Lacking the large expatriate populations of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, Sharjah’s educational institutions have built strong reputations, acquired internationally recognized credentials, and succeeded in consistently attracting students from overseas. The achievements Sharjah has made in terms of education are due not in small part to the dedication of HH Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, UAE Supreme Council Member and Ruler of Sharjah, who is an avid scholar in his own right. Demonstrating a commitment to the sector, the government of Sharjah allocated 10% of the national budget to education in 2016, or AED2.3 billion. Thus, compared to the wider UAE, Sharjah’s education sector has seen exponential growth. When the UAE was first established, not a single secondary institution was open; today, Sharjah boasts nine universities, with the American University of Sharjah (AUS) and the University of Sharjah ranked among the top five.
Following the declaration of 2016 as the “Year of Reading” in the UAE, Sharjah has stepped up efforts to increase literacy and instill the desire to read in young people across the Emirate. In line with this goal, HH Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi has authorized the distribution of AED2.5 million worth of books to public, school, and university libraries. The initiative goes above and beyond to dramatically increase the reading material available to people in Sharjah, and broadens access to the latest publications in a variety of fields. Meanwhile, the Year of Reading is set to give a much-needed boost to publishers in the UAE and the wider regional book industry in the Gulf.
Sharjah looks forward again to hosting the International Education Show in February 2017, with visitor turnout expected to increase again after seeing 30% rises in participation in both 2015 and 2016. Now in its 13th edition, the show offers educational institutions from around the region and the world a chance to meet students face-to-face and learn about the latest developments in education.
The event is set to be held at the 10,000sqm Expo Centre Sharjah, a meeting point for the academic community, as well as stakeholders and investors who may take interest in the country’s education sector. Last year’s edition welcomed over 23,000 guests and was supported by the UAE Ministry of Education. Sharjah’s own Ajman University of Science & Technology was the show’s main sponsor.
AUS is considered the best university in Sharjah, if not the entire UAE. There are currently 5,400 undergraduates and 450 to 500 postgraduates enrolled at the school, nearly half of which are engineering majors. The year 2016 is set to be a historic one for the university, with the first two PhD programs being introduced and approved, a new Master’s program in biomedical engineering, and a new bachelor’s degree in psychology. Like many universities in Sharjah, AUS receives generous government funding for developing new programs and expanding facilities. To that end, AUS is ready to begin construction on a new 21,000sqm science building, after three years of planning. Although the student body represents 99 countries, the largest portion, or 16%, come from the UAE itself. Highlighting the attractiveness of the school outside of the UAE, Björn Kjerfve, Chancellor of AUS, told TBY, “Our student body is truly international in the sense that they do not have family working in the UAE and came here specifically for university.”
Rather than borrow a model from abroad, Skyline University College was founded with the particular needs of Sharjah, the UAE, and the Gulf region in mind. “Skyline University is a homegrown university… that means that we designed our programs based on the economic, social, and natural cultural environment, based and on the historical and future requirements,” Dr. Amitabh Upadhya, Dean of Skyline University College, explained to TBY. “That is what I take pride in and we continue to develop in this area.” Generating new enrollments without using traditional advertising methods, Skyline University College has sought to form partnerships with other institutions of higher education on every continent, as well as attending conferences and encouraging student and faculty exchange. Now in its 26th year, the university is branching out to offer specialized programs to students from all over the world – everywhere from Africa to the CIS. The school’s singular focus on business administration has formed the basis of its strategic plan for 2017-2022.
At the same time, a university like Al Qasimia University, which specializes in Islamic studies, proves that Sharjah is an appealing destination for students seeking to get a culturally rich academic program that still falls under the umbrella of sharia tradition. With a rigorous application process, the school is extremely selective, accepting only 500 students per year. Fully supported by HH Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, each international student receives a generous full-tuition scholarship, in addition to room and board stipends. In line with the Year of Reading initiative, Al Qasimia University is looking to make public its long-awaited house of manuscripts, a collection of thousands of historical books and documents from around the world. Previously stored in HH Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi’s private estate, they were granted to Al Qasimia University in 2016, prompting the construction of a new building that will be open to researchers in 2017.
Still, many of Sharjah’s most influential educators have highlighted the need for a clearer focus on R&D in the UAE, with Sharjah representing an ideal place for such companies to be based. Universities in the Emirate, while successful, seek to capitalize on their students’ potential by offering more research facilities and laboratories where students can get hands-on experience or recent graduates can launch a career. As it stands, R&D accounts for 0.4% of GDP in the UAE – compared to the worldwide average of 2.1% – meaning that there is ample room for investment in that sector.
AUS is pioneering the way with its Research, Technology, and Innovation (RTI) Park, a free zone that will be entirely dedicated to R&D. Designed to host 200 companies in the first phase of its development, the project will be completed in 2018. Led by the AUS holding company, AUS Enterprises, the project is an example of the forward-thinking nature and tendencies of Sharjah’s educators, who see 2016 as the right time to start launching R&D initiatives. The vision for the RTI Park is to create a space where Sharjah’s educational institutions, private sector operators, and government entities can come together to create new technology. “Sharjah is really in a process of driving economic growth by creating free zones and attracting companies to settle here and manufacture, or engage in R&D activities,” Chancellor Kjerfve of AUS emphasized to TBY. “We now have the initial funding in place, and are working on a master plan.” AUS is only waiting for approval from the top before the basic infrastructure can start being implemented. Once the free zones are ready, there is no shortage of people waiting to move in, and with the high standards of education available in the Emirate, there is a huge pool of talent who can take advantage of these upcoming opportunities.