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Degrees of excellence

Interview - February 6, 2012
The region of Sharjah is well-known for its educational facilities. In 1956 it became the first Emirate to allow women to study, and it was the first to introduce MBA programs in the 90s. Dr. Peter Heath, Chancellor of the American University of Sharjah, discusses his university’s development, and the country’s higher education system as a whole

The American University of Sharjah (AUS) has experienced unprecedented growth over the past few decades. This in turn has helped the educational system to grow, with literacy rates rising from 50% in 1975 to nearly 90% nowadays. As the Head of AUS, how do you see the UAE’s education system and specifically Sharjah’s in comparison to other Emirates?

If you look at the higher education system in the UAE, you have the federal system, which is made up of UAE University, Zayed University and the Higher Colleges of Technology. UAE University is intended to be a comprehensive undergraduate and graduate university and it is looking towards developing more postgraduate programs. The student body is almost all Emirati, and that is true of the entire federal system. Zayed University was started at around the same time as the American University of Sharjah in 1997-1998 and their focus is on female students and has more of a liberal arts college type of atmosphere. The Higher Colleges of Technology were originally started based on the Canadian community college model, though they have evolved over the years into a four-year program and now even have some masters programs with other universities. Almost all the students in the federal system (which is something like 20,000 to 22,000) are nationals from the Emirates.

Then you have the private sector. The private sector is split into two sectors – the not-for-profit sector and the for-profit sector. Dubai has focused a bit more on the for-profit universities and Dubai’s attitude is that education is about both building human resources and a commercial venture. Abu Dhabi and Sharjah have a different point of view – Sharjah has taken the lead temporarily at least in terms of time, and His highness the Ruler of Sharjah, I think, looked at the need in the mid-1990s for a university that would serve the needs of both Emiratis and the expat community. When he looked at models, he was attracted to the model of the American University of Beirut, so he selected the American model. It is an English language university with an American curriculum and system, so it has general education, the semester system and the number of credits required by the American system and a tendency to use American textbooks in sciences, engineering and so forth. It is also co-educational and it is not-for-profit, which is actually a big thing. Many investors actually look at creating universities only as for-profit ventures. Finally there’s the university’s governance system, which is an independent Board of Trustees that oversees the university.

When His Highness decided to adopt that system for the university that he had planned, he first contracted with the American University of Beirut and then the American University (AU) of Washington DC to manage the development of this university. The relationship with AU ended amicably in 2006. The American University of Sharjah has been a tremendous success story, because the Ruler has been concerned about implementing a long-term vision, academic quality, good governance and attracting the best faculty members, administrators and staff to serve the needs of the students. This strong focus on undergrad education now allows us to begin to branch out into graduate education on a Masters level. Since this is an American system, we are looking at how this would relate to an American university in the States and if our students would have then competencies to go to the grad schools of the best universities there.  If not, then we have failed in our mission. We want our students to work for local businesses as well as multinational firms. So if they get transferred to Singapore, London or New York, their education will allow them to have the same start that any graduate would have.

I think the success of AUS is a result of a focus on quality, being part of the global system and the strong identity of Sharjah with local heritage and Arab culture. You have a twinning of being part of a global society, but at the same time, you are not losing your roots here. It has also been a very open system in terms of academic discussions and freedom in a very conservative atmosphere, in terms of what is viewed as suitable actions and activities. By that I mean that many of our students are coming from Saudi Arabia or from conservative families in the Gulf. We have student parties, but they follow local traditions. Alcohol is banned in Sharjah, and we have strict controls at the university so that students cannot bring alcohol onto campus. So there is a great sense of security amongst parents that their children will be focused on academics.  We have a wide range of student activities, clubs and sports teams, but at the same time it is not a wide-open society that one might find in London, New York, California and so forth.
It is the combination of local competency and global ties that I think is one part of the university’s success story. We have gone from zero students in 1997 to 5,250 students currently. We have 83 nationalities among our students – the largest group is 20% Emirati students. We are very community-oriented – almost all of our faculty members live on campus and many of our administrators do so as well. We launched an alumni association a few years ago so that we can keep in contact with our students and this year we are launching partnerships with our local feeder schools. As an institution, we are trying to create fruitful ties with the secondary schools that are providing us with students so that we can tell them how their graduates are doing. Through our alumni association and our relationship with the corporate world, we are encouraging the faculty to go out and engage in R&D and development projects with corporations. We are in contact with the needs of society and are able to articulate our programs to fit these needs.

