x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Study of humanities neglected in universities, report s

Experts look to NYU and Paris-Sorbonne for more balance.

ABU DHABI // Higher education institutions say they want to correct an "imbalance" in the types of courses students are being offered and make more humanities subjects available. More science and liberal arts courses should be made available, officials said, as figures showed that more than 60 per cent of programmes at universities were in business, information technology and engineering.

A study by the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR) found that business administration courses made up 25 per cent of the total offered by universities. Information technology and computer engineering courses constituted 19 per cent, while engineering accounted for 18 per cent. Two hundred and seventy-six university courses were analysed. The study excluded the Paris-Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi and the forthcoming New York University Abu Dhabi, each of which has a humanities focus. It also did not include universities in free zones such as Dubai International Academic City or Ras al Khaimah Free Trade Zone.

Dr Ahmed Azem, a researcher at the ECSSR and editor of Future Horizons, the centre's magazine, in which the research will be published, said it was good that students had many choices in engineering, IT and business. "But, on the other hand, there is an imbalance compared with liberal arts such as philosophy and sociology," he said. This situation, Dr Azem said, was largely a result of the private universities offering a more market-driven range of courses.

The study found that sociology and related subjects made up just 1.4 per cent of the total, politics and international studies only one per cent, and biology, chemistry, mathematics and physics less than one per cent each. Dr Daniel Johnson, the provost of the federal Zayed University, said the institution "recognises" that it would be preferable if more students studied liberal arts. "I share the concern about what on the surface appears to be some imbalance, not only in the interests of our students but in the programmes we're offering," he said. "This has been a topic of some conversation."

Many students tended to study subjects such as business and engineering because they felt that those subjects were more likely to help them to find jobs. However, Dr Johnson said, today's graduates can expect to move between different fields during their working lives. This, he said, meant that education in the liberal arts - disciplines such as art, history and languages - could be as valuable career-wise as more specialised professional or technical training.

"Students able to think creatively, analyse data and bring a broader perspective will be the individuals who will have opportunities in the future," he said. To help address the subject imbalance, ZU was looking to "strengthen" its courses offered in mathematics and science, and expand humanities programmes, Dr Johnson said. The trend away from the liberal arts dates to the 1980s and is not unique to the UAE, according to Dr Nabil Ibrahim, the chancellor of Abu Dhabi University.

Employers were concerned, he said, that liberal arts graduates might be less useful to them. To counter this, it was important that subjects such as the humanities and social sciences should be studied "in the context of a highly technical society". "What's important is to teach the humanities and social sciences and provide relevance in terms of the impact of technology and information sciences," he said.

"This is what we're trying to do, to make the humanities and social sciences more interdisciplinary and to include elements of technology and the sciences." The NYU Abu Dhabi campus, which accepts its first undergraduates in a year's time, will "go a long way to helping address the imbalance" in programmes, said Prof Jim Mienczakowski, the head of higher education at the Abu Dhabi Education Council.

"There's very much a strong emphasis on IT and business, which perhaps is a reflection of the direction Abu Dhabi has taken and the economic drivers," he said. "There needs to be a balance in the tertiary institutions to allow other disciplines to flourish. NYU and the Sorbonne have a big role to play in levelling out the imbalance." Dr Azem also believes NYU and the Sorbonne are useful in ensuring that students have a wider variety of options to study.

"They will provide an avenue for interaction, for positive interaction, with the culture here," he said. Among the Emirati students at the Sorbonne is Dana al Hajri, 21, who is taking a history degree. She said initially she did not want to remain in the UAE for her university studies "because we don't have many humanities degrees". Once she heard of the options at the Sorbonne, she decided to remain here.

"I think many courses [in the UAE] are concerning only business studies or technology, I guess that's it," she said. "People are more interested in studying business. They assume humanities will only get you a teaching job, and I don't think many people are interested in that." The humanities were "definitely" important and worth studying, especially as there were few graduates in these areas, she said.

dbardsley@thenational.ae hhassan@thenational.ae