How will the recent political unrest in the region impact the role of universities?
SABOUNI: Higher education in the region is becoming even more important than ever before, especially when you look at the new trends that we have seen and the role of the youth. The young generation is now leading. With the Arab Spring and the changing dynamics we see in many Arab countries, we see the increasing prevalence of skills and education as opposed to experience and age or wisdom. Previously, experience, the longer the experience and the wisdom that comes with age, have been the forces governing the dynamics of the region. Now what we see with the younger generations, the youth are becoming the forefront of leadership. This puts a lot of pressure and importance on education because these people will play an increasingly important role in leading the society and the economy. We should not forget that universities are the incubators of the young generation. In the Arab region, the percentage of young people in the population is much higher than other places. With the new dynamics, the role of the young generation has become more important. I believe this requires a matching development of the universities. Universities are becoming a very important player in not only educating students but also in providing leaders, not for the distant future, but for the near future. We used to say that graduates are the leaders of the future, after they gain the experience and the wisdom of age. Now this is no more, they are now upfront to be the future leaders. Universities have to be up to the standards to provide this young generation with the right skills and education that will qualify them to lead in the proper manner for this generation.
What new enrolment trends have you noticed over the past 2 years? What trends do you see going forward?
SABOUNI: In the last two years we've found that we have more people getting into the engineering and technical programs as opposed to the business and liberal arts programs. We have noticed that in local students. We have 60% of our students who are UAE nationals, divided equally between male and female. The rest of the student population is from about 30 countries around the world. We noticed a trend of people willing to study engineering. We have more people in civil engineering than we expected. It seems Abu Dhabi’s Vision 2030 has attracted more students and has raised awareness of the building and construction sectors. This is the major trend we have noticed. Trends usually come with new developments. I believe for the next couple of years, there will continue to be more concentration on construction related specialties. But you never know for the future, it might always change. As we know, a few years ago, people were more willing and more enthusiastic to study things related to IT. This has changed a little bit. So I believe the current trend will continue for the coming few years and afterwards you can never know the future.
What has been the most noticeable impact of the economic downturn on the university?
SABOUNI: Surprisingly, the economic downturn has not been that drastic on universities. On the contrary, when there is a downturn, people try to educate themselves and try to get higher degrees. So we have not noticed any real change in our student intake. However, we have been a little more flexible in our financial system. Students have started requesting some delay or rescheduling of payments. This has been noticed and we have been able to accommodate it in our system. But in terms of the number of students coming to the university, there has been no real effect of this downturn.
How important is research in tertiary education?
SABOUNI: Research is the make or break of the success of a university, especially in the UAE. Most of the universities that have been accredited by the Ministry of Higher Education have met, through the accreditation process, the minimum requirement for providing programs for the education part of the university. The comparison or ranking of the universities comes down to the other two function of any really successful university – research and community service. Research is a very important component and university professors who are not doing research cannot be continuously successful for their students. In our university, we consider the faculty tripod of load is based on teaching, research and community service. Every faculty member has to provide in each of the three areas, it is not enough to excel in just one area. Of course they don’t have the same weight. For example, if we say that teaching should constitute 60% of the weight, research has to constitute another 20-25%, and community service will be the rest of the percentage. Without having research, students will be denied the chance to be exposed to new developments through their instructors. Research at our university is a requirement for promotion and improving rank. We have some seed funding for research for faculty members to start with and they are encouraged to have some funded research from industry for two reasons. First of all, there will be an increase in funding. Secondly, the research will be applied research so it will be more practical and valuable, as is the case in many other countries where they have applied research connected to the private sector and to industry.
How well are current curricula meeting the needs of the private sector? In what ways can this be improved?
SABOUNI: University curricula have two aspects. First of all, they have to satisfy the market need in order to survive. This is especially true for private universities; you cannot offer programs where your graduates cannot find a job in the proper manner. The second aspect is the regulatory part, to ensure that this curriculum meets the standards that are in place at all universities. In the UAE, both factors are very well suited for the success of university education. First of all, with regard to programs that are offered to meet the market need, universities must start with feasibility studies before they apply for accreditation. In this preparation, the factor is embedded by having the need for the feasibility study. The second part, regarding the quality of the curricula, I believe the UAE has one of the best systems in the region for local accreditation of programs.
Higher education in the region is becoming even more important than ever before, especially when you look at the new trends that we have seen and the role of the youth. The young generation is now leading.
Matching the curriculum for the needs of the private sector is an important factor but is not the only factor in governing what a university should provide. It has to be interactive. The private sector also has to drive the universities into creating some innovative programs for future development and for future needs. At the same time, the university looks into what type of preparations are needed in their programs to fit better with what is the current need in the private sector. At ALHOSN University, for each program, we have a council which has people from industry who hire our graduates. We maintain a record of what types of better preparations is required in terms of special needs and techniques and we have some of the courses developed, changed or adapted to fit the private sector. So it’s an interactive process. The important part is to keep in touch with the employers so we can maintain the development of our programs.