The combination of our professional schools (engineering, business, architecture, art and design) is complemented by a strong general education program and strong programs in Arts and Sciences.  We look for technical competency but at the same time, we care about students who are able to write, speak well, work in teams, be project-oriented and realize that they have to produce. When I first arrived, I was surprised that the major boast as well as complaint from students was that we force them to work. But they are very proud of that at the same time. One of the slogans is that AUS stands for ‘Always Under Stress’. But we are sure that our graduates have the core competencies and skills that corporations want and need from our graduates, and that has really raised the reputation of the university.

We hear that our academic standards are considered to be the best in the UAE and we are working on the rest of the world so that we can get the word out. It has been a great success story, and a lot of it goes back to the vision of the Ruler. He gave us a mandate withfour or five components, such as that there should be ties with the Arab-Islamic heritage while we should be training students to live in the modern age and use scientific and rational methodologies and analyses. It has been a great combination and I am amazed how well this university has done. I joined it three and a half years ago and I was aware of it when it began. The Ruler has not been interested in flash; he has been interested in substance. 

You mentioned the mandate. Has that changed at all? How does the Ruler get involved and help to structure the university?

The Ruler has supported the university.  He has provided all of our buildings except for the latest one, which we have partly funded through a generous donation and university funds. He has donated the land and the buildings and he has not really asked for anything in return. He has asked for a financial plan of independence and self-sufficiency for the university. He is the Chair of the Board of Trustees, but the Board of Trustees works like a US Board of Trustees in the sense that they identify individuals that would be good board members, and then they come and recommend them to the Board, including the Ruler. His Highness is very respectful of Board decisions. People do not really think about university governance structures, but the fact that he has supported good governance has been one of the keys to the university’s success. He understands academics, having two PhDs himself, and he is really devoted to all levels of education. He loves universities. He views himself as a parent, where you nurture the young child and as they go through adolescence, you expect more and more independence. In some sense, we are at the point where we are a young adult.  We are just about financially independent, but at the same time, he is always going to be the parent. He is really something!  He is unique in the Arab world and many other areas in terms of his commitment to culture and education. He is also very modest. 

How does the educational system in Sharjah help to complement the cultural side of Sharjah?

It is an integral part. Basically, the Ruler has a 30-year-old cultural project. He started out by having festivals and competitions related to the stage and theater. He loves Arab theater. Then he focused on film and the arts.  He holds one of the major art festivals in the region, the Sharjah Biennial, which has become globally recognized. He hires his experts who manage his cultural institutions and then lets them flow. He has created 19 museums; everything from the Islamic art museum to smaller more educational museums and an aquarium. We have a traditional fort in the middle of the city of Sharjah, and when he was a student in Cairo University and he found out that his older brother was destroying the fort to make way for new buildings, he flew back two days before final exams and stopped the destruction, measured everything, preserved what he could with the idea that he would rebuild it to the exact measurements. And he did rebuild it! Then he flew back again and took the final exams. For him, the fort was an intrinsic part of the heritage of Sharjah.

He was trained as a landscape engineer in Cairo University even though his PhDs are in history and political geography. He is very concerned about the environment, and one of his museums is an animal heritage museum where he is working on preserving the Arabian leopard and understanding the local ecosystem. He is very aware of how heritage fits in with the environment. He is forward-thinker; he is not against progress, but he is just concerned about retaining the emirate’s heritage.

The universities fit in there in the sense that he wants people to understand the past and appreciate it, but he does not want the past to dominate the future. He also understands patience – when I first talked to him in my interview, one of the first things that he said is that it takes a generation to build change in a culture. So if you want to create individuals who are going to have a balance between tradition and modernity, it is not going to happen in three or ten years - it is going to happen in 20 to 30 years. Just now he is taking the graduates from the American University of Sharjah and putting them in governmental offices and so forth, and thereby reaping the benefits of investing in education. At the same time, the focus has not been on individuals from Sharjah or Emiratis from Sharjah – about 30% of our student body comes from Sharjah, 35% from Dubai and about 25% from Abu Dhabi and the rest from the region. He is really looking at serving the region as a whole. 

