x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

UAE's Higher Colleges of Technology celebrate 25 years of learning

The second federal university has gone from four colleges in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain to 17 throughout the Emirates.

Nayereh Tavafi, who has taught English at the Dubai women's campus since it opened in 1989. Delores Johnson / The National
Nayereh Tavafi, who has taught English at the Dubai women's campus since it opened in 1989. Delores Johnson / The National

DUBAI // The Higher Colleges of Technology had only four colleges, two each in Al Ain and Abu Dhabi, when it opened 25 years ago.

It was the second federal university. The first, UAE University, was founded in Al Ain a decade earlier, in 1977. The third, Zayed University, was still a decade away, opening in 1998.

The colleges were modelled on the US community college system and grew over the years to an institution that comprises 17 colleges across the country, with more than 20,000 students between them.

Moayyad Mohammed has been there from the start. When he began as an engineering teacher at the Al Ain men's campus, the colleges in the oasis city had about 100 students each.

Mr Mohammed came to the job from Jordan, not sure what to expect. But he says the colleges' impact on the small community of Al Ain has been huge.

"You can't go anywhere without seeing HCT graduates now," he says. "They are in all sectors, mainly the Government, but in all kinds of jobs."

HCT's mission, unchanged in 25 years, is to prepare students for work in fields requiring technical expertise, from engineering to IT, aircraft maintenance to paramedicine.

"HCT filled a gap between high school and university, the main goal for HCT," Mr Mohammed says. "It played a very important role in this area. It prepared students to take part in the country's development."

While the UAE was not even two decades old, its fledgling education system was slowly growing.

"Today, education is much more of a priority for people," he says. "Now people want even more than a degree. Students see a benefit of education."

Nayareh Tavafi has taught English at the Dubai's women's campus since it opened in 1989, a year after the Abu Dhabi and Al Ain campuses.

Ms Tavafi came from Iran for the job at the age of 35. Accustomed to teaching mixed classes, she admits she initially suffered slight "culture shock".

The biggest change she has seen in her students in her time at HCT is in the women's attitude to getting a job after college.

"In those days, I'd have around 20 in a class and maybe one, if that, would say she had any interest in working," Ms Tavafi says. "Now it is the reverse. It is rare even for one to say she isn't going to work."

Shankar Subramani, who joined in 1991 as a business teacher, says that even then many of the women did end up working after they graduated.

Many have risen to prominent roles in companies including banks and Etisalat, and government institutions. Noura Juma, the consul general to China, studied business there.

"Eventually they changed their perceptions of working over the three or four years they were in the college, especially once they had done their compulsory work experience," says Mr Subramani.

That set off a domino effect.

"As they started to see their sisters and friends going through the system, more would come."

Nor should the social aspect be forgotten. Students learn skills such as discipline, attendance and time keeping - helping them to start their careers with a decent work ethic.

The colleges' longest-serving campus head is Dr Howard Reed, who has been head of the Dubai's women's campus since 1991.

Then, it taught 200 students in a converted car showroom and portable cabins. Now it has about 2,500, with another 2,200 at the men's campus, which he also heads.

For Dr Reed, HCT's enduring legacy is making education universally accessible.

"Once we went out to RAK, Fujairah, Al Gharbia and Sharjah, we went out to the communities where parents didn't want their children going to Al Ain," he says.

Before HCT, many parents were reluctant to let daughters travel, restricting access to higher education.

"Those students now had a choice. In Dubai most of our students were those whose parents didn't want them going to live in dorms in Al Ain," Dr Reed says.