PENCIL SHARJAH-NER

Sharjah 2015 | EDUCATION | REVIEW: EDUCATION

There is a growing demand for higher education across the UAE, and Sharjah is no exception as it develops a competent local workforce.

Having positioned itself as the UAE's manufacturing stronghold, Sharjah's population—829,730 people call Sharjah home, with growth at 1% per year and a median age of 25—has retained a far more local flavor than some of its fellow Emirates as it eschews the large, unskilled expatriate populations its neighbors have become dependent on. As such, Sharjah is keen to utilize its human resources as a platform for innovative and diverse growth, with higher education and vocational training the main tools in its belt. Lower down the chain, in secondary education, some regulatory challenges exist, with parental grumblings over the last year as a result of rising tuition fees—private education accounts for approximately 40% of UAE students, and in Sharjah there are some 96 private schools. Steering the ship is the Sharjah Educational Zone (SEZ), a federal body under the Ministry of Education that is authorized to oversee all education operations in the Emirate, including those of public and private schools and other education centers, numbering 118 in total. The body is also responsible for performing inspections, as well as granting approval for new schools and developing curricula. That said, following approval for 60 schools to increase fees for the 2014-15 educational year, a SEZ spokesman announced that the private schools sector is in the process of forming a committee to evaluate requests for tuition fee hikes in order to prevent unfair increases. One such issue occurred in January 2015, when it emerged that an English-curriculum private school had raised fees above the allowed level. The Ministry of Education has also announced a crackdown, stating that schools that flout the rules on tuition fee increases could face fines.

HIGHER EDUCATION

Sharjah's higher education scene is concentrated at University City, a 15sqm education hub that is home to some of the UAE's most prestigious institutions. The City is the jewel in the crown of Sharjah's ambition to become a regional learning center, and the foundation of the Emirate's diverse economy. Among University City's residents are the American University of Sharjah, the Dr. Sultan Al Qasimi Centre of Gulf Studies, the Higher Colleges of Technology, the Institute of Training and Judicial Studies, the Police Science Academy, the Regional Centre for Educational Planning and Training, the Skyline University College, the University City Hall, the University of Sharjah, and the College of Health Sciences. Look closer at some of these institutions, and a picture emerges of the direction the Emirate's educators are taking. Kamal Puri, President of Skyline, told TBY in a recent conversation that “the fastest growing fields [of study] are travel and tourism," while the school's management is also aiming to “make a financial hub." There are 185 nationalities at the university, and its Bachelor's in International Business is just one example of how it's helping the Emirate emerge as a financial services hotspot. The University has produced over 3,000 graduates at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels over the past 20 years, carving out a niche in business education. According to Puri, it is also planning to launch a Doctorate in Business Administration by 2017.

Elsewhere in University City is the American University of Sharjah (AUS). Owned by the state, it has been accepting students since 1997 and applies the American education system while also seeking to retain an Arab culture. It is one of the largest universities in Sharjah, with over 5,000 students from across the globe studying at the institution every year. Speaking of the school's inception, Chancellor Björn Kjerfve told TBY that, “HH Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi wanted to create a liberal arts college based on the American model, which was truly unique when the university opened its doors in 1997." The AUS has since become structured around engineering, business, arts and sciences, and design, and is currently working on the Research, Technology, and Innovation Park (RTI), a 430 acre tax-free zone that is keen to bring in companies looking to set up R&D divisions in the region. “We want companies to conduct their research and technical services here, and we want them to use the local knowledge and expertise of our professors and PhD students as members of their team or as consultants," concluded Kjerfve

Also founded by HH Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi in 1997, the University of Sharjah is a non-profit institution for higher education. With a number of campuses across the city, the University of Sharjah has begun to merge and develop laboratories and research institutes under several specialized research institutes, including the Sharjah Institute for Medical and Health Sciences Research, the Institute for Sciences and Engineering Research, the Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences Research, and the Institute for teaching and Faculty Development, on top of nine centers of excellence in research. Speaking to TBY, Professor Hamid M.K. Al Naimiy, Chancellor of the University of Sharjah, was keen to highlight how the University is “actively collaborating with renowned international universities, institutions, and research centers with which it has established partnerships pursuant to numerous agreements personally signed into his effect by His Highness, Ruler of Sharjah, and President of the University." And nothing happens without a reason, with Al Naimiy also highlighting that “prior to introducing any new academic programs… the university conducts studies and surveys to determine the most urgent needs of the local and regional job market."

HELP FOR TOURISM

Tourism accounts for almost 10% of GDP in the Emirate, and is also in the government's crosshairs as it seeks to develop the sector. Despite pulling in around 2 million visitors last year, Sharjah isn't resting on its laurels, with the Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority (SCTDA) teaming up with Sharjah University to develop training programs for tour guides working in the Emirate. There are currently 130 guides in the Emirate, with the programs aiming to enhance their communication skills. Elsewhere, the “Marhabtain" initiative has also been launched by SCTDA, in cooperation with the Sharjah Roads and Transport Authority (RTA), to promote Sharjah as a world-class tourism destination by training up to 5,000 taxi drivers over two years in the first phase of a project that will later involve the development of human resources across other areas of the hospitality sector, including workshops and forums as well as training for hotel managers, travel agents, and others working in the sector. The aim is to leverage the Emirate's education network to create a new front line of employees who represent first contact for many tourists entering Sharjah. “Marhabtain" also has an Emiratization angle, hoping to encourage more local people into the sector.

EMIRATIZATION

Although Sharjah doesn't have the large expatriate populations of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, it is still keen to further engage the local population and encourage greater participation in the private sector. Across the Emirates, there are a number of training programs aimed at a wide demographic of locals interested in getting into the private sector. One such institution in Sharjah is the Emirates Institute of Banking and Financial Studies at Sharjah, which accepts thousands of students with the aim of boosting human resources standards and increasing the competitiveness of the Emirati population. And there are signs that the moves are paying off, with a rise of 62% in successful hires in the first half of 2014 compared to the same period in 2013. And in early February 2015, hundreds of Emirati jobseekers descended on the 17th National Careers Exhibition at the Sharjah Expo Centre hoping to land jobs. Sheikh Mohammed Al Nuaimi, an executive at United Arab Bank, was quoted saying that 45% of its staff were already Emirati, although the institution was looking to hire even more nationals through the event

Sharjah's strength lies in its people, in whom it has built a diverse economic foundation. Keen to continue to grow its manufacturing sector with extra value added, as well as further develop other prominent sectors such as tourism, the government's continued focus on education is the cornerstone of its development focus. Focused around University City and under the watchful eye of SEZ, the sector is set to continue thriving. Kamal Puri, President at Skyline University, also offers a glimpse of the challenges that will face the sector in upcoming years, telling TBY that, “the future of education, not only regionally but also globally, is very interesting and exciting. As degrees will become irrelevant in a few years in the job world, we have to talk about how education will move in the future." And with the infrastructure already in place, Sharjah is set to play a key regional role in the development of new methods of education as needed by evolving industry.