U.A.E. Makes Huge Investment in Education and Technology
ABU DHABI — Sheik Nahayan bin Mubarak al-Nahayan stepped down as the United Arab Emirates’ education minister last week, to become its cultural minister. In one of his last interviews as the head of higher education and scientific research, he discussed how he had worked to improve academic standards in a country that is only 41 years old.
Meeting at his waterfront palace, he spoke about the U.A.E.’s enormous education spending — which, according to media reports, totals more than one-fifth of the total national budget and which paid for 14,000 iPads for its universities.
He also discusses why the country is emphasizing English-language instruction and industry-friendly courses and research.
Q. How much does the government invest in education?
A. We are focused on building a knowledge-based economy. We are investing in our people, who will drive our economy and society forward as global trends shift. We’re also being creative and including technological advancements in our scope, which included the historic move to bring 14,000 iPads for student and faculty use at our federal universities in place of textbooks last year.
Q. Why did you decide to provide 14,000 iPads all at once? What if it didn’t work?
A. If we don’t do it all at one time, people will resist change and stick to books and boards. So, we did it all at once. The benefits are tremendous; it promotes greater connectivity and interaction, both among students and with the outside, online world.
Q. The vast majority of U.A.E. school programs are taught in English. Why is there not a greater emphasis on Arabic, the national language?
A. It is not a matter of lack of confidence in our language or national pride. One has to be realistic; it is the age of the English language.
Switching to English allowed us to recruit top teachers globally, not just from the Arabic-speaking world. Also, if institutions of higher education want accreditation from the Ministry of Education, they need specific, detailed, internationally recognized programs — so switching to English promotes diversity of programs and choice of more programs that are recognized internationally. It also creates competition among schools.
Q. What is the benefit of ensuring that Arabic is still taught and not completely replaced with English?
A. Arabic is still offered to students, of course, but the main language of instruction is English in most cases. Our advantage, as a result, is that we are able to graduate students who are fluent in both languages, and we plan to enhance this approach. Bilingual students will have greater opportunities of success and more choices open to them in the future.
Q. You talked about the importance of recruiting quality teachers. Is that a challenge?
A. Our main problem has been with the teachers. Before, we were limited to recruiting teachers who were not necessarily qualified from other countries, such as Egypt. Defining qualification of teachers in the Arab world was itself an issue, although less so today.
Opening up to English systems in schools allowed us to recruit teachers from Australia, the U.S., the U.K. It allowed us to attract and retain better teachers with better qualifications. Today, we have continuous evaluations to maintain quality controls in schools.
Q. The U.A.E., like the rest of the Gulf region, has a large youth population. What is being done to help them find jobs after graduating, to help alleviate the problem of youth unemployment?
A. We carry out studies that show which professions are undersupplied, like law and legal studies, compared to ones that are saturated, such as business. We grant government scholarships for fields where we know jobs will be in demand.
Q. What other challenges remain?
A. We need more research from universities — especially in fields that are important to us, like energy, alternative energy, resource management, water management. These are of concern to us. We have set up the National Research Foundation, but more needs to be done.