KEY GRADES

Oman 2014 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Prof. Ahmed Al Rawahi, Chancellor of the University of Nizwa, on the development of the institution and preparing students for the world of work.

Prof. Ahmed Al Rawahi
BIOGRAPHY
Born in 1963, Professor Ahmed Al Rawahi graduated from North Carolina State University with a degree in Biological Science, and later earned a Master’s from the University of California and a PhD from Berkeley, both in Plant Pathology. After a period as a Lecturer at Sultan Qaboos University, he was Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries between 1997 and 2005. From then until 2011, he was a member of the State Council, holding several positions. He has been in his current position since 2004, having been a core-founding member.

How has the University of Nizwa evolved and developed over the years?

In 1999, his Majesty gave the green light for the private sector in Oman to participate in higher education. The government at that time gave initial permits for four regional universities, and one of them was the University of Nizwa. We worked as a group of academics, highly trained in various fields, from different parts of the world, with a group of academics from around the globe to develop the concept of the University of Nizwa. The idea was to develop a university as a non-profit organization serving society that could cater for high-quality higher education services for Omanis at the lowest cost possible. Toward that vision and mission, the whole project evolved and, since then, we have moved from concept to reality. Now, we have around 6,500 students, and around 99% are Omanis. International student numbers are slightly growing; we have about 70 students from 15 countries. We also try to globalize our students by receiving exchange students. This summer we received exchange students from about 15 countries. We also take our students to the UK, the US, France, Germany, and Malaysia. We are expanding the global horizon so students can go for about eight weeks in the summer and take some courses while they are exposed to a different culture. We have four colleges: Arts and Sciences; Engineering and Architecture; Economics, Management, and Information Systems; and Pharmacy and Nursing. We offer about 43 degree programs at the national level and we currently have seven Master's programs.

What is the balance between Master's and Bachelor level students?

The majority of students are undergraduates; the Master's programs have just started in the last three years. They are really attracting a good number of students. We have some Master's degrees offered and taught in the Arabic language, such as a Master of Education in counseling and guidance, and one in learning administration. The majority of our courses are taught in English. We also have French and German language classes that we offer at the undergraduate level.

How much training do you have to provide to get students up to a sufficient level of English?

One of the challenges in the services is that we have a general foundation program here to bridge the gap between the high school 12th grade and higher education. That is really taking a lot of effort because the graduates might have minimal English, and we have to upgrade them to the level of higher education, around 500-600 in TOEFL. That is really challenging for so many of the students. Many of them require at least a year and a half to get to that level. There is a lot of motivation and encouragement from outside. We normally hire native speakers for our general foundation program from the UK, US, Canada, Australia, and South Africa. For the academic programs, our faculty is very international. We have 45 countries represented. The Omanis are really growing, but we have to work as a nation and as a university in that line. Currently, about 18%-20% of our faculty is Omani. Our administrative and technical staff are 85% Omani.

“ The majority of our courses are taught in English. We also have French and German language classes. "

Which are the most popular courses and programs for the university?

The most popular are really those that are required in the market: Pharmacy, Nursing, Engineering, Information Systems, and English. We tried our best to plan these degree programs so the graduates can meet society's needs and find employment. With the job market changing all the time, we have to try to create a curriculum that is dynamic rather than fixed because, by the time the graduates leave university, the market might have changed.

How would you assess the academic standard in Omanis?

That is one of the challenges, especially in math and science. There is some weakness in developing school students with critical thinking, analytical skills, and liberal art skills. It is part of our duty to equip the students with the necessary skills. That takes a long time and a lot of effort. The university really invested in that regard. For example, we have created several self-learning services, like the Writing Center. That will help students throughout their years at university to improve their writing skills in English, Arabic, and other languages. It is very useful and many students are attending. Also, we created many labs so that students can improve their English skills at their own pace. We have one other center, the Learning Enhancement Center, which helps students who are weak in math, physics, or economics, for example. They can go there and get help for basic classes from tutors who are their peers.

Is the university also trying to establish work core values?

Yes, that is one of the required skills and modes of behavior. Within each degree, we have instituted internship programs, research projects, and other things intended to help the students master and practice some of these skills. We need to cover all the fields. We need to develop that further to ensure better market skills. That will really require a lot of help from society as a whole. The private sector and the government need to cooperate in that field so that access to the training side can be facilitated. The government also needs to see the value of that because these graduates are the future employees of the country and they need practice before they join the workforce. We have some collaboration with the private sector, but it is on a one-to-one basis. We have tried to sign memorandums of understanding (MoUs) with some institutions to do that, but I feel we need a national decree to speed that up and facilitate it.

How do you feel about the efforts the government has made to promote universities and colleges?

I feel the government has done a lot in the last few years to promote private-sector participation in higher education. Sometimes, I think officials overdid it because the number of institutions that have been granted permits to participate is beyond the capacity of the nation. We will have a shortage of students in the future if they continue along that line. The other issue is in terms of government institutions; they are so dispersed, and they should be restructured. There is an effort to do that and we hope it will materialize soon to minimize this imbalance.

What is your vision for the University of Nizwa in the next five years?

We are working very hard to develop our main campus. We are accommodating a very functional campus, and we are also building our new campus within two years to complement it. We are also enhancing research. In the last three years, we started to accelerate our research activities. We have some funds for certain projects. In that regard, we have created two research chairs; one is in collaboration with the University of Cambridge, and the other is our own for Omani medicinal plants. We've published many papers and done a lot of clinical analysis. Part of our activities in the coming few years will also be to attract international students. We are working on the second cycles of academic accreditation and we are working to get our University to a world-class status. It will take a while; naturally, we are growing from scratch.