x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

RAK university back on the right track under new leadership

New Emirati vice chancellor doubles students and increases courses.

Ras Al Khaimah // Prof Hassan Alkim had quite an in-tray when he took over at the struggling American University of Ras Al Khaimah a year ago.

The institution's early years were troubled. Set up in 2006 as a branch campus of George Mason University in the United States, it was forced to close in 2009 because of a lack of funding, reopening as Aurak.

The following June, about three quarters of the staff - including the directors - were made redundant, leaving students and the remaining staff uncertain about their future.

Inspectors from the Commission for Academic Accreditation (CAA), part of the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, visited repeatedly, concerned that with so many staff gone the university had no chance of maintaining standards.

It was nowhere near meeting the CAA requirement that US academics must be in the majority at universities for them to call themselves "American".

But since the arrival of Prof Alkim, an Emirati who was previously professor of political science at UAE University, much has changed.

Student numbers have more than doubled from 118 to 283 and Prof Alkim has hired American academic and administrative staff - there are now seven when before there were none.

He has also signed deals with US universities for student exchanges and research partnerships.

From September the university will increase the number of courses it offers, from four to 17, opening new departments of arts and natural science, and engineering.

The institution is also working to get its CAA accreditation renewed.

Once this is achieved, the aim is to get some courses accredited by US bodies, finally allowing its degrees to be recognised there.

Dr Larry Griffin, the new dean of arts and sciences, has overseen this process at universities such as Al Yamama in Riyadh and the Raffles Design Institute in Shanghai.

He expects it to be "very easy" at Aurak, in part because it is preparing for CAA re-licensing with one eye on meeting US requirements.

Seda Mansour, head of admissions who formerly worked at Stanford University, said the rise in numbers was a testament to the rebuilding of trust and credibility of Prof Alkim.

Families now understand that the university is CAA-accredited - unlike several others in RAK's free zone - and led by someone they can personally trust and relate to.

"We see so many students coming here after having wasted a year at another non-accredited university before they realised it wasn't accredited," she said."The fact we're accredited makes a huge difference. Our fees are also affordable, which makes us very accessible."

The new courseshave been created with US credibility in mind.

"Americanisation isn't just about the nationality of the faculty," said Prof John Ryder, Aurak's new provost and another of the new American appointments, "but the character of the curriculum".

Prof Alkim said the addition of social science courses would help the university differentiate itself from the likes of the Higher Colleges of Technology.

Some of these courses, such as history, philosophy and political science, will now be compulsory for students under their general education requirements.

But there will also be more emphasis on the UAE, integrating local issues into subjects such as business and engineering. Other new degrees to be launched in September include English and education.

Being Emirati has helped Prof Alkim secure deals with local businesses, such as the pharmaceuticals company Julphar, the telecommunications regulatory authority and RAK Bank.

He is also trying to instil a culture of research, taking on Prof Mousa Mohsen, an active researcher and editor of an international journal, as dean of engineering.

ButProf Alkim admits there is more to do. "We aren't 100 per cent but we're far better than we were last year," he said.