Looking more closely at AUS, many degrees offered are accredited in the US and most impressive is the fact that your bachelor of Architecture is the first programme outside of the US to be accredited by NAAB.

We are accredited by the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research in the UAE, but we have institutional accreditation from the US based Middle States Commission for Higher Education. The way university accreditation works in the US is that there are 6 regional offices and our relationship has been with the Middle States Commission for Higher Education. Our engineering school is accredited by the American Engineering Accreditation Association (ABET) and our business school is accredited by AACSB. Our architecture program is accredited by NAAB, the American accrediter for architectural programs. Institutionally, accreditation agencies ask you to look at yourself and identify who you are and where you want to go. All the agencies will say that they do not want everyone to be Harvard or Stanford, but you need to have a clear mission and you need to define who you are going to train and how well you are succeeding in implementing your mission. These accreditations force us to review our identity and how well we are meeting our mission and identity in every way. It is a system of constant improvement, in the same way that businesses use ISO. It really helps. Instead of just saying we are educating a bunch of students, the issue of how well you are doing is always in the back of your mind. And not just that, but also how we can demonstrate we are doing it well, rather than just saying we are. You have to demonstrate success and improvement.

Why was the American system adopted here in Sharjah over any other?

I think for students, the American model produces a level of critical thinking and a breadth of knowledge that in some way produces attractive graduates. The other thing is that the American higher education system has been able to invest more in itself over the past 40 years, so as an educator I cannot sit here and say that the American model is better at producing intelligent students than say the British, French or German model. They all have positive and negative strengths, but I think that the world is intrigued with the American model because of the success it seems to generate. I think that is why it has been effective.
It has been successful here because compared to the traditional Middle East model; it is not focused on memorization. Here you are focusing much more on analysis, creativity and thought. That is a transition or something new for many of our new students, but sometimes in the end the two complement each other. When our students go off to the States or the UK to graduate school, the faculty is amazed at how well they memorize stuff. But that by itself is not going to make them pass grad school.

Having taken the reins of AUS in 2008 as the new chancellor, our readers would be interested to learn what your professional and personal vision is for the University?

There are a number of things. First of all, I think this university has enormous potential to really improve year after year. I think we are doing a very good job, but every time I look at the experience of an undergraduate, I start thinking. For example, right now we are teaching students more or less equally in terms of their academic experience. But we know that our students are stratified, and maybe 25% of the students have excellent backgrounds and potential. We have another 15% of our students who are struggling to succeed, and then we have the middle range or students who are going up and down. We want to give the 25% of students who can do more a more advanced and intensive program so they can maximize their potential. At the same time, we have to pay attention to the 15% of students who may be struggling. That is part of our relationship with the secondary schools.
There are opportunities for leadership training and focusing on segments of the population. Men these days seem to be more at risk in higher education than women are, so you start to stratify your population to create special programs to serve its various needs. There is huge potential and it is not going to cost us a lot of money to really refine our undergraduate program. On the research side, we have 350 full-time faculty members here. This is a huge human resource and if these people work together with faculty members in other institutions, we could look at ways to work with other higher education institutes.
I think the university should be an idea-generator and a resource as well as a training institute that will push society forward and help society as a whole to fulfill its potential. We are a major employer in the area, and we take funds that are paid through tuition and we distribute them and support the local economy. We want our students to create their own businesses and help the local economy. We are a generator of ideas as well as a social and economic advancement. That is what a university should be and that is what we are doing, but we want to do it better.

Given our specific focus on Education in the UAE’s five northern emirates, what would be your final comments to our readers?

As you go round in Sharjah and the UAE, we are all very aware of the competition among universities, but we are also very aligned with our peer institutions in terms of the vision of the functions that higher education should serve. I think there is great potential for the universities to be working fruitfully together, while competing energetically to attract the best students.