x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

'Tough love' transforms troubled HCT Dubai college

The ailing men's campus of the Higher Colleges of Technology in Dubai has been given a radical overhaul since getting a new director this summer.

Dr Howard Reed talks to the students at the Dubai Men's College. Satish Kumar/The National
Dr Howard Reed talks to the students at the Dubai Men's College. Satish Kumar/The National

DUBAI // The ailing men's campus of the Higher Colleges of Technology in Dubai has received a radical overhaul since its new director took over in the summer.

There have been six directors in as many years at the institution, which teaches about 2,200 Emirati students, so the priority for Dr Howard Reed, already the director of the women's campus, was to tackle head on the "residue" of indiscipline "that had built up".

He implemented what he calls "tough love" treatment for students - strict attendance and punctuality rules, bans on smoking and junk food on campus and suspension for any students who gets below a C grade for two terms in a row.

The tough stance extended to staff, with Dr Reed firing 12 members of senior management.

His first target was students' poor attendance records, as "with a lot of poor attendance, there were going to be a lot of poor grades".

Before his arrival, hundreds of students were absent for more than 10 per cent of classes and at least 100 further students were absent for more than a quarter of their classes.

All of those absent for more than 25 per cent of classes were suspended immediately. Each had to reapply and show they had done something to improve themselves, such as taking a course in a subject in which they struggled, or a job to develop their skills.

Douglas Cousino, the chair of civil engineering who has been at the college for 20 years, admitted it was a major and rapid change for students but worth the upheaval.

Many of the students have jobs and attend college in the afternoon or evening, so many missed classes or showed up late.

Since Dr Reed ordered the opening of a careers centre on campus, the staff have been able to liaise better with employers to allow students to leave on time.

Previously, some students would leave college for several days to go on work trips without informing their teachers.

"There's more order," Mr Cousino said. "Students are more concerned to get permission letters prior to travelling. Dr Reed has added more discipline, which has meant better participation and better attendance."

Mohammed Al Boom, 29, is in his second year at the college. He acknowledges the big changes since his first year, under Dr Leo Chavez, who left after only one year in the post.

"It was a mess," said the mechanical engineering student, who also works for Abu Dhabi National Oil Company.

He said banning smoking was one of the most positive changes - and prompted one of his close friends to quit the habit.

About half the students smoked when Dr Reed took over.

The changes to the cafeteria, banning junk food, fizzy drinks and chocolate, were welcomed by Hamed Al Marri, a 20-year-old business student, who in the last year has dropped in weight from 130 kilograms to 78kg.

"I was ready for these changes," she said. "I changed my lifestyle [and] I stopped eating junk food, so to have [healthier food] made available for us made it easier."

A mandatory course on health and fitness has been introduced for all new students in their foundation or remedial year, while a wellness centre has been set up with a nurse and doctor to give regular health checks, plus seminars to raise health awareness.

When Dr Reed took over in the summer, as well as firing at least 12 members of senior management, he merged more closely the staff from both colleges and hired staff for positions he created, such as a student counsellor.

Dr Reed is currently reviewing contracts for staff at both colleges.

"We're trying to standardise. There's almost 80 people who want to renew," he said.

"We have the option of saying no but we want to minimise that number because we like that stability and it costs a lot of money to bring people over here. We need to make sure we have enough developmental criteria that it keeps people on their toes."

He said the criteria would ensure that those who wanted to stay were doing a good enough job to do so.

"We're not quite there yet but we need to be sure we have good criteria for keeping or not keeping people."