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Oiling the wheels of education in the Gulf

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Oiling the wheels of education in the Gulf

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Education and developing human capacities lie at the heart of some Gulf countries plans for sustainable, knowledge-oriented economies. But in real terms, how does that translate?

Investing in human resources is at the core of some Gulf countries’ economic strategies. They believe that education is a must in order to develop knowledge-based economies. This week on Learning World, we looked at some higher education and training programmes in Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Bahrain.

Abu Dhabi: the Sorbonne moves abroad

Does getting into an elite university always mean moving far away? In Abu Dhabi the education council acknowledges that domestic universities have poor international rankings – so they’re looking at importing best practice from other universities around the world.

For hundreds of years, Paris has been the only destination for anyone dreaming of studying at the Sorbonne University, one of the world’s most prestigious and ancient institutions. But since 2006, the Sorbonne has also been based in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates.

A special invitation by the Emirates government, this university is part of a strategic national plan to raise higher education to international standards.

Eric Fouache is the Director of the Sorbonne in Abu Dhabi. “There’s a real wish to form an elite in the UAE to replace working foreigners who currently hold the positions of responsibility”, he told euronews. “Our university, like all the other universities, will form this elite. We’ll do it the French way, which is a little bit different. The second point is that in developing the economy, the UAE wants to create a real platform of access to international education here in the Middle East. So it’s also an economic operation”.

The UAE wants to finance a francophone university in a country dominated mainly by anglophone education and they’ve encouraged the Sorbonne to bring typically the same experience it has back in France. This includes a mixed campus with the same curricula, a French diploma and even teachers, who fly all the way over from Paris to give intensive courses.

Jacob Schmitz is a History professor at the Sorbonne and says there are difficulties on both sides. “We have to teach to a public which is not exactly the same as we have back in France, so that is a challenge which means we must in a certain way find ways to relate to what people here want to hear. And there’s another challenge which people do not really talk about, which is the challenge for us in France. The French education system hasn’t changed much and these new experiences abroad actually bring us a lot of new knowledge, a lot of new blood”.

The Sorbonne in Abu Dhab does not just offer its famous humanities and social studies, law and other subjects in collaboration with Paris’ Descartes University. It has also developed a masters in History of Art and Museum Studies to address the Emirate’s ambition to become a cultural hub. It has also built partnerships with local institutions like the Khalifa University. In turn the Khalifa University is trying to improve their quality of education, but this hasn’t yet raised enough trust among local students, who still favour foreign campuses.

And the students seem to be impressed. “The teachers, the experience, the curriculum and the system they have is by far way more professional, way more experienced than other universities here in this country”, one girl told euronews.

In total, 700 students from 65 different nationalities study at the Sorbonne campus. It’s a reflection of the country itself, which has a big number of expatriates. It’s also a good opportunity for the Sorbonne to implement its motto at the Abu Dhabi campus – “a bridge between civilisations”.

Qatar researches its way forward

Branches of foreign universities are also popular in Qatar, which has set itself the ambitious goal of becoming a world leader in scientific research. Qatar is one of the top five countries when it comes to spending on innovation.

Of Qatar’s GDP, 2.8 percent goes toward scientific research and a national research strategy was announced at the end of 2012. The country is doing its best to develop scientific research and human capacity to extend its economy beyond hydrocarbon resources. But to implement its vision, Qatar is working at even lower levels in educational institutions.

Thomas Zaccaria from the Qatar Foundation is clear about what Qatar is trying to achieve: “Committing 2.8% of government revenues is essentially aspiring to be among the top 5 nations in terms of research investment and Qatar certainly has an interest in being a leader in the region and a partner and collaborator in the region. But I think it would be fair to say that our ambitions are truly to be leaders in the world in a few areas where we intend to concentrate.”

Building the right infrastructure is how Qatar aims to provide future generations with a full research ecosystem. And for this purpose it has brought foreign expertise and has developed many educational programmes like the Qatar Science and Leadership Program. The City of Qatar Foundation serves as a hub for several universities.

Many other facilities have been established like the Qatar Science and Technology Park, Hamad bin Khalifa University and the Sidra Medical and Research Centre, which is ranked amongst the top academic medical centres in the world. But it is not just about having a robust infrastructure and scientific know -how, the country has set it’s sights even further.

Weill Cornell Medical College is another facility established to provide the best in medical research. Professor Khaled Machaca says that the training is as important as the research. “Part of our mission in Qatar is not only to do good science but also to build future generations in terms of their ability to conduct good science by themselves. So the training becomes critical, it’s an essential component. So our programme is structured with training spanning the entire spectrum of all that we do”.

Researchers at the college have managed to sequence the genome of the date palm, revealing its genetic secrets. Biomedical sciences are one of 5 national priorities specific to local needs. But other areas such as energy and the environment, computer and information technology, the arts, social sciences, humanities and Islamic studies are also important.

Wadha Al Muftah is one of many research students who have been working hard to tackle health problems. Diabetes is widespread in the Gulf and it seems quite difficult to raise people’s awareness. “The difficulty was to explain to people in their language, their daily language what genes are, the goals of research and hereditary characteristics and how research can help diabetes”.

Students from different nationalities can also benefit from a scholarship scheme, to continue postgraduate studies abroad. The only condition is they’re required to go back and work in Qatar.

Bahrain: empowering the future

Education is vital to developing skills needed in the workplace. In Bahrain many organisations are giving young Bahrainis the training they need to compete in a business world full of expatriates.

Mohammed Al Durrazi, a young Bahraini has completed his training as a car mechanic – an unusual job in other parts of the Gulf where cultural stigmas exist. Such professions are not valued and expatriates replace high salaried locals to fill the gap. Bahrainis took up all the new jobs of the post-oil exploration era and are now being encouraged to further diversify their choices and take up lower-skilled jobs.

“I got attached to working on cars since I was a kid at the age of 12, because I used to see my uncles working with them”, Mohammed told us. “I wanted to develop this job and I started looking for a training program to get enrolled in so I could get skilled, certified and experienced. So I joined the National Institute for Industrial Training, they offered me the programme and they got me a job in the same field.”

He’s just one of many young people who have joined “Tamkeen” or “Enabling”, a state-backed project that aims to empower Bahrainis who can contribute to the kingdom’s future economic development vision by 2030. And at its core is diversifying the economy and developing job skills that meet market needs.

“In Bahrain we are following a strategy of elevating the value of professions, elevating the value of jobs, improving working conditions”, Amal Ishaq AlKooheji from Tamkeen told euronews. All of these elements will enable Bahrainis to penetrate the market in a more facilitated fashion and Bahrain’s reforms focus on providing a lot of opportunities for Bahrainis to compete not only locally but internationally.”

Tamkeen has developed 150 skill programmes in collaboration with foreign companies, aimed at empowering Bahrain’s youth to rise up the career ladder in every profession and in every available sector. Its programmes not only seek to develop human capacity but also encourage enterprises and building connections with the private sector. Nearly 50% of Tamkeen’s training programmes are taken up by females and their wages in the public sector surpass their male counterparts.

Ernst & Young has facilitated the process of easing local Bahrainis into the workplace, especially in the financial sector, where most posts were held by expatriates. “Many of the financial institutions operating in Bahrain require a tremendous amount of qualified people. There is a huge gap within the country so what we have done is identified those gaps and identified exactly the positions that are available in the market place. We designed training programs and recruited Bahrainis into those programs. We trained them and many of these Bahrainis have either found jobs or are in the process of seeking employment”.

The figures are telling. In 2012 alone, over half the graduates from Tamkeen’s programmes found employment.

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