x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Emirati takes over helm at struggling university

New president to revive ties with US college and others to improve American University's offerings and bring students back from Dubai.

RAS AL KHAIMAH // The president of the struggling American University of Ras Al Khaimah (Aurak) has been replaced with a respected Emirati academic.

Dr Shaukat Mirza was relieved of his position, and left the country last week after just over a year in the job. He took over in June of last year from Dr Sharon Siverts.

Dr Mirza has been replaced by Prof Hassan Hamdan Al Alkim, formerly of UAE University, who has been given the task of reinventing the institution.

For now, Prof Al Alkim will juggle that role with his position as head of the Economic Department of the RAK Government. But that is a challenge he relishes.

"It's a very exciting opportunity," he said on his appointment in August.

Dr Mirza, who was seconded from the RAK Medical and Health Sciences University, is now home in India.

He said yesterday he was unaware of any specific incident that had triggered his dismissal.

Sheikh Saud bin Saqr, Ruler of RAK, has ordered a board of academics to compile standards to make the education system in RAK more uniform and creditable.

Dr Natasha Ridge, the head of research at the Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research, said Prof Alkim was a welcome addition to RAK's educational landscape, which is largely populated by unregulated free-zone universities.

"It'll be a big difference for Aurak having an Emirati," Dr Ridge said. "He really does care and is trying to build relationships with US universities, increase enrolment and raise funds, so that it's a more sustainable institution in the long term. It's a positive step."

The university's short life has been far from easy. Set up as a branch campus of George Mason University in the US, it was forced to close in 2009 after only three years because of a lack of funding.

In June last year, about three quarters of Aurak's staff, including its directors, were made redundant, leaving students and remaining staff uncertain of their future.

Inspectors from the Commission for Academic Accreditation, part of the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, visited the university to monitor the situation several times after the dismissals.

Prof Ian Cumbus, who heads the commission, said he no longer had concerns.

"We are not involved in these decisions but nothing has changed from our point of view," he said.

Prof Al Alkim plans to revive the connection with George Mason University, using it and other institutions such as California and Arizona state universities as benchmarks to improve the university's standards and offerings, academically and socially.

He will also look to UAE University, where he was a professor of political science, and its system of grading and attendance monitors.

"We are also doing a comprehensive analysis of our faculty's salary scales," Prof Al Alkim said. "We'd like to close the gap so we can attract high-level academics."

The next step will be to hire a provost, who will be charged with setting up new undergraduate degrees in civil engineering, English translation and accounting. In time, Prof Al Alkim hopes to offer master's degrees.

RAK's private universities still struggle to attract students. Aurak has fewer than 200, with many more drawn to Dubai's 53 institutions and diverse social life.

Next door, the branch campus of the UK's University of Bolton also has about 200.

The emirate's biggest provider of higher education remains the federal Higher Colleges of Technology, which has 2,000 Emirati students - 1,400 women and 600 men.

Prof Al Alkim admits recruitment is a big challenge.

"We are present at the university fairs reaching out to students and are going to upgrade the campus," he said.

"We will be adding facilities like sports facilities and even looking to open a new campus on Emirates Road in time, too, to make this a more appealing place for students."

mswan@thenational.ae