x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

University of Wollongong chief seeks whole new focus

New president of the country's oldest private university wants to increase the number of courses and broaden the institution's scope.

DUBAI // The new president of the country's oldest private university says his first priorities are to increase the number of courses and broaden the institution's scope.

Prof Ghassan Aouad, originally from Lebanon, moved last month to the University of Wollongong in Dubai after 20 years at the University of Salford in Britain and is relishing the challenge.

At Salford, Prof Aouad was dean of sciences and pro-vice chancellor. He describes his latest move as a "natural progression".

And he believes it is time for a change of focus at the University of Wollongong, an Australian institution where degrees concentrate on business.

"I'd like to see our offerings become more diverse so we can cover some areas that are part of the strategic priorities of the UAE," said Prof Aouad, 52.

"This will require a lot of engagement with stakeholders, from the students to Government, industry, business and our team at the university."

Prof Aouad will analyse the local landscape to see what gaps need to be filled in areas like health, environment and infrastructure management.

The university's executive director, Raymi van der Spek, agrees there is a need to diversify in an emirate with 52 other universities.

"We don't know what the jobs of the future are going to be," Mr Van der Spek said. "Nobody would have said five years ago that Google would be the business it is today, or that we'd be crying out for web content developers or [applications] creators.

"In time, people will realise that business degrees are not the only way to go. This is a young educational landscape here and people had the impression for a long time that a business degree was the way to get a job and earn money, but that will change as it matures."

Prof Aouad's predecessor, Prof Rob Whelan, who has returned to Australia, believes his successor is likely to continue to develop the university's doctoral programmes.

Prof Whelan said the role had been "challenging but rewarding".

"A university president plays a big role in the visibility of his or her institution, especially in a crowded market," he said. "However, this is not a lone task. All members of a university contribute to this - administrators, academics, students, alumni and industry partners.

"The input of all these groups is crucial in the environmental scanning that the president constantly does to ensure that the institution is relevant and contributes to national needs.

"The personal qualities of the leader, along with strategic plans, policies and practices, determine the direction and success of an institution."

Mr Van der Spek said another challenge for Prof Aouad was attracting good academics, a problem for universities across the region.

"Good teaching faculty also requires research stimulation and there are no funds, from government or the private sector, to offer development opportunities in research," he said.

Prof Aouad has coped with similar problems in the UK, and agrees that building research capacity is vital in keeping and improving the University of Wollongong's reputation.

"It's what provides uniqueness," he said. "Hiring good people in both teaching and research should always be a priority."

Since it opened in 1993, the country's first foreign university has grown from eight to 3,500 students.

Back then the country had only two tertiary institutions, UAE University in Al Ain and the Higher Colleges of Technology in Dubai, Al Ain and Abu Dhabi.

Prof Aouad hopes to mix the best of the UK, Australia and the UAE.

"The British system will feed into the Australian quality and processes," he said.

mswan@thenational.ae