x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Sorbonne to focus on research as it marks five years in capital

The next phase of its evolution will be to use its new centre, which has just been approved, to develop its research capabilities.

ABU DHABI // Paris-Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi will mark its fifth year in the capital with the opening of a research centre in the autumn term.

The institution has flourished since it opened with just 100 students and seven undergraduate courses and put an end to scepticism about the prospects of a French-language university in an Arabic-speaking country.

Its campus on Reem Island now has 600 students and there are plans to expand the number of courses offered in the coming academic year to nine undergraduate and nine postgraduate courses. "The vision of the university is clearer now," said its head, Prof Jean-Yves de Cara. "We can see better where we are going."

He admitted the university was "unusual" at first, and had to experiment with several approaches before finding its feet.

The next phase of its evolution will be to use its new centre, which has just been approved, to develop its research capabilities.

"What we should develop now is research, that time has come," said Prof de Cara. "It should not be purely academic but with an opening to the real world, to other universities, businesses and industry. You can't just do things on your own and we will need input from other institutions in the coming months."

Research will focus on areas highlighted in the emirate's 2030 plan such as sustainable development, public policy and legislative reform.

A range of new master's courses will be offered in October, including human resource management, performing arts management, tourism, banking and finance and multimedia publishing, none of which had been available in the emirate.

The courses were chosen following feasibility studies to find out what employers and the emirate needed.

"A university like this has to ensure the needs of the country are met," said Prof de Cara. "We have to work for the goals of this country."

All the courses will rely heavily on experienced professionals from the relevant fields to help prepare the students for the world of work. That is a part of the university's mission in which Prof de Cara takes pride.

"Students here are very privileged. They come in their nice cars and don't have to fight to look after themselves," Prof de Cara said. "How do they know real life? Here, we are the window to the world and we must develop that more and more."

The addition of a master's in tourism management - a rapidly growing sector - was welcomed by the emirate's Tourism Development and Investment Authority (TDIC).

"Education is one of TDIC's core values," said Simon Venison, the authority's operations director. "We naturally welcome this course from the prestigious Sorbonne, which will nurture talent in young people who have ambitions to work in tourism.

"The course will be of great benefit not just to the students but to the wider local community, by creating a broad home-grown talent pool that will assist this growth in Abu Dhabi."

In its five years, the university has experienced an almost complete turnover in academics, most of whom stay for three or four years.

Just one of the original staff remains - Ronald Perlwitz, a German literature specialist, who is the director of studies in the department of international business and languages. He initially volunteered to come to Abu Dhabi after a holiday in Dubai.

"I thought it would be really interesting and exciting to open a university," he said. "I never imagined how it could be to actually build up and create a university. It's been a very enriching experience. We've learnt from the students and they've learnt from us."

Prof de Cara said his tenure showed the importance of long-standing academics growing to understand the society and its needs.

Many new staff will start in October, including the heads of department for history of art and architecture and French literature, as the university tries to reduce its dependency on staff on temporary secondment from Paris.

"If we want this university to be a permanent institution, we do have to recruit locally and have permanent professors more and more," said Prof de Cara. In the long term, the university is trying to ensure current students go on to become its future academic and administrative staff.

To that end, the Abu Dhabi Education Council and other bodies in the emirate will support students who go on to study for PhDs in France. The first batch of three students has already been selected, and will begin their doctorates once they have completed their master's degrees. Another five undergraduates have been earmarked as talents of the future, and will be streamed on to master's studies before embarking on doctoral degrees.

"In time, it should be run by Emiratis who have a French cultural background," said Prof de Cara. "My dream is to come back when I'm old and sit in the back of the class and think, 'That was one of my students'."

mswan@thenational.ae