are a lot of very capable people there," he said. "A lot of the students up there wouldn't have gone to university without HCT."
Since it launched, about 50,000 male and female students have graduated.
"It's supporting the society here," Dr Al Jassim said. "The Government needed these graduates."
And they are successful. About 80 per cent of students from Dubai Women's College have found jobs within six months of graduating. In the first few batches of students, that figure was only half.
Dr Behjat Al Yousuf, the associate director at Al Ain's men's and women's colleges and the longest-serving member of staff after 21 years, has seen these young women grow.
Dr Al Yousuf was at Dubai Women's College until September, when she moved to Al Ain.
"These girls are very articulate and demand more justification of why things happen," she said. "It shows there is more awareness as to what is their role in society.
"We need to make them global citizens and conscious of how to give back to society, rather than thinking 'it's my right'. It should be 'my right and responsibility' as well."
Dr Reed remembers the desperate need for Emirati professionals when he arrived.
"They needed writers, designers, artists, all these things that make up civil society," he said. "But most of all, they needed people to work in hospitals, people to work in offices, in banks, in the airports."
After two batches of students, a study was carried out by government experts to compare the HCT's higher diploma with the degree at UAE University. It was decided in 1993 that graduates from both institutions should be paid the same by all government departments.
This decree was a major incentive for students, said Dr Al Jassim, and a big boost for the institution's prestige, as was the decision that from this current year all HCT students would study for a bachelor's degree.
Dr Reed remains proud of how things have progressed.
"People said local women wouldn't do these jobs like medical imaging, pharmacy and paramedicine," he said. "Parents had a lot of questions - about girls working shifts, wearing uniforms - but we just sat back and said 'you watch'."