x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

UAE University digs deep to find Emirati talent

As retirement reduces the ranks of Emirati academics, UAE University is struggling to find replacements.

AL AIN // The search for the next generation of Emirati academics has been hampered because fewer young people are entering the field as older educators reach retirement age.

With the new Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, Sheikh Hamdan Bin Mubarak, placing a greater emphasis on Emiratisation in academia, the strain is being felt especially hard at UAE University (UAEU), the primary incubator for the country’s academic talent.

Dr Mohamed Albaili, the new provost at the federal university, said nurturing and developing academics is a top priority.

He was among the first wave to come through the university’s academic system in 1977. He was sent to the US to further his studies and earned a PhD in psychology in 1988 before returning to UAE university.

“The new minister thinks the university has matured enough so locals should take the role of taking the university forward” said Dr Albaili.

However, the academic world is facing similar challenges to the private sector in promoting Emiratisation.

“Keeping and maintaining a high percentage of nationals is a challenge for us,” said Dr Albaili. “We are working at increasing the number of teaching assistants but we are losing many who are reaching retirement age.”

One of the challenges remains academics’ salaries, which are much lower than those offered to Emirati PhD holders in the private and public sectors.

“Three faculty members resigned recently because of the salary,” said Dr Albaili. “They left the university and went to places such as Masdar and local government. This is a big issue for us.”

While the university is contributing to the country’s capacity-building by developing talent that moves on elsewhere, this is now becoming problem.

The university once had 30 per cent Emirati academic staff, the highest in the country, but is now down to about 20 per cent. This holds true for administrative staff as well.

“They get offers from elsewhere in Al Ain and Abu Dhabi, so there is a drainage of talent at the institution,” Dr Albaili said. “Locally, our employees are targeted and desirable.”

Several teaching assistants who were chosen during their first year studying for a bachelor’s degree have now deferred their commitment until after they have finished their PhD, he said.

“Their PhD will secure a good job and higher salary, especially in areas such as engineering and business.”

When UAEU was founded in 1976, salaries were higher than those of undersecretaries in a ministry, said Dr Abdulmajeed Khajer, the head of the Emirati academics’ association. Back then, academics were paid about Dh15,000 a month, compared with Dh13,000 for an undersecretary.

Today, the tables have turned, with an academic earning Dh42,000 on average, compared with salaries at ministries of between Dh120,000 and Dh140,000.

“In the last three years we have lost around 30 people to retirement,” said Dr Khajer. “We are asking the university to increase the overall package for teaching assistants to make this more attractive.

“It would mean about Dh20 million to Dh30m a year more for the university overall, but we have to make it more attractive so that people not only come, but to enable us to retain them.”

Even after eight to 10 years working at the university, salaries do not increase enough to encourage long- term careers, it is argued.

A lack of status and financial support for research also plays a part in the problem, said Prof Abdulla Al Shamsi, the head of the British University in Dubai and a veteran of UAEU before that.

“That’s why people are leaving academia,” he said. “There also aren’t the facilities and benefits you get with employers such as the army and police.”