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UAE, Sharjah 2017 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | REVIEW: EDUCATION

Sharjah is being recognized for its contributions to education in the UAE, with top-ranking universities focused on research and expanding academic programs.

In January 2017, Sharjah's government announced that 20% of its AED22 billion budget would be allocated toward cultural and educational areas, devoting special attention to community development and research. AED1.8 billion has already been earmarked toward the American University of Sharjah (AUS), funds that will be distributed over the next five years to reach the institution's goal of becoming the top research university in the Arab world.

Sharjah's education sector is overseen by the UAE's Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, the Commission for Academic Accreditation, and the National Qualifications Authority. For matters relating specifically to Sharjah, the Emirate has its own education council designed to regulate the sector.

Sharjah has long been a pioneer in education. The first school in the UAE was established in Sharjah in 1907, as well as the first library in 1933. In addition, Sharjah was the first Emirate to provide education to women, in 1942. In 2017, the Emirate is seeking to stay ahead of curve by shifting its resources toward research initiatives in University City and the new Research, Technology, and Innovation (RTI) Park. The park, which will be located on the AUS campus, is being touted as an economic free zone that will attract technology projects and investors, as well as allow for 100% foreign ownership.

University City is already home to some 17 universities, 2,000 educators, and 30,000 undergraduate and graduate students. “We predict that, over the next 5-10 years, if 500 companies establish themselves in the RTI Park, we will see an additional 9,000 people come to University City including 2,000 scientists, engineers, and professionals, and 7,000 supporting staff and family members," Björn Kjerfve, Chancellor of AUS told TBY, adding, “This academic emigration will encourage tremendous growth and expansion of University City, the surrounding residential areas, and the Emirate of Sharjah."

INNOVATION FIRST

Universities in Sharjah are focused on incorporating innovation and entrepreneurship into every aspect of student learning. Whether as part of a large public university or an institution with a liberal arts curriculum, many educators in Sharjah have seen a shift in demand toward more business-based trajectories, as well as a need to prepare students for a rapidly transforming future.

Regarding current trends in the education sector, AUS' Kjerfve remarked, “Although AUS started as a liberal arts college, the demand for engineering and business degrees has grown substantially over the last 10 years." Currently ranked the seventh-best university in the Arab world and one of the most international institutions worldwide, AUS prides itself on its very diverse student body, with approximately 18% Emirati students and 82% expatriates. Currently, 23% of the university's students have traveled from their home country for the sole purpose of studying at AUS. The university is home to 82 clubs, with roughly 95% of the student body participating in at least one extracurricular activity. AUS also has a strong sports program, with 25 departments ranging from cricket to basketball to swimming.

In the lead up to 2022, AUS is seeking to expand the percentage of postgraduate students from 5% to 15%, with the aim to maintain a balance between undergraduate and postgraduate education and research. There are currently 26 undergraduate majors, 13 master's degree programs, and two PhD programs under evaluation at the university. “With the added investment in research and postgraduate development, we will develop an additional four PhD programs within the next two years," Kjerfve told TBY. “AUS's ultimate goal is to maintain our excellent undergraduate strengths while becoming a major research university with compelling and excellent PhD programs." The government of Sharjah reportedly plans to invest USD500 million in the university over the next five years to fund the university's research goals, allocating USD74 million for scientific research in 2017 alone.

Skyline University College has partnered with AUS in efforts to form a well-connected, communicative, and collaborative higher education community. Amitabh Upadhya, Dean of Skyline University College, told TBY, “We are proud to work with American University of Sharjah, one of the top-500 universities in the world, and partner with other facilities as well." University City facilities in particular offer Skyline University College space to host exhibitions, as well as the option to participate in other educational event and collaborate with other institutions. “The facilities of University City give Sharjah's education sector an environment of peace, the greenness, and cleanliness," Upadhya added. Skyline University College recently added a public administration program to train young people for governmental organizations and non-governmental organizations, as well as non-profit organizations. Additionally, at the master's level, the university introduced e-governance alongside strategic management and leadership, its most popular major. In 2014, the center of entrepreneurship and innovation was founded at Skyline College University, an initiative that aligns with the vision of the UAE and the Ruler of Sharjah to encourage entrepreneurship and innovation. “This center allows us to help students and young entrepreneurs cope with the difficulties inherent in starting a business," Upadhya concluded.

RESEARCH PARK

Often referred to as the Middle East's response to Silicon Valley, RTI Park is the largest education initiative underway in 2017. The park is expected to generate collaborative synergy among universities that will benefit Sharjah's economy at large.

Presently, total R&D investment in the UAE stands at less than 0.5% of GDP, whereas the US and South Korea, for example, invest roughly 3.2% and 4%, respectively. “For the development of a knowledge-based economy with a focus on research and technology, there must be strong investment from both the public and private sectors," AUS Chancellor Kjerfve explained. “In complementing the RTI Park we are hoping there will be renewed interest and an attitude-shift that appreciates the importance of research." The technology park will focus on six main sectors: renewable energy, water, environmental, transport, technology, and industry.
Construction work on the first phase of the RTI Park is due to begin in August 2017, with the first buildings set to be delivered in early 2019. Infrastructure work started on site in April 2017 and is set to be completed in November. The first phase will contain three interlinked buildings with a built-up area of about 20,000sqm, housing the park's headquarters, laboratories, and innovation centers. A hotel and convention center may also be added as part of the first phase, while future phases include new villas, a technology museum, and a center of excellence. University staff and students will be allowed to own businesses in RTI Park, as well as commercialize their work.

Reflecting Sharjah's new emphasis on research and accessibility, UNESCO named Sharjah the World Book Capital for 2019. Announced in late June 2017, Sharjah accepted the title as a testament to the quality of its literary and cultural activities and for efforts to make books more accessible to the entire population. The Emirate was also selected due to innovative and inclusive programs, with a community-focused initiative that contains creative proposals meant to engage the large migrant population.