x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

University to push for maths and science

But an expert in the economics of education warns that if specialisation reduces breadth, students may go abroad and not come back.

DUBAI // While Zayed University builds its strength in maths and science to meet the nation's changing needs, one expert warns against colleges becoming too tightly focused. Emphasis on disciplines such as nuclear physics is already increasing as the country shows greater development in nuclear energy, environmental science and aerospace. So Zayed University aspires to have its first maths major and offer a greater range of science programmes within three years.

"Science and maths loom large for us," said the university's provost, Dan Johnson. "It is one of our priorities and we are working hard now to strengthen the curriculae in both areas and develop it as rapidly as possible." Foundation students at Zayed University take a compulsory maths and science module during their first and second years. But there is a shift in the way the students are thinking, according to Jiyoti Grewel, the dean of the University College, which includes the science-based courses.

"[Students] are now seeing things that can benefit them in their lives that they may never have seen before," she said. "In turn, there will be a domino effect and families and society will buy into it. As awareness has grown, the idea of the subjects is becoming less scary. "Our idea is long-term. Perhaps there will be one more scientist today, five more tomorrow and 15 in five or 10 years, but it has to start somewhere."

Anna Vignoles, a specialist in the economics of education, said universities must be careful when trying to tailor their offerings to the market. Prof Vignoles, of the University of London, said that as a country develops, its education strategy must reflect breadth as well as specialisation. "Ignoring certain areas means foreign experts must fill gaps in the workforce a temporary solution at best, she said.

"When you import labour, they don't stay," said Prof Vignoles, who grew up in the Emirates. "Ideally, you need a broad set of skills in every work place and economy as a whole." She said unless the UAE offers students a full array of courses, it may hamstring its future labour force in a different way, as students head overseas. "Students tend to stay where they study so it's a problem that people have to go abroad," she said. "You could lose them permanently."

The shift towards better maths and sciences will depend on students building a knowledge base before they reach university, said Thomas Cochran, Zayed University's director of staff. "We will need their support to get more enthusiasm," he said. "They have a tough job, though. It's not unique to here. We need to inspire these students and show them there are opportunities and interests they had never even thought existed."

He said the university will need to strengthen the faculty capacity and design new courses. Meanwhile, UAE University already has a raft of science majors available, which administrators there say are vital for the development of the nation. "You can't have sustained development over long periods without having people in the workforce who are strong in the basic sciences," said Naim Anwar, the dean of sciences at UAEU. But he said the humanities, social sciences and engineering fields are still more popular than "hard" sciences. Wages, he added, remain a deterrent, with engineering graduates still earning more than those from basic sciences. @Email:mswan@thenational.ae