Interview: Björn Kjerfv
Has the proliferation of for-profit institutions in recent years affected the overall quality of the UAE’s tertiary education?
BJORN KJERFVE: Of the 115 universities in the UAE, 79 are licensed by the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, and less than half of these are not-for-profit, tertiary institutions.
This is an extraordinarily large proportion when measured against other countries. Indeed, in the US fewer than 20% are for-profit. To an extent, though, this is understandable, even necessary. When you have a country that is growing very quickly, some functions normally reserved for the state have to be created and accelerated rapidly, creating opportunities for the private sector in the UAE.
That said, it is essential that such institutions do not sacrifice their most important duty – providing students with quality instruction and mentorship – for profits. While there are a number of well-regarded, accredited for-profit universities in the UAE, it is worth bearing in mind the issues associated with similar institutions in North America, and ensuring that they are properly controlled and regulated here.
What areas of study are seeing the most demand?
KJERFVE: We offer a US-style liberal arts education, but we also have three professional schools covering engineering, business administration, and architecture, art and design. Engineering has seen significant interest of late. Of our 6000 or so students, 47% major in the field. This reflects a broader demand for engineering skills in the economy, especially given the high levels of growth the country has experienced in engineering-related sectors, such as construction, over the past decade. Like all universities, we are constantly thinking of how to adapt our offerings to a rapidly changing world. One academic area where we think there is strong, unmet demand is psychology, which is why we recently added it as an undergraduate major.
How can Sharjah more effectively leverage its reputation as a centre for higher education?
KJERFVE: Anyone who looks at University City can attest to the fact that Sharjah has invested heavily in the physical infrastructure that is necessary for the emirate’s universities to thrive. Where it has lagged, however, is in linking the research performed at its many institutions to the needs of local companies, and of the economy of the emirate as a whole.
Entire industries have developed around research universities in other parts of the world. Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the US, for example, has become a major centre for the biotech sector because of the presence of world-class institutions like MIT.
Sharjah’s universities could also be a catalyst for economic growth here. As such, we are working on a project to build a 175-ha research, technology and innovation park that will leverage the resources of local institutions – such as professors, PhD students and laboratories – to supply the research and development needs of companies that locate facilities within the development. Already, multinationals, like SAP, have shown interest in setting up offices there. Our hope is that the park will stimulate investment in locally relevant, globally impactful research in a variety of fields, including the environment, water, energy, the internet of things, biotechnology, and more.
In addition, while local universities can do more to build their research capacities by allocating increased funding and allowing their staff more time to spend on such activities, their efforts would be greatly enhanced if they were backed by national policies that were designed to promote investment in the space. Bodies such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health in the US play an important role both in setting research priorities and in providing grants. At present the UAE has no such bodies, although there is talk of developing some, which would be a major boon to research efforts within the country.
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